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United Way Blog

Combatting Human Trafficking Through Financial Stability

Recognizing January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, this blog is the last in a series about the intersectionality of human trafficking with financial stability, education, and health. To read the other blogs in the series, click here and here

Human trafficking – the act of compelling someone to work, for little or no pay, through force, fraud, or coercion – is an incredibly complex, intersectional issue. Systemic injustices like racism, homophobia, sexism, economic inequality, and more lead some people to face more risk of human trafficking than others. It is a multi-dimensional problem that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities around the world.

United Way envisions a world where communities ​deliver equitable solutions to achieve lasting change, giving everyone the chance to thrive — especially in education, economic mobility, and health. Each of these issues is affected by and affects human trafficking. They are prevention points *and* intervention tools in the fight against human trafficking.

Financial Stability for Human Trafficking Prevention
Human trafficking stems from and contributes to economic instability for individuals and communities. Traffickers often  seek out financially vulnerable individuals, such as those living in poverty, unemployed, or who are experiencing homelessness. In fact, a United Nations analysis of 200+ human trafficking cases found that the “majority of victims were reportedly in a condition of economic need, characterized by an inability to meet basic needs, such as food, shelter or healthcare” at the time of recruitment.  

Traffickers often make false promises to vulnerable people, offering  shelter, money, or food in exchange for labor or sex. Such situations frequently turn into cases of human trafficking in the form of exploitation such as debt bondage, forced labor, and/or forced commercial sex, and more. As the National Survivor Network explains, highly vulnerable populations, like refugees or displaced people, are particularly susceptible to trafficking because of their precarious financial status. Community-based programs focused on financial security and economic mobility are an effective tool to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking.

Angela F. Williams, President and CEO of United Way Worldwide, visited United Way of Ghana in November to learn about their work, which includes anti-human trafficking programming. She visited a United Way-run women’s empowerment project in rural Ghana where they met an 18-year-old woman named Mary,* holding a small baby. Mary recounted a story of resilience, as she shared through tears about how she'd been forced to leave school after becoming pregnant. Before finding the United Way program, Mary worried about her ability to provide for herself and her child without an education or a job. She credited the United Way program with helping her build financial security, thereby supporting the safety and wellbeing of both herself and her child.

Without access to a safe, stable source of income, Mary could have been highly vulnerable to human trafficking. Human trafficking is prevalent in Ghana, and both boys and girls are known to be trafficked into forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation. The Ghanaian government has listed demand for cheap labor, poverty, and the absence of economic opportunities as key root causes of human trafficking in the country.  United Way of Ghana’s anti-human trafficking work aims to address this issue in a comprehensive and holistic manner and their job security and educational programs are a key component of that strategy.

Mary’s story does not just speak to the impact of United Way of Ghana’s work. Her story anecdotally demonstrates what we know to be true about the ripple effects of United Way’s programming around the world. Investing in programs that promote equity and economic mobility enables individuals and communities to build resilience, safety, and security, thereby reducing vulnerability to human trafficking. Similarly, stopping human trafficking produces social and economic benefits for not just the person affected but communities at large as well.

The Importance of Sustainable Financial Freedom
A Polaris study found that access to financial resources (or lack thereof) is “often the single most determining factor” affecting a survivors’ ability to safely exit a trafficking situation. Finances are frequently used as a means of control by traffickers to prolong exploitation, as restricting a person’s access to financial resources can be an incredibly effective way to maintain control over them. In fact, financial abuse has been found to be at times even more effective than other forms of force, such as physical abuse, and “economic abuse is the most often cited method of control used by traffickers reported to the National [Human Trafficking] Hotline.”

After experiencing human trafficking, survivors often need financial assistance to rebuild their lives. But securing a sustainable income, opening a bank account, or rebuilding one’s credit can be inaccessible to survivors of human trafficking, particularly if a survivor’s trafficking experience included forced criminality. They may have a criminal record that precludes them from employment and educational opportunities. Additionally, if a survivor’s trafficker used their name to conduct fraud or other financial crimes, financial institutions may be unwilling to issue bank accounts and credit cards, precluding the survivor from rebuilding their credit. Without access to a stable income and a line of credit, the survivor may not be able to pay their bills, secure safe housing, care for dependents, access healthcare, purchase food, seek an education, and more.

The National Survivor Study, a Polaris research project supported by United Way, recently found that  survivors had “no support for long-term needs such as mental health care, stable housing, and economic support.” Without assistance to access these crucial needs, survivors may struggle to rebuild their lives. Destiny Kilgo, an intern at United Way’s Center to Combat Human Trafficking and participant in Survivor Alliance’s Leadership Academy, has spoken about the importance of making financial resources and support easily accessible for survivors.

“I strongly believe proper support, and resources that are readily available, are key factors in stabilization,” Destiny said. “Resources need to be strong and reinforced with easy to map steps and guidelines in place for survivors to follow.” Educating survivors about what financial resources are available, as well as how to access and utilize them is key." (She's a) “firm believer in standing together, educating, acknowledging the different levels of understanding” each survivor may have to help them “overcome the many obstacles to obtaining financial freedom and independence.”

To support the financial stability and economic mobility of human trafficking survivors, United Way works with survivor-run organizations to operate programs that create employment pathways and emphasize professional development. The Rising United Leadership Program, which is managed in partnership with Rising Worldwide, provides professional development and economic opportunities to survivor leaders who are equipped to teach United Way’s educational curriculum. This past year, the pilot phase of this program educated over 1,700 community leaders from around the United States and the survivor leaders involved reported increased self-sufficiency, financial stability, and agency.

Additionally, in partnership with Survivor Alliance, United Way is expanding avenues for survivors’ professional development and financial empowerment through a new fellowship program launching in 2023. Through the program, survivors will receive leadership training for diverse roles across the non-profit sector while earning a living wage, with access to health benefits, and the opportunity to build a career.

Across the world, United Way is working to help every person, in every community, carve out a path toward financial empowerment. That starts with access to services, job training, credit counseling, and money management programs. By operating and investing in economic mobility programs and initiatives, local United Ways around the world are reducing vulnerabilities to human trafficking within their communities.

We encourage you to learn more about United Way’s financial stability work here and continue learning about the intersectionality of financial freedom and human trafficking via the resources below.

*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

Additional Resources:

Other United Way Blogs:

Special thanks to Annie Barbour, Brooke Wheeler, Khadija Rahman, Marjorie Blum, and Tamia Ingram for their research to support the creation of this blog.

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