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Rotary members aim to root out the global scourge of human trafficking

Combating human trafficking, a scourge which impacts an estimated 40 million people worldwide, is the goal of the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery and several cause-based Rotary clubs.


When Dave McCleary first heard about human trafficking, it seemed like something that happened far away, probably overseas. But not in the United States. And certainly not in his hometown.

Then one day he invited a speaker who knew otherwise to talk to his Rotary club in Roswell, Georgia. Her name was Melissa. She was originally from Roswell and had gone to the same high school McCleary’s girls had attended. Melissa dropped out at 16 and was offered a modeling job by a man who turned out to be a sex trafficker. For two years, she was trapped and trafficked in downtown Atlanta before police and a local organization helped her escape.

Students on their way to morning class at Pace Universal, a school for girls in Piyali Junction, outside Kolkata, India, that is funded in part by Rotary clubs and The Rotary Foundation. It was founded by Rotarian Deepa Biswas Willingham to educate girls and protect them from slavery, trafficking, and early childhood marriage in a community where these are common dangers for girls.

Anindito Mukherjee / Rotary International

After the meeting, another Rotarian approached Melissa and gave her a big hug. McCleary asked him how he knew the young woman. He said she used to babysit his kids when she was 12, and he had wondered what had happened to her.

"For me, that was when it became real," says McCleary, who is now chair of the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery. "Now it wasn't someone else's problem. And I remember thinking at the time: Rotary — we're in 200 countries, with 34,000 clubs and 1.2 million Rotarians, and we tackle the tough issues. Why not slavery?"

Of the many global issues, human trafficking (or modern slavery, as it is sometimes called) is one of the toughest to combat. It's estimated that more than 40 million people are trafficked across the world. "It's probably the largest human rights travesty existing today," says Karen Walkowski, founder of the Rotary Club of District 5950 Ending Human Trafficking. "Bigger than all the refugees, all the displaced people. It's one of the three largest illegal industries, bringing in about $150 billion in revenue every year."

"I tell people to think of New York City or London or any major city in the world," says Sujo John, founder of the nonprofit YouCanFreeUs, which has partnered with Rotary clubs. "Now think of six or seven times the population of those cities that are now in slavery. These are people who have been kidnapped or cheated or told that if you come to the city, or go to another country, there's a better opportunity waiting for you."

Of the many global issues, human trafficking is one of the toughest to combat. It’s estimated that more than 40 million people are trafficked across the world.

A student at Pace prepares to celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi.

Anindito Mukherjee / Rotary International

Sex trafficking is one kind of modern slavery, but there are others that fall under "labor trafficking," where people find themselves trapped in jobs in forestry, farming, restaurants, carnivals, and traveling sales crews of young people peddling magazine subscriptions, and they are not allowed to leave.

"People ask me where slavery is going on in America," John says, "and I say drive through any city in America late in the night. If you see a neon sign that says 'Massage,' chances are that is where slavery is happening. There might be foreign women kept there against their will and forced to provide sexual services."

Mark Little, a member of the Rotary Club of Norwich St. Edmund, England, didn't know any of this until his wife persuaded him to watch a BBC documentary about the subject. "I thought, 'Slavery in the United States? Surely not. Slavery in the United Kingdom? Never. Millions of slaves in India?'"

But sure enough, there they were.

By the numbers

  1. 40.3 million

    People in forced labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced marriages worldwide

  2. 4,750

    Dollars made per second from forced labor

  3. 71

    Percentage of people in forced labor who are women or girls

    Source: International Labour Organization

"That really shook me to the core," says Little. "Within four months, I was out in India to visit two of the child slavery rehabilitation centers which were featured in that documentary film. I listened to the testimony of some of the survivors I met on that first visit, who were in the process of rebuilding their lives. I thought, 'My God, what's going on in the world? We've got to do something about it!'"

Little founded the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery, whose newsletter reaches some 3,800 people and which has about 675 members in 49 countries.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., at least three new cause-based clubs have been formed to fight human trafficking. In addition to Walkowski's club, there is the Rotary Club of Community Action Against Human Trafficking, which was started in Kansas, and the Rotary Club of the Pacific Northwest Ending Sex Trafficking, based in Seattle.

The latter was founded by Virginia McKenzie after a speaker from a local anti-trafficking organization told her former club, the Rotary Club of Seattle, about a fake advertisement that posted a 15-year-old for sale for sex. Within two hours it received 250 calls, mostly from downtown Seattle businesses. "There was an audible gasp,"

McKenzie says. "For myself, it was like I was struck by lightning. Instantly I felt cold anger, red hot fear, and deep sadness, all at once."

For several years, McKenzie worked on her club's peacebuilding committee doing trafficking-related projects. Among other things, they trained 1,000 health care professionals to see signs that someone is being trafficked (such as marking tattoos, hypervigilant escorts, not knowing what city they are in or what day it is) and how to respond in a trauma-informed, HIPAA-compliant way. But she wanted to do more, so she started the new club, which was chartered last year with 25 members — most of them new Rotarians, along with several who had left Rotary.

"This is a very trending topic," she says. "It's like the whole world is waking up to this. I'm so proud of Rotary for taking this on, and I'm so optimistic about the role that Rotarians can play to make an impact."

RAGAS Chair Dave McCleary; 2021-22 RI President Shekhar Mehta; and Virginia McKenzie, founder of the Rotary Club of the Pacific Northwest Ending Sex Trafficking, at a Rotary institute in Tucson, Arizona, in November 2021.

Courtesy of Virginia McKenzie

Other clubs have been taking action as well. McCleary's club organized a training to help school bus drivers recognize signs of trafficking and learn how to respond. A fellow club member who owned a McDonald's restaurant had the National Human Trafficking Hotline number printed on tray liners, which resulted in five girls being saved in a month.

In Sacramento, California, there was a major Rotary-sponsored educational program, and in southern California, more than two dozen clubs have joined the Rotary Clubs Fighting Human Trafficking initiative. Meanwhile, the Rotary Club of Community Action Against Human Trafficking received several global grants to create a drop-in center for victims in Topeka, Kansas, and a plan to educate people on how to spot victims. And in February, the RI Board of Directors approved an anti-human trafficking resolution that encourages Rotary members to become more familiar with the growing problem of modern-day slavery and to work toward solutions.

Some success stories aren't even project related: A Rotarian in Argentina got a message from a woman in Mexico she knew through her network of activism groups. The woman had learned of a girl who was being trafficked in the state of Michoacán, where she was chained to a bed and tortured. The Rotarian in Argentina got in touch with the Rotary Action Group Against Slavery. Members of the action group reached out to their contacts in Mexico City, and the girl was freed within 24 hours.

"That's the kind of impact that Rotary can have," says McCleary, adding that he wants Rotary to do even more. "We believe that this is a movement, not just a series of projects."

This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

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