International conference at U discusses human trafficking

The University’s Human Rights Program and its Human Rights Center sponsored the event.

Lily Langerud

After being recruited as a sex worker at the age of 12 in Calgary, Alberta, Kyla Kaun spent five years being trafficked across Canada.

A self-described “experiential woman,” Kaun now advocates for sex-worker rights and awareness of sexual exploitation of women and children.

Speaking to a crowd at Coffman Union Theater, Kaun addressed the audience frankly and openly, calling for members of law enforcement and the media to stop criminalizing victims of human trafficking.

“People hate sex workers,” she said. “It changes your opinion of me, for better or worse.”

Kaun’s speech made up 15 minutes of Friday’s daylong international conference on human trafficking – the United Front For Children: Global Efforts to Combat Sexual Trafficking in Travel and Tourism. The conference included government officials, business leaders, university professors, nongovernmental organizations and students.

Sponsored by a collaboration between the University’s Human Rights Program and its Human Rights Center, the conference drew about 300 people, including international guests.

Barbara Frey, Human Rights Program director, said organization by nongovernmental groups in Minnesota made the state a good location for the conference. Frey said the Minnesota-based Carlson Companies, headed by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who spoke at Friday’s conference, is very active in promoting “socially responsible tourism.”

The international hotel chain is the first U.S. company to sign on to the “Code of Conduct,” a UNICEF-funded project that establishes criteria for businesses in the tourist industry to follow to prevent sex tourism, including providing information to travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

Ambassador John R. Miller, director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons of the U.S. State Department, called Carlson Companies “the industry leader in raising awareness about child sex tourism,” at the conference.

While Miller said a large part of the demand for exploited children comes from “pedophiles and sex tourists” traveling from developed countries to less developed countries, the problem isn’t isolated to impoverished parts of the world.

During his visit to Minnesota, he went to Breaking Free, a Minneapolis organization working to help exploited women and children.

“I am here not just as a U.S. public official,” Miller said. “I am here as a human being who has seen what is going on in this area.”

He also emphasized the use of language in describing the problem.

“When we label victims ‘child prostitutes,’ we imply they have some control of their situation,” Miller said.

Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, said the organization estimates 2.4 million people are trafficked each year, with women and children making up 80 percent.

Other speakers at the conference focused on legal problems in prosecuting sex tourists. Mohamed Y. Mattar, executive director of the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University, said varying ages of protection, with 15 being the legal age of consent in 26 countries, pose a challenge in the global arena.

“How would you make sex tourism a crime when the child has the right to sexual consent?” Mattar asked.

Berglind Halldorsdottir, an anthropology senior, participated in a student panel at the conference as a member of Students Against Human Trafficking.

Students can get involved by educating themselves about the issue and spreading awareness, she said.

“Some of our fellow students might be future customers of prostitutes,” Halldorsdottir said, explaining why increased awareness is important.

Shannon Drake, a senior political science student, said she came to the conference because it related to an internship she has with the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

“This is a major issue for women who are particularly vulnerable,” she said.

Drake said she appreciated the “real-person perspective” Kaun brought to the conference.

“I think a lot of times conferences at universities take a very academic approach that goes over the heads of people who are actually at stake,” she said.

While Friday’s conference was designed for the general public, a separate conference was held Saturday, bringing about 40 experts together to discuss collaboration across different fields.

A Saturday discussion drew students from the University of St. Thomas, College of St. Catherine and Metropolitan State University, Halldorsdottir said.

“The students came up with some specific ideas about things that they want to do,” she said.

Students discussed getting more involvement on campus, networking with other organizations and working with faculty members to encourage more courses about human trafficking, she said.