Rural Girls Could Be Agents of Peace—If Only They Weren’t Trafficked

At the time of writing this piece on the hardships, resilience, and hope that surround the lives of rural girls, I am sitting in a small hut near Nuqui, a town of approximately 3,000 inhabitants in northern Colombia. It is known as one of the most dangerous areas on earth, a hotbed of human and drug trafficking as well as illegal gold mining activities. Many of the local communities’ social leaders have been assassinated in the past months and years.

We never thought of marrying her so soon. I have [high blood] sugar and blood pressure problems and I suffer with kidney problems also. If I die, who will take care of the girl? People are always ready to slander a girl if she is alone.

—Mother of Ameena, Hyderabad, India

Rewinding a few days back to when I started researching for this piece in Boston, I was looking at the dynamic realities of education, healthcare, and infrastructure and how they impact rural girls. But being here in Nuqui, in the heartland of South America’s trafficking activities and a bottleneck for south-north human trade, I realized that our approaches need to be so much more nuanced. Too often the buzzword of “sex trafficking” limits the conversation to the humanitarian tragedy of the rural victims of this crime. The buzzword fails to grasp the wide socioeconomic and security implications of trafficking, not only for rural girls but also their communities. The global imperative to act goes therefore beyond the motivation of compassion and morale. Preventing the trafficking of a rural girl means saving a rural community.
The rural communities impacted by human trafficking are not exclusive to the Global South, but are situated in countries of the Global North too. Notwithstanding the significant impact of domestic human trafficking in Global South countries, the purchasing power is, in contrast, not local and rural. The economic dynamics on the demand side that flourish the human trafficking business are international and prevalent in countries of the Global North.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of rural girls for economic prosperity, security, and peace. Rural women represent over a quarter of the global population and approximately 43 percent of the agricultural workforce in countries of the Global South. Given their central role in the family’s economic and social structure, rural girls are viewed to be the most disadvantaged in terms of access to training, education, health, and human development. Their extreme poverty fuels the scams of the traffickers, who lure the rural girls away from their communities with the promise of good jobs, food, and education. The complex feelings of responsibility that the girls have for their families are subject to the manipulation of the traffickers. The impunity of the perpetrators in rural areas as a consequence of limited, nonexistent, or abusive law enforcement presence is an important contributing factor to the vulnerability of rural girls.
When a rural girl is trafficked, and likely sexually exploited, an often irreversible journey of suffering and trauma begins. As a result of sexual abuse, many victims experience mental health problems, drug addiction, and development delays, sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage pregnancies. Human trafficking survivor Karla Jacinto has spoken of how, throughout the years of her abuse, she was raped a total of 43,200 times. Survivor Lon has described how forced sex slavery “causes a deep pain and, if they [the girls] begin at early age, it can damage their heart and mind. It can damage their soul and take their loving away, and leave them with hated feeling inside.”
When a rural girl is able to complete her education, she is also more likely to get married later in life, have fewer children, and vaccinate those she has. Her children will have a higher probability of getting an education. Once she is employed she will reinvest on average 90 percent of her income into the community. Using the benefits of education, this girl thereby creates a cycle of education and income for her entire community. When a rural girl is trafficked, she is unfortunately unable to achieve these multitudes of accomplishments. It is surveillance, bombs, and bullets that enable and forcibly maintain temporary security—but education, healthcare, and infrastructure that are empirically proven to be the instruments of long-term peace and nation-building.

The trafficking of a rural girl catalyzes a chain reaction that ultimately robs entire communities of their chance for lasting peace. We all know of the leadership potential of educated rural girls, including for environmental protection, GDP growth, improved family planning, and health. None of this happens when she is trafficked.
Human trafficking, both in demand and supply, is driven by profits. Current security policy is overspending billions per year on flawed and harmful measures that overly focus on militaristic agendas. These two facts combined demonstrate the urgency of shifting the conversation to focus on the economic realities and power structures. The economic reality is that human trafficking is driven by profit. If nobody paid for sex, sex trafficking would not exist. In order to effectively address the root causes of these national security risks, there needs to be a strong focus on the investment into the creation of infrastructure and ecosystems for people to build sustainable livelihoods at home.

Given the multifold security challenges that our world is going to face as climate change takes effect and resources fall short, our societies are reliant on the leadership of rural girls as agents of peace and security.

Given the multifold security challenges that our world is going to face as climate change takes effect and resources fall short, our societies are reliant on the leadership of rural girls as agents of peace and security. If we rob them of their childhoods in some of the most traumatic ways imaginable, this (and any other) vision for change will collapse. If we want to effectively prevent human trafficking of girls and redesign the peace and security ecosystem of rural communities, a threefold strategy is needed today: investment, education, and enforcement.
Along with my Omnis Institute cofounders, Dr. Aziza Khabbush and Christina Myers, I have talked to over 800 rural Afro-Colombian and indigenous girls in Nuqui about leadership and their power. I have also had difficult conversations with their families, local officials, and local leaders about the reality that many of these girls will have their futures robbed because of trafficking. I believe we can and should do better.