BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. — As the Saturday sun goes down, the club lights of this entertainment city come up, luring patrons to popular hangouts like The Gig, The Garage, and The Dragonfly.
Down a darkened side street, Sandra Hunnicutt strides to the podium in a back room of the Beverly Hills Community Center. The Los Angeles activist wants to shed a different kind of light on the allure of this and other large American cities to young girls - from backcountry and backward countries alike.
"Thank you for coming to this forum against the worldwide trafficking of women and children," she tells a gathering of about 100.
A longtime human-rights activist and the organizer of countless similar seminars around the globe, Ms. Hunnicutt has joined the fight against the recruitment and transport of young girls across international borders for sex.
Through Captive Daughters, the organization she founded with $20,000 of her own money last June, she has helped link groups worldwide, tackling the vast network of traffickers from Laos to Los Angeles.
"Captive Daughters is taking on the very much needed role of bringing this issue before the public, media, and lawmakers in ways that will truly make a difference," says Lois Lee, founder of Children of the Night, an agency that provides services to child prostitutes. "Perhaps more than anything, she is making people realize that this is a growing and major problem in the US ... and giving people the tools to deal with it."
Sparked by her own outrage and sadness after coming face-to-face with the sex trade on a visit to Asia, Hunnicutt has dedicated her life to ending the lucrative business. And she says she has seen awareness of the problem grow in recent years, thanks to media and other campaigns that have led to new laws relating to child or juvenile prostitution.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the US passed four major pieces of legislation relating to child or juvenile prostitution, and in 1994, it passed a law that makes it illegal for an American to travel abroad for the purposes of having sex with someone younger than 18 years old - a crime punishable by as many as 10 years in jail.
Coming to America
Yet the number of traffickers and trafficked girls continues to grow, stretching to include places most Americans are not yet aware - big American cities. In Los Angeles for instance, 5,000 women of Chinese descent are prostitutes, notes Kathryn McMahon, who runs a Filipino project on trafficked women.
Although the Internet is often a major means supporting sex trafficking worldwide - pandering to men who seek "exotic" sex partners from around the globe, Hunnicutt has turned the communications network to her advantage. Captive Daughters has set up a Web site (www.captive.org) where it rallies support by guiding users to form focus groups and linking them to organizations dealing with the problem.
Recently, Captive Daughters coordinated a letter-writing campaign to pressure the Queens County district attorney to prosecute a New York sex-tour operator.
Ken Franzblau, an attorney for Equality Now, a New York-based human rights organization, says, "Since there are only a handful of groups that are dealing with human-rights abuses of women full time, their ability to draw in new support is critical to this cause."
Hunnicutt's deep commitment to the cause began in 1994, when she and husband lived in Nepal on a Fulbright grant. After finding adoptive parents for a motherless four-year-old girl, Hunnicutt realized that the girl's eight-year-old sister was in serious danger. If left alone, her age, coupled with the fact that she lived in the second-worst trafficking district in Nepal, meant that she would be a prime target. Hunnicutt's concern led her first to examine the regional problem, then the global one.
"I found that the web of trafficking has specific routes but essentially leads everywhere," she says. "It needs to be tackled as a global issue."
One key element to success is information.
"I thought I knew about prostitution and trafficking but Sandra's ability to comprehensively place it before us made me realize I didn't," says Wangoi Pons, a Kenyan student at Santa Monica College, who began to do volunteer work for Captive Daughters after she heard Hunnicutt speak. "I thought prostitutes were there on the street because they wanted to be, Sandra made me realize there are whole networks of crime beneath it."
Making her case
To make her case, Hunnicutt travels around the US giving talks and seminars, such as her Beverly Hills forum, and she lobbies businesses and institutions that do business with offending countries to raise the issue of trafficking during their transactions.
"What Sandra is doing right now that no one else is doing is bridging the gap between international, national, and local perspectives on the issue," says Martha Ter Maat, Western Regional Coordinator for Amnesty International's 50th Anniversary Campaign on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. "Captive Daughters is making the link between global awareness and local activism."
Indeed, Hunnicutt says she wants Captive Daughters to help, not replace, local efforts. Those that deal with the housing, mental, and physical needs of girls often take years to get in place and have highly dedicated personnel.
"The Filipino-American Service Group Inc. (FASGI) is doing more than anyone else in Los Angeles to face this issue on the front-lines and seek to protect their country women both here and abroad" she says. "We in fact want to highlight FASGI and organizations like it," says Hunnicutt. "They need total community support."
* Sandra Hunnicutt leads grass-roots fight against global trading of young girls for sex.