Two local women are heading across the globe to help fight the fastest-growing illegal industry in the world.
Juliette Hawkins, 24, and Andrea Stokes, 28, both Aiken natives, are leaving the comforts of home to combat human trafficking.
Hawkins will be leaving for South Africa, possibly as soon as the end of May, and will be there for three years working as the international administrator for Justice ACTS International. Stokes said she’s leaving some time this summer for India where she will reside long-term working with 7 Sisters International.
Human trafficking, as Hawkins describes it, is modern day slavery. It’s a human rights violation in which people are traded for the purposes of sex or labor.
Hawkins said that statistics show that approximately 27 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking and 1.2 million of them are children.
Hawkins spent three months in Cape Town, South Africa, last fall. Justice ACTS International started as a safe house for human trafficking victims but now the organization has expanded and is sending teams of people to help the local people empower themselves to combat this illegal trade.
Hawkins remembers when she had her first conversation with someone who underwent the trials of human trafficking. She was 16 and seemed to be like any other teenager but had horrible stories of what she suffered through.
“It was intense,” Hawkins said. “To me, it’s not 27 million lost faces. It’s 27 million individuals like this girl who have an individual story and an individual cry for help.”
The trip inspired Hawkins to put all of her efforts into helping people like that teenage girl.
“The way God put it all together, I know that I’m exactly where I need to be and there’s definitely comfort in that,” Hawkins said.
Stokes studied abroad in Uganda when she was in college and focused on human rights issues. She said she saw depravity and other bothersome things that only made her want to do more to help.
“That experience was life-changing for me,” Stokes said. “I knew I wanted my career to be helping vulnerable women and children in some way.”
Later, she traveled to southeast India where she spent two years, and she met a retired couple who had assisted in the investigation and rescue of girls from brothels through the International Justice Mission. The couple was in the area looking at what need was there and Stokes helped them conduct some research.
The couple saw a need for quality aftercare of those human trafficking victims and decided to start a home for them called the 7 Sisters Home in Assam, India, and Stokes is moving there to work with that organization.
Fighting a growing problem
The women’s parents, who know each other through Sunday school at Millbrook Baptist Church, are each supportive of their daughters’ decision to move thousands of miles away to help fight human trafficking.
Poverty drives human trafficking in many parts of the world, Hawkins and Stokes said. In India, many of the girls are promised jobs in a big city only to find themselves in a brothel, Stokes said.
In South Africa, sometimes the victims are runaways, which makes it harder for them to be tracked down and rescued.
Both organizations work toward giving the local people the knowledge and tools to prevent human trafficking in their own communities.
Hawkins said if anyone wants to get involved, they can start by doing it at a local level. She said the United States is not immune to human trafficking. She said spreading awareness, learning the signs and asking questions are the first steps in combatting this illegal industry.
If anyone sees anything suspicious in their own communities that may signify illegal activities, they can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 888-373-7888.
To learn more about the organizations that these two women are working for, visit www.7sistersinternational.org and www.justiceacts.org.
Stokes will be sharing her story at Cedar Creek Church’s Banks Mill campus on May 19 at 6 p.m.
• Amy Banton is the city beat reporter and has been with the Aiken Standard since May 2010. She is a native of Rustburg, Va., and a graduate of Randolph Macon Woman’s College.