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Creating change

July 3, 2013

"I don't have day-to-day contact with the victims, but the most gratifying thing about the work I do is that it's affecting the lives of trafficking victims around the world," says Jennifer K. Hong (MPP '11). Hong is reports and political affairs officer at the Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons and is responsible for diplomatic engagement around the issue of human trafficking in 19 Asian and Pacific Island countries.

From July to February of each year, Hong travels to these countries and works with government officials, as well as civil and international organizations, to further the U.S. agenda to eradicate modern-day slavery. Her work entails advocating for new laws, increase in prosecution and convictions of trafficking offenders, better protection for trafficking victims, and awareness campaigns among vulnerable populations.

Hers is a grueling schedule: a recent trip to four different islands involved 16 flights. One trip, from Timor-Leste to Solomon Islands, took 36 hours.

"But it's what I love," Hong says. "It's a privilege that I'm able to represent the United States in a human rights issue that I care deeply about. I don't take any day or any exchanges that I have—with the foreign embassies here or our embassy abroad or with government interlocutors—for granted."

From February to June, Hong's office writes and produces the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a comprehensive account of human trafficking and evaluation of governments' anti-trafficking efforts in 188 countries and territories (as of 2013).

Hong finds that often the word "trafficking" is misunderstood because it conjures notions of smuggling. To raise awareness, she sometimes opts to visit individual villages, "educating tribal elders or village leaders about what it means to be a trafficked victim," she says.

"What we try to do is talk about it in terms of 'forced labor' and 'forced prostitution.' We might say, for example, 'in your village a little girl was asked by her parents to work in another village to settle debts, but instead of being a domestic worker for a few hours a day, the child isn't allowed to go to school, the child is beaten, the child is not fed, and sometimes sexually abused.'" Hong continues, "We try to explain the issue in a way that they would understand it."

As preparation for her career, Hong credits the Ford School's Susan Waltz's ability to offer a "three-dimensional look into a policy issue. It's been so crucial for what I do," she says. "The issue isn't just 'trafficking and victims' or 'trafficking and the government isn't doing anything.' It's all about how they interplay together."

When the Trafficking in Persons Report was first published in 2000, many countries weren't thinking about the issue. Now, more than 140 countries have adopted laws and, Hong says, "they're thinking about trafficking and that is powerful."