In light of July 30th, The World Day Against Human Trafficking in Persons, it is vital to be aware of the signs associated with trafficked victims. An important story to highlight centers around a woman named Windie Lazenko who experienced something no person should ever have to experience: sex trafficking.

When Lazenko was 13, she ran away from her abusive parents in California and befriended a seemingly welcoming couple. The relationship turned into something horrific. Lazenko was grossly manipulated. She was branded at 16, sent to perform at strip clubs and was actively forced into prostitution. Because she was so young, severely manipulated, and bonded to this couple, she could not differentiate right from wrong.

A few years later in 1999, the couple asked her to recruit other girls. When she realized she did not want any other girl to be subjected to this type of exploitation, she realized her self-worth and was able to escape from them. After successfully escaping her traffickers, she sought recovery. Lazenko wanted to turn her experience into something helpful for other women. Therefore, she joined an anti-trafficking organization where she ministered to trafficking victims.

One prostitution hotspot is in a little town in North Dakota called Willinston. This town offered high paying entry level jobs that were multiplying due to the rise in hydraulic fracturing. This brought an unparalleled boom to the oil fields of North Dakota (1). This small town experienced the highest gender imbalance in history. For every woman, there were about ten to twenty men, sparking a demand for prostitution. This then resulted in an influx of human traffickers. However, the incidents of prostitution and sex trafficking within this small town turned out to be “worse than horrific” according to Lazenko (1).

Lazenko spent a large amount of time bringing awareness to front hotel managers, desk personnel, bartenders, and other employees in North Dakota who could recognize the signs of a trafficker or their victim. These signs consisted of controlling men who won’t let the woman speak for themselves, women who do not have their ID or other personal items, and an ownership tattoo or brand.

Human trafficking is a pandemic that is severely undetected. Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota states that “[t]he worst thing you could ever do with a problem like this is pretend it doesn’t happen, because it will fester and it will grow,”(1). The idea of human trafficking may seem rare to many individuals because it is a hidden crime. Human trafficking goes without detection due to the specific targeting of vulnerable outcasts within societies. However, a 2017 report from the International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation claims that, “[a]n estimated 24.9 million victims are trapped in modern-day slavery. Of these, 4.8 million were sexually exploited” (2).

No country is immune to human trafficking as it occurs frequently within the US, with cities like Las Vegas and Washington D.C. having extremely high rates of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a matter of direct infringement of freedom and a violation of basic human rights. It takes vulnerable men, women and children and strips them of their dignity completely. By fostering awareness, we can do our part to end one of the most heinous crimes that this modern world faces.