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House passes bill to combat sex trade of women & children

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. House of Representatives approved May 9 legislation targeting the worldwide problem of sexual trafficking in women and children, with provisions included for the punishment of those behind the trade of women and children in the United States.

The House adopted by voice vote the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, H.R. 3244. Similar bills have been introduced in the Senate, which has yet to act on either version.

While the legislation covers all forms of slavery, its prime focus is on the burgeoning trade in women and children for sexual uses.

The House-approved measure would provide for punishment, including a fine and/or a prison term of as much as life, for those who bring women and children into this country for the purpose of forced prostitution. It allows for temporary visas for up to 5,000 victims a year in the United States, with permanent visas permitted for those who cooperate fully in the prosecution of sex traders.

The bill establishes an office within the State Department to report on countries that fail to combat sex trafficking adequately. Sanctions on nonhumanitarian aid to offending countries could be enforced, although the president has the authority under the legislation to waive such sanctions.

About 50,000 women and children are brought into this country each year in the sex trade, according to experts on the issue. It is estimated there are as many as 2 million sex-trafficking victims a year worldwide, according to the State Department, with at least 1 million of those children. The sex trade has become a profitable enterprise for organized crime, witnesses have testified at congressional hearings.

Victims who have survived sexual slavery have described kidnappings, druggings, beatings, sexual assaults and forced abortions as common parts of their experiences.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, applauded the House’s action against the “horrendous practice of sexual slavery.”

“We urge the U.S. Senate to follow the House of Representatives’ lead at once in speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves and helping end the selling of women and children into sexual slavery around the world,” Land said.

Sens. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Paul Wellstone, D.-Minn., have introduced sex-trafficking legislation in the other chamber. Their bills are similar, with one significant exception. Brownback’s legislation, like the House-approved version, supports mandatory sanctions on nonhumanitarian aid to countries that fail to make a good-faith effort to combat sex trafficking. Under Brownback’s bill, the president has the authority to waive such sanctions. Wellstone’s bill leaves the matter of economic sanctions to the discretion of the president.

The White House has expressed opposition to the legislation, especially its advocacy of sanctions on noncompliant countries. The bill’s chief sponsor expressed hope the Clinton administration would eventually support it.

“I do believe it is a soft ‘no’ on the part of the president,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., at a May 10 news conference. “I think when we present the president with the bill, he will sign it.”

The legislation was needed because “our system of laws wasn’t ready to deal with” slavery, said Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D.-Ct., the lead Democratic sponsor.

The bill “is a sign that the United States has turned a corner on the issue of commercial, sexual exploitation of women and children,” said Laura Lederer, director of The Protection Project at Harvard University, which has provided the documentation on sexual slavery. “Together we can stop the traffickers for good.”

The legislation has received not only bipartisan support in Congress but strong backing from a wide diversity of organizations.

In addition to the ERLC, other groups supporting the bill include the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Organization for Women, Justice Fellowship, Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Family Research Council and Catholics for a Free Choice.