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"Traffic Lights" by By Jae Woo Jang

Co-Winner, High School Category, Student/Teacher Essay Contest, "Ethics for a Connected World," 2012

February 21, 2013

Jae Woo Jang

Jae Woo Jang is a 16 year-old 11th grader, who attends the International School of Manila, in the Philippines. He has won several essay competitions and presented research papers throughout international conferences.

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

Traffic Lights

The light of the dawn flooded Sarina's room as if her walls were rinsed by a barrel of crimson blood, color that crept all over her bony fingers and her checkered apron which she wore to clean her bosses' plates. The rippling light that shimmered against her forged identification photo served as a reminder, a vestige of some sort, of her own untold tale. Sometimes she saw runnels of scarlet water drip from the edges of the photo and pound against the floorboard, creating a redolence of her own tragedy. The history of each splinter of laceration, the thread of welts, engraved against her skin was transcribed in that single portrait.

At times, she dreamed. In her dreams, she saw a man barge into the door, bringing in a procession of six men eager to lay their fingers upon her; she heard the chatters of the metal manacles that strapped her onto her bed and felt the lash of whip and palms on her cheekbones whenever she failed to please. Sometimes she dreamed it wasn't real.

Sometimes she thought about how she ended up here—the usual suspects: lack of education and poverty, jobless parents who had seven mouths to feed, the misfortune of being the eldest, the need to escape the rice paddies, a bleak future.

There is where Sarina came from: in the Philippine provinces such as Cebu and Mindanao, for instance, where government financial support is significantly less as compared to the support given to the capital Manila. In these places, rural communities affront the consequences of poverty and lack of education. Families struggle to meet their daily needs, which compel young but able teenagers to seek for work elsewhere. Sarina, who resides in the rural village in Zamboanga Peninsula, had the same aspiration. Yet young teenagers, especially girls such as Sarina, often come across recruiters who claim that they are scouting girls to work as housekeepers, models, or masseuses; in Sarina’s case, she met the scouters at the age of 14. This so-called scouter sounds convincing, offering free tuition after her work, a substantial amount of money and even free visa processing if she is offered to work abroad. Of course, Sarina's family often questions the scouter’s credibility. But as her family is relatively uninformed and misguided due to lack of education, the grand, almost unbelievable, offer seems like a miraculous opportunity for both the girl and her family to escape the realm of poverty. For the family's survival, the agent’s vacuous promises were deemed necessary as if her family's life depended on it. After the fictitious papers and documents, which her family has little knowledge of, are signed, Sarina receives a fake passport and an ID as a ship takes her to Angeles City's red light district. Sarina, at the moment, often bear false hopes of financial success and for the 'better' life; however, this is bound to perish as soon as she docks at the port, realizing that the mansion in which she was to serve was all a fraud, a deception to trap and force her into sex slavery.

Sarina found herself in an Inn, packed with more than 20 other hog-tied girls, almost all in the same age group, in each room. She endures more than 10 male clients a day as the owner of the Inn pounds at her for her debts, asserting that the debts cannot be cleared unless Sarina works as hard to satisfy an impossibly high standard. Before her escape with the help of a sympathetic client, she had already wasted five years off her teens. Since then, she resides in a safe house protected by an anti-human trafficking NGO. She struggles to forget her past, to fully recover, and become a productive member of the society. On the surface, traffic victims may look no different from any one of us but inside their thoughts cloud with the reminiscence of men who had stripped down every remaining piece of their dignity. Full recovery seems impossible.

Millions of humans are deceived and trafficked annually, from as young as 12 years old, forced to conduct the worst forms of labor. Once they are deceived, trafficked victims could perhaps permanently live in confinement.  Even if rescued, the psychological trauma and disorder of the experience will scar each victim, leaving a wound that could no longer heal and recovery back to society almost implausible.

This whole process occurs beneath the surface—in a parallel market. The scale of this economy exceeds a billion dollar worth global market network. In the Philippines, some of those who got rescued by the police officers, with the help of the Visayan Forum, an anti-trafficking NGO, began to reveal the existence of this notorious network, indicating the detrimental consequences inflicted not only upon the victim but upon the society as a whole.

The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of trafficked teenage girls, just like Sarina, supplied throughout the world, sends us a warning. If such a large population becomes involved in a slavery bondage that is unseen and almost untraced by the society, we confront a major human rights violation which we may never find out about. If the international community and governments cannot provide individuals with the safety and the protection from physical abuse, what other progress and justice could be achieved? As working conditions for these deceived or even abducted teenagers are too harsh, their susceptibility to trauma increases which thereby regresses these girls into a state of depression and desolation, eventually stripping down all their confidence and they will no longer become productive members of the community. If these abusive treatments become prevalent and the society loses the ability to take action, too many women would live under the blanket of distress as the society may perceive trafficking as an insolvable problem. A society that lives on top of this belief is devoid of empathy as overlooking the issue on human trafficking would spawn a society that is filled with apathetic citizens—indifferent to the pain that trafficked victims feel.

Just as how Sarina has took her chance for escape, many trafficked victims are found by government officers and relocated to safe houses that are protected by both the government and NGOs. The police officers, trained both by the International Justice Mission and Visayan Forum, prosecute the recruiters, transporters, and harborers of trafficking, aiming to cut the supply lines of the crime within the country. However, human trafficking evolves and adapts to new situations; traffickers will always seek new methods to ensnare their naïve victims into slavery. The long-term solutions therefore rely on an ideal which requires the contribution of the whole of society for it to be realized: eliminate the root causes of human trafficking—poverty and lack of education.

However, there are ethical issues which each individual must confront for the successful elimination of human trafficking. First, we must sacrifice a portion, or in fact a small fraction of our self-interest in order to provide for another, who is perhaps less privileged, the materials and service necessary for a dignified life. The ethical dilemma that needs consideration is how much are we willing to sacrifice our self-interest for the difficulties of others? I purport the government must heed efforts in rural development that are not strictly infrastructure-based but more on a welfare system which could provide the families with financial difficulties, the relief necessary to start up a new business, capable of supporting the family in the long run. This also in turn calls for the accessibility of education whose curriculum is designed to keep students from charlatans who might lure them into trafficking; this involves not only academic teachings but also being informed of the many dangers posed in the society. This government system revolves around the philosophy of socialism and the idea of protecting everyone under the government umbrella. In a capital-oriented country, the system of sharing may sound unappealing; however, in order to eradicate the issue of human trafficking and to protect potentially vulnerable people, the government must redistribute the wealth from the affluent to poor by providing the service that could prevent families from seeking the kind of illegitimate jobs that Sarina once fell into. Asthe public comes aware of this issue, people must assess their willingness to sacrifice a share of their money to ensure the safety of the basic human rights to all. Sarina had once been a child but a hungry one. But is that her fault that poverty shackled her upon birth? As animals that naturally hold the gift to empathize with others, it serves our society best to ensure peace amongst everyone, with people embracing the disadvantaged families through providing monetary support and accessible education. The ability to share is not anthropic but a moral code that embodies the law of our nature.

I asked Sarina how others could help. She looked up, pierced her eyes through mine, and merely replied with a light-hearted twist of her lips. With a pause, she whispered: "Let others know."

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