I’ve lived in and around Kansas City my entire life. Anyone with ties to KC knows that the major part of Kansas City is actually in Missouri, and anyone who doesn’t have ties to Kansas City…doesn’t really care. Kansas City is beautiful, vibrant and full of culture, but for most of the nation it sits squarely in what is known as “flyover country.”
When I started working with Alpha Fashions in Chennai, India to make Catalyst Scrubs, I was surprised to learn that we are more connected than I ever could have imagined. Chennai , like Kansas City, is filled with a diverse mix of culture, technology and art. However, to anyone in India not from that area, Chennai is known as “flyover city.” Sound familiar? For two cities 9,000 miles apart, the similarities of living in a city of relative insignificance abound.
The most disturbing similarity between Chennai and Kansas City goes much deeper than a seemingly harmless nickname. This likeness puts both cities squarely on the map as important for all the wrong reasons, and it’s one that isn’t going to be mentioned in any tourist propaganda. Both cities are hotbeds for human trafficking, and both cities are seeing the numbers grow on a yearly basis.
Human trafficking is the 21-century incarnation of one of the world’s most primal evils: slavery. It affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including an estimated 40-80 million in India alone. It is run by individuals and groups, small scale and large scale, domestically and internationally. Most victims of trafficking are women and children from poor neighborhoods that are lured to big cities in search of jobs, or film stardom, or simply to escape bad family situations. Traffickers prey on these individuals and sell them into brothels or forced labor.
In a country plagued with forced slavery, Chennai has the dubious distinction of being one of the largest hubs of human trafficking in all of India. Because of the illegal but prominent social caste system, women from a lower socioeconomic status are considered to be less valuable, have few rights, and many are uneducated. This leaves them vulnerable to kidnapping, abuse, and slavery. Many women are promised roles in American movies, or education in private schools and willingly travel with those that will eventually become their pimps and captors, brimming with the hope of a better life in America or Europe. The nightmare begins once they realize that they are now someone else’s property, to be forced into prostitution, unpaid labor, or to be sold to the highest bidder. Children are kidnapped and forced into the sex trade as early as 3 years old.
We might expect these nightmarish tales from a country like India that suffers from lack of government programs and organized justice systems. But the disturbing fact is that here in America’s heartland, smack dab in the middle of “flyover country,” Kansas City is becoming just as infamous for human trafficking as it is famous for its barbecue. Kansas City plays a disturbing role as a hub for human trafficking due to its central location and intersection of major, east-west and north-south Interstate highways. One study shows that Kansas City is #2 among 10 metropolitan cities in the US as a hub for domestic minor sex trafficking. The US Attorney’s Office in Western Missouri has prosecuted more cases involving human trafficking than any other US district. Much like the women in Chennai, predators use the lure of movie contracts, education, and the hope of a better life to convince American girls to willingly accompany them to their place of imprisonment.
It’s easy to assume that the audacities are happening thousands of miles away from our daughters, our sisters, our friends. However, the truth is that we can no longer turn away from human trafficking as a “developing world” issue. Austin, Seattle, Chicago—all of these cities have come forward with plans to combat the human trafficking that is occurring in their area. And it’s very probable that trafficking in some form might be happening in your city as well.
Both India and the U.S. are taking every possibly opportunity to combat human trafficking, but its invisibility makes capture and justice difficult. It will take each one of us becoming educated, speaking up for those that cannot, and supporting systems that are destroying the poverty that makes these women vulnerable in the first place. By using our platform and our purchasing power to aid those that need it most, we can be the change that will boost the value of women, empower them and give voice to the vulnerable. Heal Chennai, heal Kansas City, heal your country, heal the world.
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