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Sunday, October 26, 2008

By Felice J. Freyer

Journal Medical Writer

PROVIDENCE -- When most people think of slavery these days, "they think of the Civil War," says Shanna Wells, director of the Rhode Island Commission on Women.
But in fact, said Wells, slavery is occurring now in neighborhoods around Rhode Island, in the form of the forced prostitution of women and girls - some runaways, some brought here from other countries. Their captors are attracted to Rhode Island, she said, because it is one of only two states that consider prostitution legal, as long as it occurs indoors between consenting adults.
"The word has gone out that Rhode Island is the place to come to to open your brothel," said Donna M. Hughes, a University of Rhode Island professor who has studied international sex trafficking. "We are rapidly becoming the sex trafficking capital of the Northeast."
Melanie Shapiro, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said that not long ago Rhode Island had a handful of brothels, and today there are 28.
Yesterday, a couple of dozen people gathered at the Grace Church to discuss the issue and then marched through the streets to call for action.
Wells said that efforts to toughen Rhode Island's prostitution laws haven't gotten much traction because legislators are not hearing about it from their constituents. So the coalition's first task - and the purpose of yesterday's march - was to raise awareness so that citizens will demand change.
According to Hughes, Rhode Island is among only three states where there have been no federal prosecutions for sex trafficking. "We need to ask the U.S. Attorney why," she said. Similarly, the state has not made use of its own law intended to stop trafficking, and she called on Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch to explain why.
But the criminal justice system must not arrest victims or put the burden on victims to prove that they were coerced, Hughes cautioned. When prosecutions have required women to testify against powerful, brutal men, the cases tend to fall apart because the women "crack and have a meltdown on the witness stand."
"Stop treating the victims as criminals," she said. "Arresting them will not solve the problem."
Instead, the anti-trafficking effort can learn from the fight against domestic violence, once considered a personal, private matter. Advocates pushed for laws requiring the police to determine who is the victim and arrest the abuser. Paraphrasing a quote that is often attributed to the 18th-century British philosopher Edmund Burke, Shapiro said, "Evil requires only that good people do nothing. … Let's get out there. Let's do something about this."
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