Duluth, MN (The Northland's NewsCenter) -- Sexual abuse advocates say sex trafficking forces women into prostitution against their will, and it's happening here in Duluth.
They also hope a $40,000, three-year grant from The Women's Foundation of Minnesota could help address the issue.
Candace Harshner, Director of the Program for Aid of Victims of Sexual Abuse (PAVSA) says the grant money has been used to hire a special task force leader here in Duluth.
According to Harshner, the goal is to create a working task-force to find ways for victims to seek help and to then safely leave the sex trade.
"Being a minority woman, living in poverty, being homeless... all of those factors make a woman more likely to get in a situation where she's vulnerable to being trafficked," Harshner said, explaining the factors that often lead women into forced prostitution.
According to Harshner, because Native American women are at highest risk of sexual trafficking, the formative task force has created important partnerships with the American Indian Center for Housing here in Duluth, as well as the Fond Du Lac Band near Cloquet.
Other task force partners in the Duluth community include:
- The Duluth Police Department
- The St. Louis County Attorney's Office
- The Domestic Abuse Intervention Project
- The United States Coast Guard, Duluth Station
- The University of MN, Duluth
When applying for the task-force grant and recruiting members, PAVSA leaders say they referenced several focus-group studies conducted in Duluth that led them to believe that sexual trafficking was an under-recognized problem.
The studies were conducted by the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition and the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center.
Both are state-wide agencies.
Yet, local advocates say little help is currently available for sex trafficking victims in Duluth, and that few people in Duluth recognize the problem exists.
"Women who are in poverty – we can even say homeless – are being prostituted much of the time," explains the task force's newly-hired leader Shunu Shrestha.
Shrestha is originally from Nepal, where she says a large and active sex trade exists.
"The common theme that I find between Nepal and Duluth is poverty," Shrestha says, adding, "especially youth and adolescents who are homeless, are so used to trading sex for other kind of survival things: food clothing, or even drugs."
The expert task-force leader should know.
Before traveling to the United States, Shrestha worked actively to help stop Nepalese children from being sold to India's thriving sex trade.
Shrestha also notes that most women working as prostitutes have dangerous relationships with the men that usually manipulate them, and says the purpose of Duluth's sex trafficking task force is to figure out just how the community can reach those women and get them into safety.
"They should know that sex trafficking happens in Duluth. They should be aware of the issue, and they should come together and work to end it," she says
The next meeting of the sex trafficking task force is scheduled for November 18th, and is sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The location is T.B.D.
For more information, visit www.pavsa.org.
Written for the web by Matt Standal