Protecting children

Church pressures travel industry on sex trafficking
June 15, 2007

The Episcopal Church and partner faith groups are pressing the travel and hospitality industries to help protect children from sex trafficking -- and they are having success.


The Office of Women's Ministries and the Executive Council's Social Responsibility in Investments (SRI) Committee have joined campaigns to protect and rescue children caught in the web of what has become a multi-billion dollar industry.


According to the U.S. State Department, more than 1 million children are caught up in a global network of sex trafficking in which people travel to engage in paid sex acts.


Increasingly, church groups say, it's not only a moral imperative to guard against sex trafficking, but it also makes good business sense.


Last November, a Massachusetts investment firm, Boston Common Asset Management, used a shareholder resolution to convince the Marriott hotel empire to reshape its human rights policy with a new "protection of the rights of children" clause to raise awareness of the issue.


The company is a member of the New York-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and its success prompted greater interest in what investors -- in this case, churches -- can do to end child sex tourism.


Trafficking children is one of the world's most "deplorable problems," said the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, director of the Episcopal Church's Peace and Justice Ministries. Executive Council's SRI committee is pressuring the international Starwood Hotels and Resorts chain to promote a code of ethics and to train staff to counter trafficking, he said.


Significant progress with Starwood has occurred, Grieves reported. The SRI committee's legal consultant, Harry Van Buren, coordinated a dialogue between the company and a number of religious institutions.


Last November, the committee approved filing a resolution to Starwood on the commercial exploitation of children. The resolution asked the company to adopt and implement a human rights code, in all facilities, focusing on sexual exploitation of children.


"The main step now," Van Buren said, "is to work with each of these companies to make sure they have the right language in their codes of conduct and that they are implementing the code of conduct in a way that has positive benefits for children around the world."


In late March, Van Buren received confirmation of an agreement to add to the corporation's code of conduct "provisions regarding the sexual exploitation of children" and to work with the Episcopal Church "to provide awareness and training" for its employees around the world.


Reaching children themselves
To get a 24-hour hotline number into the hands of victims, the Office of Women's Ministries has asked manufacturers of feminine hygiene products to include the phone number on their product packaging.


Writing to Johnson & Johnson, Kimberley-Clark Corp., Playtex Products and Proctor and Gambel, the Rev. Margaret Rose, women's ministries director, spelled out the situation: "There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today -- an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 of which are trafficked into the United States annually.


"As a community leader, you have the opportunity to make a big difference in the lives of women and girls who are abused and enslaved. We urge you to print 888-373-7888 HOTLINE for human trafficking resources on your products. You would save lives and give the gift of freedom to millions of women and girls nationwide who suffer severe physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse."


The church prays regularly for the respect the dignity of every human being, said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "This initiative is a natural extension of our ongoing work to prevent child abuse in our congregations and communities, and I am encouraged to see other faith communities are taking this seriously."


Kim Robey in the women's ministries office is working with a task force on trafficking for a women's justice group of the National Council of Churches that plans a conference on trafficking in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2008. Contact Robey for more information at 800-334-7626 or krobey@episcopalchurch.org.