SENATOR CORKER JOINS FIGHT TO END SEX TRAFFICKING | Report
Part 1 of 2
This is part one of a two-part series focusing on an effort to end sex trafficking.
"Let me breathe for a second," Shandra Womoruntu said. "I didn't take my medication yet today and this is stirring up trauma for me."
Womoruntu gulped a shaky breath and then told the story of the day her hands and feet were held down, her body trapped on a bed, men watching and cheering for Womoruntu's "client" while shouting instructions to the man. At the crowd's direction, the man used a hunting knife and other props to assault Womoruntu for 45 minutes — the amount of time he had purchased with Womoruntu, the amount of time he thought he owned her body.
It was one of many 45-minute sessions in which Womoruntu was "bought" that day, each one earning her $100. It was money she was told would go toward the $30,000 bill her traffickers demanded. But if it was her traffickers' turn to rape her, it didn't count toward the bill.
Until her escape, Womoruntu was just one of millions of people living in modern-day slavery. According to END IT, a coalition of organizations working to end human trafficking, there are between 20 million and 45.8 million people trapped in slavery today.
END IT has declared today as "Shine a Light on Slavery Day," and it has used its social media platform to beckon world leaders to the fight.
Since 2013, Shine a Light on Slavery Day has encouraged people to draw a red "X" on their hands and post a photo on social media using the hashtag #ENDITMOVEMENT.
"This grassroots viral effort has been taking the world by storm," said Jenni Brown, END IT campaign director. "Social media has been an incredible platform for amplifying this message."
It's a message that has been heard by leaders and organizations across the country and in Chattanooga.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the message, in part, led him to use his influence as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to create the End Modern Slavery Initiative, which became law in December 2016. And last week, in advance of today's observation, Corker convened a hearing that included the testimony of actor Ashton Kutcher, co-founder of THORN, a non-governmental organization leveraging technology to fight trafficking, and Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of Human Rights First.
ACTIVISM AND VISION
"It was the heart of so many Americans, especially young people, those around the country, who were [convinced] that something had to happen, that something had to change," Corker said. "It was really their passion. It was really their concern for the people bound up in slavery that got our attention."
Though it was the voices of online activists like those from the END IT movement that brought the senator's attention to the fight against slavery, it was his exposure to dire poverty, both overseas and in Chattanooga, that prepared him for the uphill battle.
"[On a trip to Asia], we purposely stopped in the Philippines to see the work of International Justice Mission [a leading anti-slavery non-governmental organization] on the ground," Corker said, "And there I met about 20 young people who had been trapped in sexual servitude, who thought they were going to Manila and instead ended up in a brothel in Malaysia.
"I have difficulty even relaying the story in public because of the emotion it brings out to talk about these people."
Corker also recalled another story closer to home.
"I had an experience 30 years ago in Chattanooga where I saw two young boys who had gone to the same high school as me, and I saw their living conditions," he said.
The boys were living in a shotgun house with a rotting hole in the ground for a bathroom.
"Two young people were having this life experience that could not have been more different than mine, and they were living in conditions that no one would wish their pet or even an animal would live in. Seeing people in their circumstances, there is no question that is what drives you and keeps you going, to go through all you have to go through in Washington, or wherever, to try to move through obstacles to get through legislation."
Corker hopes the End Modern Slavery Initiative will combine public and private partnerships.
"We can choose the best of the private sector," Corker said, "to combine with the best of the public sector, to use the best practices learned from fighting slavery around the world."
In 1998, the then-24-year-old Womoruntu lost her job in international banking in Indonesia because of political strife within the country. Desperate for work, she responded to a recruitment ad for hotel work in Chicago.
Womoruntu is educated and speaks four languages.
Arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, she was greeted by her "recruiter" with a sign bearing her name.
Along with four other women, she was immediately taken into captivity. The next day, her traffickers took her to a lingerie store to buy a new wardrobe.
"One of them," Womoruntu recalled, "had a police badge."
Womoruntu's life became a haze of whiskey and beer. The knife, the gun, the baseball bat, the cocaine, crystal meth and marijuana were staples of her life and tools of the traffickers.
"They threw me down on the dirty mattress; the stench of it has made me vomit more than once," Womoruntu wrote in an online journal. "Sometimes they turn me around and have their way with me; at least like this, I don't have to see the evil in their eyes."
Womoruntu doubted if she would survive long enough to service enough men to pay off her "debt."
After a few desperate and failed attempts, she finally escaped her traffickers and began the long road to rehabilitation.
Still, Womoruntu suffers from the trauma she endured.
"I hurt myself," she admitted. "I take medicine for the trauma, but still I must cut myself with my nails. I hide it by cutting my back or sides instead of my arms. I wear a rubber band on my wrist so that if I am thinking about my experiences, I snap it. Sometimes I snap it so much my arm is blue."
Despite these challenges, Womoruntu, who now lives in the Northeast, started her own support group, MENTARI, and was selected in 2015 by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, testifying before Congress to see key legislation on trafficking enacted.
"I listened to the hearing at Congress last week [with Kutcher and others] and they talked so much about happiness," Womoruntu said. "This is not about happiness. This is about freedom. This is about a human's liberty, not about happiness, this is about liberty. Please tell them that. Please say that."
February 23rd, 2017
by Millicent Smith
Chattanooga Times Free Press
Local Regional News