Sexual slavery. Forced labor. Child exploitation.
This is human trafficking, and the gut reaction to it is something most people have in common. It is a repulsive but distant reality, and the abhorrence it evokes cuts across race, politics and culture.
Unfortunately, while human trafficking is a glaring evil, it is the result of many lesser evils that are not so popular to talk about. Ignorance of the causes of human trafficking has allowed it to flourish into a $32 billion a year industry worldwide.
"Human trafficking is the result of society not dealing with other issues," said Karen Countryman-Roswurm, executive director for the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT) and assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Wichita State University.
With a unique combination of personal, professional and academic expertise, Countryman-Roswurm is a valuable resource for the university and the community. She is a world-renowned expert and a forerunner in the anti-human trafficking movement, and it was her passion that led to the creation of the CCHT at Wichita State earlier this year.
The goal of the center is to fight human trafficking and the domestic problems that it grows from. The CCHT helps communities combat human trafficking by providing education, training, research, policy development, technical assistance and consultation.
Human trafficking is sexual or labor exploitation and subjugation involving young children and adults, men and women alike. It is a situation in which victims are under someone else's power; where perpetrators prey on the weak. It is far more widespread and pervasive than people realize, even here in the United States.
Even here in Kansas.
Some of the root causes that lead up to human trafficking include domestic violence, poverty, disintegrating family structures, sexism, racism and lack of education.
These are issues that Countryman-Roswurm talks about passionately, even though their political nature can make those conversations uncomfortable.
Although Countryman-Roswurm is still young, she has earned the right to do the talking: She has lived through her own set of nightmares and, since her emancipation from the state at the age of 16, she has served high-risk, marginalized populations that are most likely to become victims.
"So many people are quick to point a finger at the victims," Countryman-Roswurm said. "The most important thing to realize is that they are victims and survivors — not criminals. They are not in this situation by choice.
"What most people don't realize is that every single one of us is just one step away from a different reality, one choice away from a radically different life, for good or for bad."
The key that made a difference for Countryman-Roswurm was education.
"I love this community and I love this university," she said. "Places like the Wichita Children's Home and WSU make up my home. I am excited about the center because its mission is in complete harmony with (WSU President John Bardo's) mission of bridging the gap between the university and the community. The center bridges the gap between direct practice in the community, research and policy. Furthermore, WSU offers education to high-risk populations, survivors, multidisciplinary students and professionals that can serve as the key to a new life."
Countryman-Roswurm's objective is to undermine and prevent human trafficking by having difficult conversations, and for that WSU is fertile ground. The ironic thing is, for a state with a strong abolitionist history, modern-day slavery thrives in Kansas, and the problem, she says, is a systemic one.
"People will talk about putting an end to human trafficking, but no one wants to talk about domestic violence; about inequality; about what we're doing wrong that allows human trafficking to occur. Those are the conversations that need to happen."
In recognition of the upcoming National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, the CCHT is hosting a week of human trafficking awareness events during the last week of January at the CAC Theater and the Ulrich Museum.
The kick-off event will take place Monday, Jan. 27, in partnership with the museum and the exhibit of "Ross' Juveniles in Justice," and will feature a discussion with Countryman-Roswurm, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and District Court Judge Timothy Henderson on how the new legislation has changed the face of juveniles in justice.
For more information about the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, call 316-789-5061 or email Countryman-Roswurm at firstname.lastname@example.org.