How Effective are Awareness Campaigns in the Fight against Human Trafficking?


Have you noticed how we often celebrate what we value by declaring a formal holiday or commemorative day?

We pause in reflection of the sacrifices of fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day / Veteran’s Day. We celebrate female accomplishments on International Women’s Day and remember to be grateful on Thanksgiving. We buy our mom flowers on Mother’s Day, chocolate for our significant other on Valentine’s Day, and cheesy Hallmark cards for our parents on their anniversary.

Some people find these days to be trite—hence, the anti-Valentine’s Day movement and the “Buy Nothing Day” to counter Black Friday. And I get that. Even birthdays can feel a little silly to me: that we buy the obligatory birthday present to mark the anniversary of someone’s birth, instead of seeing every day as a celebration of life.

This weekend is the Superbowl. Not only is it an occasion for gatherings and entertainment, but it’s now being used by anti-trafficking organizations as “International Create-Awareness-of-the-Link-Between-Major-Sporting-Events-and-Human-Trafficking Day”. Similar to the Olympics being accused of exploiting workers to build infrastructure or the FIFA World Cup being considered prime breeding grounds for sex tourists, the Superbowl is considered the source for an influx of prostitutes, increase of “adult entertainment” listings on, and disappearance of missing children during that weekend.

Truthfully, the facts are hazy. Even the 2014 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report states “there is a lack of hard data on the prevalence of human trafficking—including sex trafficking—associated with these events.” A link exists—we just don’t know to what degree the Superbowl influences human trafficking.

What we DO know is that human trafficking happens 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Campaigning around the time of the Superbowl is one strategy, but it can’t end there. Awareness raising can be a good launching point to engage people, but they’re not the final answer. They’re only as effective as the action it catalyzes.

In my circle of humanitarian friends and co-workers, we sometimes commiserate about how compassion is comfortable and action is hard. We convince ourselves that people would be more engaged with justice issues if “doing” was as easy as “feeling”. But sometimes I wonder if we’re wrong.

Compassion can be hard—and maybe that’s why we detach ourselves in the first place. I wonder if we limit ourselves to single-day awareness campaigns because it’s as much as we can handle. People who are learning about human trafficking for the first time are heartbroken and often can’t spare too much energy on it. Even veteran service providers are susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout.

How do we approach these kinds of tough issues more sustainably, instead of expending all our energy at once?

When it comes to keeping our bodies healthy, it’s all about consistency. It doesn’t do our body much good to diet strictly and work out hard for five consecutive hours one day, and then ignore nutrition and exercise for the next six months. Staying healthy is an ongoing effort that’s propelled forward by the small but significant choices we make every day.

Seeking justice is similar. It’s a lifestyle, not an event.

Fighting human trafficking doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as we make it out to be. It doesn’t necessarily require a PhD. It doesn’t have to mean giving up our jobs to devote our lives to busting down brothel doors or carrying out sting operations to incarcerate traffickers.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to believing we’re not powerless—that no matter how much the media sensationalizes the facts, human trafficking is something we created and therefore, it’s something we can change.

It starts with believing you have a role to play as you are now. Maybe that means switching your purchasing habits to support ethical companies rather than businesses that rely on slave labour. Maybe it’s entering into a sustained learning process to be able to educate and train others. Maybe it’s becoming a foster parent, adopting, or sponsoring a child who is otherwise at risk of exploitation and trafficking.

And maybe it means joining awareness campaigns, too—as long as it’s not an excuse to tune out the other 364 days of the year.