We have seen the posters in public places of frightened young women and men, despair in their eyes, imploring us to stop human trafficking by recognizing and reporting it. We do not, cannot, linger on the possibility that those haunted eyes belong to someone’s child, sister, brother or mother. We do not want to think that, in fact, we could be in their shoes. Maybe we have been. We may wonder how anything we might do could help bring an end to the suffering of people at the hands of those who would assault, exploit, torture and sell them.

Hear this: You can and do make a difference. Together, we are creating safe shelter, building stronger community responses and linking survivors to resources.

In one year of operating Maine’s first emergency shelter-safe house for victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, Safe Voices supported 48 women. All of this has been made possible by the support and partnership of key allies, including MaineHousing, the Attorney General’s Office under then-Attorney General Janet Mills’ leadership, the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence and the Department of Health and Human Services, and in partnership with Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.

Our safe house has been open for just a year, but domestic violence resource centers across Maine have been sheltering survivors of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation for decades. In the last year, 220 victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation connected with a domestic violence resource center in Maine. Sex trafficking, like domestic abuse and violence, is framed by power and control. Domestic violence resource centers partner with sexual assault centers to address and attend to the complex needs of survivors.

We have responded to the reality that victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are often homeless and in need of sleep, clothing and food when first arriving at shelter. We join with survivors who have been denied access to resources in assessing their next steps, including medical care, recovery supports and connecting with estranged family. We have listened deeply to the stories of women and girls, invisible and yearning to be heard, surviving on the margins of society. And we have seen others in our community reach out in kindness, offering acceptance and building bridges.

We know that in order to end the scourge of violence against women and all vulnerable people, our beliefs must change. Our laws must change. Our responses must shift to focus on those who inflict harm, to the traffickers who trade in women’s bodies and to the systemic issues of poverty and violence that perpetuate these crimes. We are called upon to seek a clearer understanding of the issues and realize solutions for long-term change. All of this will take time, because real change is slow. Because we first must accept that the problem is greater than the individuals who perpetrate violence, and it cannot be alleviated by those who are harmed.

A 2015 Hornby Zeller Associates study found that between 200 and 300 people in Maine are victims of sex trafficking annually. Untold more are sexually exploited. Victims live in fear and isolation, and perpetrators often go unnoticed. Thus, our approach is multifaceted: Provide safe spaces and supports for victims. Refuse to succumb to despair and inaction. Elevate the voices of survivors and believe in the capacity of people to heal. Enact public policy and implement change at all levels. Build stronger communities of care, and recognize the contribution of neighbors, business, civic and faith leaders in all our efforts.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Learn more at Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence: www.mcedv.org.

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