Philanthropy Needs to Lean in on Anti-Trafficking

Sunday, July 30, was World Day against Trafficking in Persons, a day to seek justice and freedom for the estimated 21 million victims of forced labor around the world.

NEO Philanthropy, in partnership with the Oak Foundation, funds 12 organizations in the U.S. that help survivors of human trafficking recover from this egregious abuse. We have learned what makes people vulnerable to human trafficking: poverty, marginalization, poor working conditions, lack of legal status, fear and mistrust of government.

These conditions exist worldwide, but also right here at in the U.S. People trafficking into commercial sex are less likely to seek help when they fear being arrested on charges of prostitution. When immigrants don’t have the legal right to work, their desperation for income makes them vulnerable to traffickers, who know they will be afraid to report exploitation. We fund organizations that offer real solutions to human trafficking – solutions rooted in building people’s power over their working conditions, power to tell their stories and support each other, and power to hold traffickers, and their governments, accountable.

United Nations High Level Meeting

That is why we are supporting advocacy leading up to the United Nations High Level Meeting on Human Trafficking at the end of September. We must also hold the UN accountable to its pledge to “protect and assist trafficked persons.” UN processes can feel disconnected to our grantees working on the ground, but the results of these processes influence how governments act all around the world. Unfortunately, the way human trafficking gets talked about, even at the UN, is often politicized around sex and crime, instead of focusing on the inequities and lack of rights that fuel it.  For example, we funded advocacy to ensure that UN language affirmed the right of access to reproductive health care, addressed exploited labor in global supply chains, respected the human rights of sex workers and did not promote harmful gender stereotypes of migrant women.

Human trafficking is a nuanced and complex issue, occurring at the crossroads of globalization, gender inequality, migration patterns and interpersonal violence. As David Callahan wrote in his recent article about Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (one of our grantees), while the idea of human trafficking packs an emotional punch, it can be hard to find donors and funders educated enough on this issue to make really impactful grants.

What the Philanthropy Community Can Do

It is an issue that often falls between the “silos” of grantmaking, and requires a spectrum of solutions, as well as constant innovation.  But that doesn’t mean philanthropy should shy away, instead we must lean in. In this era of embracing intersectionality, this is a prime opportunity for women’s rights funders, economic justice funders, immigrant rights funders, and others to work together. We need more dedicated funding flowing to the incredible activists, advocates and survivors who are creating a world where human trafficking does not exist.


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