International Justice Mission, a human rights organization based in Washington, D.C., has announced a $5 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a replicable model for combating sex trafficking and slavery.
To focus on communities where human trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation is a significant problem, IJM created Project Lantern — a reference to the illuminated lamps that guided slaves in 19th-century America to "safe houses" along the Underground Railroad. Through the initiative, the organization will research regions with high rates of sex trafficking, identify one in which to set up an office, and operate there for three years, conducting undercover investigations, training law enforcement, rescuing victims, ensuring appropriate aftercare, and seeking perpetrator accountability. At the end of the period, IJM expects to have created a model for other organizations and governments to use in combatting the illegal sex trade.
According to the United Nations, one million women and girls are trafficked every year, exposing them to unwanted sexual activity, poor living conditions, violence, and little or no access to health care, leaving them especially vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. Only rescue from illegal captivity can fully ensure that current victims are protected, but successful prosecution of the crimes' perpetrators frequently results in a reduction of the overall number of trafficking victims, which in turn reduces the number of new HIV/AIDS cases.
"Traditional HIV prevention efforts are focused on helping people avoid high-risk sexual encounters, but there are millions of women and girls who don't get to make choices about their sexual encounters and are left utterly unprotected from the disease," said IJM president and CEO Gary A. Haugen. "Project Lantern will provide hope and a model for success."