Abolishing human trafficking requires individual, public actions

June 1, 2014

Human trafficking survivor Ima Matul to speak at CHA's June assembly


Nigerian schoolgirls wear somber expressions in a video released by Boko Haram, the anti-Western education terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the girls' April 15 mass abduction. Early in the hostage crisis, the leader of the terrorist group threatened to sell the girls as slaves. In last month's video, the abductors offer to swap the girls for imprisoned Boko Haram fighters.

When Ima Matul learned, with the rest of the world, of the April 15 kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the extremist group Boko Haram — and when she heard of the terrorists' threat to sell the young women — she was filled with concern for the victims. A survivor of human trafficking herself, Matul — now a wife, mother and advocate for trafficking victims — said she hopes the international attention that the mass kidnapping is drawing "will raise awareness of human trafficking, that it will make a difference. I hope people will care about the victims and do something about it."

During a keynote speech and a follow-on breakout discussion session at the Catholic Health Assembly Matul will describe her experience as a human trafficking victim and will explain how individuals can make a difference in efforts to rescue victims and end human trafficking. According to information from Los Angeles' Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, about 12.3 million people are enslaved worldwide. Between 15,000 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States
annually. Matul is an organizer for CAST.

False pretense
In 1997, when Matul was 17 and living on Java Island in Indonesia, a woman she met over the phone through Matul's then employer told Matul that she could get the teen a job making $150 a month in the United States — much more than Matul could make on the island. The woman said she could provide Matul a plane ticket, passport and U.S. entry visa.

"I said ‘yes' — it was a great opportunity. Everyone would want to work in the United States," said Matul.

Matul traveled to Los Angeles. She spent a week at one house learning how to be a nanny and housekeeper in the U.S. — infant care is different in Indonesia, as are house cleaning products and techniques. Matul then moved in with another family — a Chinese husband, Indonesian wife and their nine-month-old son. Matul slept in the living room and kept her few belongings in the family's garage.

She was expected to care for the infant, cook, clean and take care of the lawn.

Problems arose gradually, Matul said. The wife refused to pay Matul, saying that Matul would get her salary as a lump sum — minus deductions for broken items and what the wife deemed poor quality work — when Matul's stay with the family was over. The wife insulted and threatened Matul; and, Matul said the abuse escalated into beatings. One hit with a ceramic salt shaker sent Matul to the hospital for stitches. The husband took Matul to the emergency room after the wife had instructed her to lie if asked by clinicians how she was injured.

The wife did not allow Matul to leave the house alone, with very rare exceptions. Matul said she believed it when the woman said Matul could be jailed if she tried to flee. "I was scared to leave," Matul said.

"I was allowed to walk the dog — so I could have run — but since I was a foreigner, I knew nothing about this country. I didn't know anyone. I had no money and nowhere to go," she said.

"The abuse got worse and worse, until I couldn't take it anymore," said Matul. She barely spoke English, but Matul wrote a simple note asking for help in escaping her employers. Several months passed. Around September 2000, Matul screwed up her courage and passed the note to a neighbor.

An escape plan
"The following week the neighbor saw me watering the garden, and came over and talked to me. The neighbor said (she knew people who) could help me."

In the days that followed, an anxious Matul and the neighbor clandestinely plotted her escape. "I wasn't sure I was ready, but the neighbor said, ‘If you want to get out, you have to leave today.'"

While her employer napped, Matul grabbed a small bag packed with her things and walked out of the house for good. "I was afraid (the wife) would wake up. I was afraid the dog would bark. I was crying, and afraid, and relieved — it was scary."

Matul walked to the end of the block, and, with no idea where the neighbor would take her, she got in the waiting car.

Speaking out
The rescuer took Matul to the Los Angeles offices of the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. That organization got Matul into emergency housing. Over the course of several years, CAST helped Matul secure transitional housing, take classes to learn to speak English, get cleaning jobs, receive medical and dental care and obtain legal services. "They provided everything — because I had nothing," said Matul.

Matul joined CAST's staff in September 2012. She works with CAST in Los Angeles and with other survivor organizations across the United States to convene men and women who have escaped bondage and who have rebuilt their lives as she has. She helps them tell their stories to raise public awareness; and she teaches them to advocate to local and national legislators for improvements in the laws against human trafficking. Her own trafficker and employers were never prosecuted. She reported them to law enforcement, but she said that there was not enough evidence to convict them. She said this is common in domestic slavery cases.

"I want to help others and prevent them from being exploited, and to mentor others to be advocates," she said.

Matul said she hopes her presentation at the assembly will help health care leaders to better understand the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of human trafficking. She noted that when she was at the hospital for stitches, medical personnel failed to recognize a warning sign of slavery — her employer escort did not allow her to be alone with, or speak to, medical personnel.

She said if people living near her during her servitude had paid attention, they would have been suspicious of the fact that she almost never left the house and that she sometimes had visible bruises. If people suspect someone is a victim, they can tell law enforcement or call a hotline to report this, she said.

"My life is good now," she said. "I am happy I can help others after all this because I was helped by amazing people, and I wanted to be like them."

CHA offers resources on human trafficking

Visit chausa.org/human-trafficking/overview to access CHA's resources on human trafficking. These include:

  • Tips for health care providers, on how to identify potential human trafficking victims
  • Guidance and materials to help ministry organizations educate their staff, physicians and the public on the issue
  • Articles and educational materials for providers to share with government leaders, when advocating for change
  • Links to and resources from government agencies, church organizations and others on the trafficking issue and potential solutions

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem

According to information from Los Angeles' Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking:

  • Australia, Japan and the United States are the top three destination points for human trafficking victims
  • In the United States, California, Nevada, New York and Texas are the top destination points
  • Among the trafficking victims who CAST helped last year, 40 percent were trafficked for sex; 11 percent, for domestic service; 21 percent, for the hotel and restaurant industry; 6 percent for agriculture; and 22 percent for other enterprises, including eldercare and construction.

CAST aids victims, works for change

The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking helps victims in multiple ways, including:

  • Engaging in advocacy efforts, to advance policy changes that provide stronger protections for people who are trafficked and enslaved. It incorporates client stories in these advocacy efforts, so people of influence can understand the perspective of people hurt by the crime.
  • Convening coalitions that engage nongovernmental organizations and law enforcement in addressing trafficking issues.
  • Providing shelter, legal services and social services to victims of trafficking.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.