We are a world on the move. Since the beginnings of humanity, we have lived and died by our freedom to walk across continents, scale mountains and sail across oceans. And with time, our ability to travel has only elevated – into the skies and into space. But the same freedom to travel that makes both survival and tourism possible has bred crime, giving life to the seedy underbelly of global commerce that trades in women and children and sex.
The Polaris Project estimates that nearly 21 million people around the world are held in slavery each year, and the U.S. Department of State estimates that 600 thousand to 800 thousand people are bought and sold across international borders. Of these, it is estimated that 50 percent are children – most of them are female and the majority are forced into the commercial sex trade.
The hospitality industry is, unfortunately, part of this underbelly – an unwilling participant in what experts call “the sexual exploitation that is particularly prevalent in this industry.” And let me be clear. We are unwilling. The Hilton Worldwide Global Code of Conduct condemns all forms of human trafficking and commercial exploitation, and we are fully committed to protecting men, women and children in every one of our markets.
This commitment stems from our earliest days as a company. Opening his first hotel in 1919, Conrad N. Hilton, our founder and namesake, believed in the power of international travel to change the world for the better. He imagined a world filled “with the light and warmth of hospitality.” We have taken this vision to heart, committing to not just travel, but to Travel with Purpose™, bringing shared value to the communities where we live, work and travel.
Among the most important efforts we make is protecting those who need it most and shining our light on an issue too often hidden out of sight. At Hilton Worldwide, we are using every tool in our toolbox to advocate for change, and we are encouraging our industry peers to do the same.
In 2011, we became just the second U.S.-based, multi-brand hospitality company to sign the ECPAT Tourism Code of Conduct, supporting its voluntary principles to prevent child sex tourism and trafficking. The Tourism Code is one of the first global, multi-stakeholder initiatives to define the role and obligations of tourism companies in ending child sex trafficking. We also committed to the UN Global Compact, agreeing to work toward common goals on issues of human rights and labor, among others.
But this is not an issue where just seeing something and saying something is enough. We all need to be the change. At Hilton Worldwide we have developed interventions – from industry collaborations to Team Member trainings to social sector partnerships – to halt trafficking at all angles.
We are a member of the International Tourism Partnership, helping to create the Human Trafficking Working Group. Our work has developed a united industry position on trafficking and supports youth apprenticeship programs at hotels in Mexico, Brazil and Vietnam in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State, and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
While working closely with our industry, we are also working closely within our business. Every day our Team Members are on the front lines of this issue, and so we are educating them about child trafficking, and we are developing training modules that can be applied around the world.
Through both compliance training and our internal learning and development network, Hilton Worldwide University, we can reach 300,000 Team Members at 4,000 properties across 90 countries. We are building a network of more engaged, more aware advocates. And we know we are not the only ones; our peers in the industry have similar initiatives and it will take each of our efforts – together and apart – to reverse the tide of child trafficking.
But “together” extends beyond the rooms, pools and halls of our industry. Partnerships with those working directly to combat trafficking are just one more way we are committed to strengthening our communities. With Airline Ambassadors, we are supporting anti-human trafficking trainings for travel industry personnel, particularly at airport properties, and the creation of a safe house for young women in Haiti. We are also working with The Polaris Project to develop the curriculum for our Team Member trainings and with the Somaly Mam Foundation to support public awareness and education programs for trafficking victims.
In support of these aggressive programs to end trafficking in our industry, we are also working to create better opportunities for youth who may be at risk of falling into the sex or slave trade. With Room to Read, we are funding girls’ education programs to help vulnerable populations in India stay in school and receive vocational and life-skills training. We have also created a strategic partnership with the International Youth Foundation, investing $3 million over three years to help vulnerable youth reach their full potential through expanded access to education, as well as workforce and life-skills training.
But it is our partnership with Vital Voices, a global network that aims to empower women to accelerate peace and prosperity in their communities, that I believe is truly unique. Together we have developed the Global Freedom Exchange, a dynamic mentoring opportunity for emerging and established women leaders on the forefront of efforts to intervene in child trafficking.
Our program will launch in late June in three cities around the United States, and will employ a multifaceted, impact-oriented approach to provide participants with specific knowledge, skills and relationships that will benefit their professional development, their respective NGOs and the communities they serve. The program will also develop an ongoing international network of activists working together to prevent and respond to child sex trafficking around the world.
For the last 20 years, I have seen first-hand, specifically in Latin America, the arduous fight that women and children may face in preserving their human rights. Our 26 amazing women – academics, activists and survivors – from 13 different countries, will come together to share and engage at the Global Freedom Exchange, growing their collective capacity for change. The skills and relationships they will gain could be life-altering for so many women and children around the world – those trapped by poverty, age or physical restraint.
In our child sex trafficking trainings for Team Members at Hilton Worldwide, we ask participants to “Practice your Awareness.” Think about that for a moment. Awareness here isn’t a state – to be aware – but a skill; a skill that can be learned and improved upon.
At Hilton Worldwide we are always seeking improvement, whether for the satisfaction of our guests or, in this case, the impact of our corporate responsibility. For the two million children around the world forced into prostitution, I challenge you to practice your awareness, and to always seek to make it better.
• Jennifer Silberman is vice president for for Global Corporate Responsibility at Hilton Worldwide.
• This article originally appeared at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the premier international platform for accelerating entrepreneurial approaches and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.