In 2008’s Taken, we see Hollywood’s vision of human trafficking: smooth-talking foreigners seduce and kidnap young American women on a spring break trip to Europe. We also see Hollywood’s answer: Liam Neeson, iconic action-flick taglines, and a string of broken baddies.
Think again, says trafficking survivor and Compass31 cofounder Jenni Jessen.
While kidnapping does occur, most traffickers wear familiar faces. They come as relatives, as kindhearted benefactors, as well-known religious leaders. They woo parents with promises of a better life for their children, of work at big-city restaurants or education at prestigious schools. They tell impoverished villagers that their children will send money back home. They may even offer a first installment.
In other cases, parents themselves are the traffickers. Jessen refers to a common scenario in which victims are driven into red light districts after school, “often still in their school uniforms, and marketed to the highest bidders by their own mothers.”
A Global Epidemic
Myriad sources contribute to Southeast Asia’s trafficking epidemic. Changes in the immigration and economic policies of the EU-like ASEAN have made the trade in persons easier and more profitable. China’s longtime one-child policy has also had unexpected consequences. The absence of “tens of millions of girls” has resulted in “an estimated 33 million men of marriageable age…who cannot find brides,” Jenni explains. These men fuel demand for trafficked girls on the streets of surrounding nations.
But trafficking extends far beyond Southeast Asia. The International Labor Organization reports that 24.9 million people remain in forced labor worldwide. Of those, 4.5 million meet the criteria for “forced sexual exploitation.” The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime identifies sexual exploitation as “by far the most commonly identified form of human trafficking.” Even in the United States, the sex trade accounts for as much as $290 million in Atlanta alone.
Jessen admits the temptation to despair. “Even those of us working within the field of anti-human trafficking often feel as if we are trying to empty the ocean with a thimble.”
Call and Response
As a trafficking survivor, Jessen also knows the dangers of inaction. Her abuse began at age four, when her grandfather first sold her to another man in their Missouri community, and continued until age 17. For 13 years, victims and perpetrators sometimes sat in the same churches, the thin veneer maintained by lies and apathy. The experience left Jessen with the firm conviction that awareness equals responsibility. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” she quotes from Burke, “is for good men to do nothing.”
In 2011, this conviction spurred Jenni and her husband KJ to leave behind the foothills of Colorado Springs for the jungles of Southeast Asia. They founded Compass31, drawing the name from Jeremiah 31, and began providing foster care to teenage mothers and babies rescued from the trade. Often rejected or exploited by their own families, survivors found a home with the Jessens. “It is often difficult to communicate heart and intention when everyone speaks the same language and originates from within the same culture,” Jenni says drily. “Our family spans six people groups, cultures, and languages.”
Yet the Jessens soon realized that mothers’ needs extend far beyond refuge or childcare. Trafficked as girls, teenage survivors rarely know how to feed and care for their children. Many have never gotten citizenship, leaving them with no way to vote, drive, or access basic social services like medical care. In countries where employers insist on basic job skills and English proficiency, survivors have few options. Meanwhile, the family members that sold and depend on them for revenue often fight the hardest for their return to the trade.
Facing these obstacles, Jenni and KJ chose a two-front approach. On one, they would prevent trafficking by educating those who could stop it. On the other, they would care for, counsel, and empower former victims.
To prevent trafficking, the Jessens began going from village to village, relating to parents and community elders the brutal realities of child trafficking. In partnership with e3 Resources, they created PricelessCube as an object lesson that could communicate across cultural and linguistic barriers. A 3D puzzle with seven panels and symbolic images on each one, PricelessCube allows a speaker to convey the anti-trafficking message in an unforgettable way.
On the restoration front, Jenni and KJ pursued a more involved strategy. They expanded their shelter into a holistic recovery center, where survivors could live, where they could receive counseling and an education. Through a partnership with the International Justice Mission, Compass 31 began assisting survivors in the prosecution of their perpetrators and guiding them through the citizenship process. Survivors could then use their newfound status to learn how to vote and drive, how to apply for employment and access medical care. Jenni started educating teenage mothers on proper nutrition and parenting.
Compass 31 soon gathered a cadre of loyal supporters. In addition to donors, KJ’s employer, Xledger, helped to provide much-needed financial stability.
Over the past six years, Compass 31 and its supporters have seen significant returns. The Jessens and their team have trained and equipped over 2500 leaders from more than 40 nations with the PricelessCube. In 2017, their team provided the PricelessCube prevention program in more than 30 communities and 2 refugee camps, teaching 18,592 vulnerable peoples how to keep their families and communities strong and safe. To date, the PricelessCube materials have been translated into 16 languages, with 3 more translations currently in process. Jenni relates with pride that several trafficking survivors have learned how to present the PricelessCube and been empowered to share it in the very villages that once exploited them. Jenni and KJ have helped multiple girls achieve citizenship and gainful employment. Four survivors are currently attending university through donor scholarships.
Jenni and KJ seem to greet each success with redoubled effort. Of the 2500 national leaders they’ve reached, 1300 were in the last year alone. Jenni now teaches best practices in trauma sensitive care to others as well as practicing them herself. Last year Compass31 launched the ‘Topsy-Turvy’ initiative, a small business that helps survivors earn their way out of commercial sexual exploitation through sewing. With each unique, reversible ‘topsy-turvy’ doll they hand-stitch, survivors earn the equivalent of a full night in the red-light district. Visitors can see and purchase the richly colored dolls on Compass 31’s website.
“I will turn their mourning into joy,” God declares in Jeremiah 31, the Jessens’ inspiration for the Compass31 name. “I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” Jenni and KJ draw hope and purpose from this passage, from the confidence that in caring for survivors they are portraying “God’s redemptive love for girls both captive and free.” They define success not by mere numbers but by changed lives. In their view, each girl they rescue has the potential to transform the world around her.
“While not everyone can move to another country to live and work among exploited peoples,” Jenni says, “everyone can partner with those who are on the ground doing the work.” Each partnership will be “as unique as the skill sets of those who get involved.”
Asked how others can address human trafficking, Jenni suggested several options:
- Watch for and report any known or suspected instances of human trafficking. In the United States, those with a situation to report should call 1-888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233733. The Polaris Project operates networks of similar hotlines internationally.
- Donate and/or fundraise for organizations involved in the fight, whether at home or abroad. Those who wish to support Compass31’s ministry can do so at compass31.org.
- Raise awareness of domestic and international trafficking. Resources for education and fundraising include Exodus Cry’s documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, available to rent at nefariousdocumentary.com.
- Work as consumers and producers to ensure slavery-free supply chains and ethical marketplaces
KJ’s employer demonstrates how corporations can contribute. A vendor of cloud-based financial management software, Xledger sees its mission to empower ambitious organizations and its social obligation to address modern evils as inseparable. This belief spurs both individual and corporate action: to support Compass31 and nonprofits like it, to send employees for volunteer stints on the frontlines, to raise awareness among customers and partners alike.
“What is of primary importance is that we each do something, and together,” Jenni advances, “we can change everything.”