Native American women can’t escape the truth about human trafficking

Perspective one of a multiple perspective series.

February 25, 2020

An estimated 30,000 victims of sex trafficking die each year from abuse, disease, torture, and neglect. Eighty percent of those sold into sexual slavery are under 24, and some are as young as six years old. The majority of victims are women—70 percent—and risk for women may be heightened further in areas where extreme gender discrimination prevails. 

Human Rights First states, “sex trafficking is the third-largest criminal activity globally and generates $99 billion a year in revenue for traffickers.” Although sex trafficking doesn’t only target indigenous woman, they are the biggest percentage. According to, the National Congress of American Indians found that an estimated 40 percent of women who are victims of sex trafficking identify as American Indian, Alaska Native, or First Nations.

The sex trafficking industry is very wide and varies in different demands. states, “Trafficking involves transporting someone into a situation of exploitation. This can include forced labor, marriage, prostitution, and organ removal. Estimates suggest that about 50,000 people are trafficked into the US each year, most often from Mexico and the Philippines.”

The risk of sex traffiking for women may be heightened further in areas where extreme gender discrimination prevails. According to Amnesty International, Native American and Alaska Native women face rape or sexual violence at a rate of 2.5 times more than women in the USA in general. Sexual violence against Indigenous women is the result of a number of factors and continues a history of widespread human rights abuses against Indigenous peoples in the USA.

Accordingly to and Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya, a Hopi expert on human trafficking in Indian country, the targeting of Native women occurs for several reasons. The Navajo-Hopi Observer reports: “Why seek Natives? We’re associated with fetishes,” such as long hair and exotic looks that sex patrons perceive as Asian or Hispanic, Imus-Nahsonhoya says.” We could look like anything. The high rates of poverty and hardship in tribal communities, historical trauma and culture loss, homelessness and runaway youth, high rates of involvement with child welfare systems, including entry into the foster care system, exposure to violence in the home or community, drug and alcohol abuse, and low levels of law enforcement all add up to a community rich in targets for traffickers.”

In a report on prositution and trafficking of Native American women in Minnesota, Amnesty International states,“When a man looks at a prostitute and a Native woman, he looks at them the same: ‘dirty’.” Chronic poverty, rape, homelessness, childhood abuse, and racism – elements of the trafficking of women – were clear themes in respondents’ answers.”

Protecting these native communitites and fighting sex traffiking can be especially difficult. states, “Native Americans are largely overlooked as victims. Tribes still don’t have the right codes [laws] to prosecute traffickers,” explained Cindy McCain, co-chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council. Amnesty International states “Three justice systems — tribal, state and federal — are potentially involved in responding to sexual violence against Indigenous women. The lack of appropriate training in all police forces — federal, state and tribal — also undermines survivors’ right to justice. Tribal prosecutors cannot prosecute crimes committed by non-Native perpetrators.” According to Amnesty International, Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 (TLOA). The TLOA is a small but historic step in the right direction – it begins to tackle the public safety and justice issues in Indian Country and provides beginning steps to empowering tribal governments to deal with violent crime in their own communities.

Sex trafficking has outlasting affects on anyone involved. The Minnesota report of Amnesty International also states, “52% of Native American women had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the time of interview, a rate that is in the range of PTSD among combat veterans. Moreover, 71% presented symptoms of dissociation.” 

The Official website of the Department of Homeland Security shared an account of what traffiking looks like. “The trafficker met a 12-year-old runaway who asked for his help in finding a place to stay. Instead, the trafficker – a long-time member of the notorious MS-13 gang – forced the young girl into the commercial sex trade the very next day. For more than 3 months, he held her captive, coercing her to have sex for money multiple times a day at a variety of businesses, homes, apartments and hotels in Northern Virginia. Rescuing the victim and successfully prosecuting the perpetrator was the result of collaborative efforts by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) National Gang Unit (NGU) with assistance from the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force. Traffickers prey on victims with little or no social safety net. Children and young adults without safe, stable family relationships are uniquely vulnerable.”

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