On September 5, 1995, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton used these words in her remarks at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing: “On the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break our silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights. … It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution.”

Five years later, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the release of the Department of State’s first Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a report mandated by Congress when it passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000. The US began to work closely with other governments, organizations, and concerned people throughout the world to put an end to this horrific violation of human rights. In 2000, the US told Israel and all other countries receiving US aid that they would be monitored on their efforts to eradicate human trafficking. Israel’s performance then was rated at the lowest level, Tier 3.

Israeli organizations involved in anti-trafficking activities took up the challenge and worked on legislation, police cooperation, rehabilitation services, medical and legal services, and on providing shelters for the thousands of women and men who had been trafficked into prostitution during that year.

One organization, Atzum, created the Taskforce on Human Trafficking in Israel, one of the first to see and identify the problem. With a campaign to raise awareness around sex trafficking and the proposed legislation on the issue, the organization created a campaign called Women to Go. Real women, with price tags attached were placed in storefronts in a shopping mall and Atzum volunteers encouraged shoppers to participate in the campaign against sex trafficking.

Women to Go project (photo: Atzum)

Women to Go project (photo courtesy of Atzum)

In late 2006, in an attempt to treat sex trafficking survivors as victims rather than criminals, the Israeli government issued a directive whereby all survivors of sex trafficking are transferred directly to a state shelter and not placed in detention. In general, the directive is being upheld. And in October of that same year, the government passed comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation. In 2008, Israel ratified the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children .

Now, thanks to a national anti-trafficking agency in place along with police cooperation and massive educational programs on the part of the human rights and women’s organizations, most of the trafficking from outside of Israel has been stopped. But without more effective legislation against the traffickers and procurers of the sex trade, those in Israel who are vulnerable, poor, and naïve — women, children and men — will fall into the hands of traffickers. It is estimated that more than 15,000 women and children — some as young as 11 years old — work in the sex trade. We do not know how many of them have been trafficked but we do know that none of them would have chosen to work in that field if they had other options.

Through efforts like these, Israel has improved its record and by 2012 had risen to Tier 1 in 2012, where it now remains. A new attempt is underway to introduce stronger legislation in the Knesset that will criminalize trafficking — prosecuting the procurers while recognizing the sex workers as victims. The vast majority of women who enter the sex trade do so out of desperation or because they are forced. Once enveloped in that world, they find it almost impossible to leave. Israel must now rise above Tier 1, above the minimal requirements for fighting sex trafficking within its borders. Israel must penalize with jail time the criminals who traffic in humans for sex.

The Knesset has finally put back onto its docket a conversation around the Prohibition of Consumption of Prostitution Services and Community Treatment Bill, first proposed in 2008 by MK Zehava Galon, now leader of the Meretz Party. It is finally being reintroduced and we must keep up public pressure to make sure that the Knesset passes the bill into law. We owe it to our daughters, our neighbors, anyone who may be trafficked into the sex trade.

Hillary Clinton also said in Beijing that the abuse of women continues because “the history of women has been a history of silence.” Clinton’s words have been regarded as a manifesto for women all over the world, as she intended. It is a manifesto that requires our renewed commitment here in Israel.

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