GRU professor fights violence, human trafficking

AUGUSTA, GA – Estimates say that up to two million people across the globe are forced into human trafficking rings each year. The majority of these are young women.

In Belize, a small country of only 350,000 people on the Caribbean coast of Central America, the threat of human trafficking has grown over the past decade. The Belize Young Women’s Christian Association turned to a GRU professor for help.

Dr. Denise Lenares Solomon, Assistant Professor of Counselor Education in the College of Education, is originally from Belize, and has presented on and researched human trafficking and forced prostitution.

“Belize has become a destination for human trafficking. A common form of human trafficking in Belize is commercial sexual exploitation of children,” she said. “My focus is bringing awareness and education to young people in school, and also to teachers and school counselors. They can be the person who can prevent that from happening.”

The country was slapped with a scathing report from the U.S. State Department in June. But the problem was already well-known. The World YWCA funded a project for the Belize YWCA to address gender-based violence, which includes human trafficking. Lenares Solomon was invited to create a training toolkit for educators and community organizations that would assist them in identifying children engaged in sex trafficking or being groomed by traffickers.

Traffickers who groom victims gain the child’s parents’ trust by befriending them, then by befriending the child. They may also act as a teenager’s boyfriend, showering the unsuspecting teen with gifts and affection before luring her into a position to be exploited.

“That’s the image I give them. The guy who woos them. I want to bring it local. They know what sex trafficking is, but they see dramatizations on TV and associate it with that. They don’t think about it as being people they know, people they care about,” Lenares Solomon said.

Already her work has made a difference. As Lenares Solomon was explaining this to a group of teens, one teen realized that she was being trafficked. Child labor is common in Belize, and the girl had been hired to work at a bar. Eventually, she was promoted to manager. Shortly after, she was pressured into stripping for private parties.

“She said, ‘I thought it was just a job that I was doing,’” Lenares Solomon said. “But the owner of that bar had groomed her for two years.”

Several of the workshops were held in rural areas of the country, and the organizers were pleasantly surprised to find a high level of interest from local parents.

While in the country working with the YWCA, Lenares Solomon also facilitated two workshops at the first ever Belize School Counsellor’s [sic] Association Conference. She helped train school counselors to develop a guidance counseling program in their schools, and to create a crisis plan for their schools. She also addressed human trafficking in her crisis workshops.

“Not only advocating so that they can recognize when it is occurring, but also to inform them about what resources are available,” Lenares Solomon said.

One teacher at the workshop shared an experience she had after she overheard a conversation between two schoolgirls through an open window. The girls were talking about their new boyfriends who had bought them gifts and were going to take them across the border into Mexico for a party.

“The scenario rang alarm bells for her. She was able to notify the authorities, and she saved those girls from disappearing,” Lenares Solomon said. “If more people had this kind of training, more children could be saved.”

Some of the warning signs for children being groomed for prostitution include:

  • More frequent absences, unexplained absences
  • Suddenly in possession of material goods not within family’s income limitations
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • A new group of friends
  • Withdrawal from or loss of interest in age-appropriate activities
  • Sudden change in dress, hygiene or grooming
  • Sudden change in personality

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