Over the past generation, this country has made great strides addressing gender-based violence. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994, was one groundbreaking step. With the passage of my resolution this past Wednesday, the City Council has joined the chorus of voices across the country calling for the reauthorization of VAWA.
Significantly for Queens, the proposed version that Congress is now debating strengthens protections for immigrants who have survived gender-based violence. Much work remains, and we must continue to address retrogressive practices such as blaming the victim.
Another serious issue facing many immigrant women is sex trafficking in which criminals and their networks illegally trade or sell individuals into commercial sexual exploitation. Traffickers exploit the vulnerability of their victims, such as their youth, gender, or sexual orientation, and benefit from the language and cultural barriers that prevent them from reaching out for help.
In 2007, an anti-trafficking statute was passed by the New York State Legislature. Despite its laudable intent, the current law must be revised and strengthened to ensure that tough measures are in place against traffickers and that survivors have access to the services they need.
I have joined with advocates to introduce a City Council resolution calling on Albany to improve the way New York addresses sex trafficking.
One important way to improve the law is to address the connection and the distinction between the crime of prostitution and the scourge of sex trafficking. Sex trafficking, which is akin to slavery, should not be conflated with prostitution, which encompasses individuals who choose to engage in commercial sex work.
The result of such conflation is that survivors of trafficking are being arrested and prosecuted for prostitution. Treating trafficking survivors as prostitutes is a deplorable practice of police and prosecutors looking for easy, cosmetic salves for a complex problem. Calling for stronger laws to combat prostitution in the name of combating sex trafficking is similarly misguided.
The psychological, physical, and sexual torture endured by these survivors is devastating enough. For our government to arrest, fine, and imprison them is unconscionable.
Effectively combating trafficking requires an approach that targets the traffickers and their criminal networks, no matter how far they reach. Most important, efforts need to be centered on empowering and rehabilitating survivors. As a crucial first step, publicity campaigns should be aimed at reaching those ensnared in trafficking.
Another key component is improving how the police address the issue. The police department needs to draft, with the input of experts in trafficking, and promulgate regulations that officers must follow when they make an arrest for prostitution.
When an arrest for prostitution is made, officers should be required to ask if the person is a victim of sex trafficking. I continue to explore ways to work with the police to ensure sex trafficking survivors are not labeled as criminals.
As invaluable and equal members of our community, women deserve to have their voices heard and their concerns addressed. March gives us time not only to consider the contributions of women to our great country but also to reflect on ways to advance women’s rights.
Daniel Dromm represents the 25th District in the City Council.