At the age of seven, Rani Hong was kidnapped in India and sold into the slave trade. She was transported across state lines, where she was beaten, held in a cage, and forced to work in a brick factory. Although Hong doesn't remember being sexually abused, she said there's evidence other children trafficked by her owner were.
"Traffickers saw me as a product to be exploited," said Hong.
Years later, Hong founded The Tronie Foundation, a trafficking awareness organization that works with the United Nations General Assembly to advise countries across the globe on how to better defend against modern slavery. Tronie, along with more than 100 other nonprofits, are participating in a new campaign to call attention to child trafficking, which includes illegal trafficking for labor and sexual purposes. The group's Everyone's Kids, Everyone Gives effort kicks off on Thursday and culminates with a 24-hour marathon fund-raiser on Sept. 16, when organizers hope to raise more than $1 million to help fight against trafficking.
Here are four things Hong thinks Americans should know about the reality of modern slavery.
Anyone Can Be a Victim
Although many Americans believe that trafficking victims are always "foreigners," this couldn't be further from the truth, said Hong.
"The misconception right here in the USA is that it won't happen to my child," she said.
We know through working with nonprofits and NGOs that any child could be the next victim, said Hong, regardless of race or skin color. The average age of a child coming into sex trafficking is 13. This is in large part because teens are often the most vulnerable to predators.
"They're dreaming for their future, they're looking for their next opportunity, and a trafficker comes in and promises them,...'I'll give you a modeling job, or you can come work in my nail salon,' " said Hong.
That's the bait and switch, and these teens end up being pimped out by their traffickers or becoming drug mules against their will. Many of the kids trapped in this industry come from "difficult backgrounds," including foster homes and abusive parents, said Bonnie Calvin, executive producer of "Everyone's Kids, Everyone Gives."
"Many have run away from a dangerous home and onto the streets and then into the arms of a criminal who makes them believe that he is their friend or boyfriend, only to turn on them quickly, with threats and more abuse, forcing them into a life of prostitution and slavery," Calvin wrote in an email.
Business Is Booming
Every year in the U.S., approximately 100,000 children become victims of trafficking, said Hong. "It's hard for us to believe that slavery still exists," she said. "We think of it as back in the 1800s." But modern slavery is one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world and generates more than $150 billion in profits each year, according to the United Nations.
Although sex trafficking is the term many Americans are familiar with, this description often overlaps and is interchangeable with child trafficking and modern slavery, said Hong, and the practice of labor trafficking often includes sexual abuse.
"The bottom line is it's the exploitation of a child for the purpose of making a profit," explained Hong.
While sex trafficking occurs in nearly every state in the country, California is a "hotbed" of this illegal activity because of its proximity to international borders. Research has shown that other potential locations for higher rates of trafficking include Arizona, Texas, and Washington, D.C., according to Hong.
Traffickers Come in All Shapes and Sizes
Although some trafficking rings have ties to organized crime groups, many predators appear to be run-of-the-mill civilians.
They can be your neighbor or your teacher, a lawyer or a professor, said Hong. Women are often used in child trafficking rings because they are less intimidating and can appeal to a child's sensitivity. The female traffickers build a relationship with victims and make them feel comfortable before drawing them in and handing them over to the men.
Awareness May Be the Key to Prevention
One of the most effective ways to combat child trafficking is to teach people to watch for the tell-tale signs of it, said Hong. By pushing Americans to be more aware of modern slavery and its many manifestations, they may be more likely to spot it and report it.
Some indications that a child may be a trafficking victim include the person working excessively long hours, seeming especially scared or anxious, or not knowing much about his or her whereabouts. The person may have few personal possessions, isn't in control of his or her own money or personal IDs, and isn't allowed to speak on his or her own behalf.
Hong has started a campaign in Washington state public schools to educate kids about trafficking and protecting themselves against it, and she's hoping this effort will be duplicated in states across the country. She cites Washington as a continual leader in anti-trafficking efforts, including legislation. In 2013, the Polaris Project—a major nonprofit organization fighting against human trafficking—agreed. It gave Washington the highest rating possible for its extensive laws prosecuting and punishing trafficking.