By Mitzi Perdue

“In times of crisis, the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children skyrockets,” says Lori Cohen, Executive Director of the anti-human trafficking organization ECPAT-USA.  “Being safe in a time of COVID-19 means more than just washing your hands.”

As she explains goes on to point out, “Efforts to contain the virus by closing schools and public gathering sites have led to dramatic increases in unsupervised students children. The opportunities to exploit children through personal devices, laptops and video gaming have exploded.”

Why are the risks suddenly greater?  And what can we do about them?

Let’s start with some of the stressors that cause children and their families to become more vulnerable:

  • Loss of income
  • Isolation from school and other social supports
  • Disruption in normal daily routines
  • Stigma for those affected

The stresses are real and unrelenting: but what can we do? Cohen and her ECPAT-USA colleagues put a thought a lot into this question.

There are many good answers, but the one she and those she and her team works with have chosen is: “We focus on prevention. We try to create tools and information so that people don’t get trafficked in the first place.”

This includes providing training for school children. “We have an in-person training program,” she says, “where very talented young people are going into classrooms ,and engaging in interactive in doing very interactive workshops with students and generating discussion. It’s not a top- down lecture, but rather floating putting out scenarios and asking the young people to analyze it them.”

There are three workshops in a typical ECPAT-USA program. Schools can select one or two or all of the following:

  1. On-line safety, healthy use of cell phones and interactive gaming, how to protect yourself Ion social media.
  2. Healthy relationships, romantic and platonic, how to engage how engage with themselves in ways that are respectful, teach young people about power dynamics that cause a range of abusive behaviors.
  3. Human trafficking, primarily with sex trafficking but also information and a little about labor trafficking.

Interestingly, choice #2 is the most popular both with students and teachers and principals. “Teachers say that healthy relationships are at the heart of student challenges things,” explains Cohen. “However,” she adds, “They see a lot of unhealthy relationships going on.”

Cohen recently sat in on one of the training modules that use content ECPAT-USA developed. She found it eye-opening.

The premise of this particular discussion was that two high school students were in a committed and exclusive relationship.  They had agreed that there would be no secrets from each other.

Since there would be no secrets, they discussed giving each other their cell phone pass codes, and in fact, all their pass codes.  The boys in this particular class thought, “That should be fine. If the girl’s not cheating on him what does she have to hide?”

Many of the girls had a different reaction. “What if I’m just talking with my friend?” The ECPAT-USA moderator asked, “Does all passcode information also mean sharing things like your bank account PIN?Or what if it’s important to me to keep my bank account information private?”

The youngsters learned to be aware that, as one student put it, “I love you, but I also like myself enough to say that I need to be protected. I need to do the things that ensure I’m OK.”

You might wonder what this has to do with trafficked children.  Researchers from ECPAT-USA know that in many cases of child sexual abuse, youth don’t feel kids never learned that they have the right to say, “No, I don’t like that.” They also learn that being in a relationship doesn’t give someone the right to control them. They learn about healthy boundaries.

Cohen is proud of how much the students get from the courses.  “They engage! They may even be yelling at each other because they feel so passionately about these questions!”  She’s seen that the courses change attitudes in ways that can help protect them in the future.

“ECPAT-USA We offers these courses free to schools. If any school district would like them, please contact me at: info@ecpatusa.org.”

To learn more about ECPAT-USA and its other prevention measures, visit https://www.ecpatusa.org

Mitzi Perdue is a speaker and author of 50 Ways to Combat Human Trafficking, (available on Amazon). Contact her at www.MitziPerdue.com

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