Rotary Club speaker educates on human trafficking

The Rotary Club of El Dorado hosted speaker Shawnee Cooper on Monday. Cooper delivered a presentation about human trafficking. (Matt Hutcheson/News-Times)
The Rotary Club of El Dorado hosted speaker Shawnee Cooper on Monday. Cooper delivered a presentation about human trafficking. (Matt Hutcheson/News-Times)

The Rotary Club of El Dorado met Monday for their weekly meeting at Healthworks Fitness and welcomed as guest speaker Shawnee Cooper, a member of the Rotary Club of Saline County After-Hours and ambassador for Arkansas for the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery (RAGAS).

Cooper gave a presentation about human trafficking and how to take action against it.

"Human trafficking is the severe exploitation of vulnerable individuals," Cooper said.

To begin, Cooper went over some of the ways human trafficking can occur -- force, fraud and coercion.

Trafficking represents a $150 billion "industry" globally and 50 million people are victims of labor and sex trafficking, organ trafficking, child soldiering and child marriage, Cooper said, with labor and sex trafficking the most prolific in the United States.

She next went over the dangers children face on particularly on the internet and the types of vulnerabilities that statistically increase the chances of being trafficked.

"Another staggering statistic is the average life span of a victim - seven years. So many times people ask why it's seven years? They're usually addicted to drugs, have some type of arrest and struggles finding jobs, they are broken physically and mentally and they usually are separated from family or have no friends anymore and feel alienated," Cooper said.

Cooper also touched on her thoughts of why the legal system is not effective against human trafficking, often punishing the victim rather than the trafficker because of who is caught.

"The cycle just continues," she says. Trafficking is also under-reported, Cooper said, so even the statistics available often under represent the facts on the ground.

Other misconceptions about the practice exist as well. Although victims are overwhelmingly female, some practices, such as online "sextortion," a form of blackmail, targets males.

Exploitation by someone known to the victim is also far more common than by strangers.

"People do get snatched off the street, but the majority of the time victims know their trafficker. It's either a family member, a caregiver, a promised marriage proposal or an employer," Cooper said. The top way of recruitment is through dating sites, she added, and the biggest red flag for vulnerability is immigration or relocation.

The United States' biggest hotspots for trafficking are some of the most populous states - New York, California, Texas, Florida. Arkansas is 32nd compared directly to other states, but 8th highest when ranked per capita. Areas with interstate highways also tend to be hotspots.

Cooper also went over ways to attempt to take action against human trafficking, discussing first the pillars of the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.

"The four pillars are prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. [RAGAS] concentrates on the prevention part, because if you prevent it from happening you don't have to worry about the other stuff," Cooper said.

Steps can include programs to educate vulnerable populations and mitigate risk factors and providing assistance to victims.

"What can we do? I think the biggest thing is we have to move from caring to acting... You cannot care about something until you know about it and have facts about it. But, once you know about it, you can extend your caring circle... to all kids in your life ," Cooper said.

For more information on human trafficking and how to recognize it, visit ragas.online.

Other resources include a21.org; 3sgf.org and antitraffickinginternational.org.

Labor exploitation resources include the Sweat & Toil app.

photo El Dorado Rotary Club president Steve Biernacki presents a book to Shawnee Cooper, who gave a presentation about human trafficking on Monday to the club. (Contributed)

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