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In Pursuit of Justice

The Oscar-winning actress wants to end one of the world's greatest evils and she needs your help.

By Mira Sorvino, Los Angeles, California

As appeared in

When you look into the eyes of someone who’s had all their basic human rights stolen, their dignity stripped away, treated like an object, not a human being, how can you turn your back? How can you not speak out, and act?

I was raised in a family where standing up for people who are mistreated or oppressed was expected. My mom marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., before I was born, and always worked to relieve suffering. My father also considered Dr. King his hero, along with the great Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

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At 10, I was profoundly influenced by the Diary of Anne Frank, and the horrendous stain on humanity’s conscience that was the Holocaust. In Beijing, as I worked on my college degree, I was struck by the racial violence between Chinese and African students, and wrote my thesis searching for causes of this conflict.

I wanted to understand what gave rise to one human being’s ability to see another as somehow less human. Eventually I became an actor, like my father, Paul Sorvino, but I always sought to fight for just causes.

In 2004 I was given my chance. Just as I learned I was carrying our first baby girl, Amnesty International asked me to be their Stop Violence Against Women campaign spokesperson. Didn’t I have the responsibility to make the world a better place for my daughter and girls everywhere?

One of the topics we focused on was human trafficking: slavery—something I assumed had disappeared in the nineteenth century.

I was shocked to discover a huge, booming, illegal international trade in men, women and children. Impoverished people seeking a better life are tricked into slave labor; others are kidnapped or sold by their own families; children are forced into sexual slavery.

The statistics appall. Human trafficking grosses 32 billion dollars a year. The only criminal activity in the world that’s bigger is drug trafficking.

Then I was offered a role in the miniseries Human Trafficking. That’s when my investigation of this scourge began in earnest. I grilled members of law enforcement; I interviewed trafficking survivors and aid workers.

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In 2009 I was sworn in by the United Nations as Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking, as I awaited the birth of my third child (pregnancy and activism seem to agree with each other!).

My knowledge and efforts to be a better victim’s advocate grew exponentially. But one event really cemented my commitment to this fight.

I flew down to Mexico City with the UN’s antitrafficking effort. We were then taken to an after-care center that helps girls rescued from sexual slavery. We drove through big gates past a green lawn.

We saw a group of mostly adolescent girls standing on steps in front of the main house, smiling shyly. Some little ones swirled around their knees. I thought, Can’t be. They must be daughters or sisters of the older ones.

We went upstairs to a large, bright room. Girls congregated on sofas, eager to be met but nervous to speak. A little girl, around three and a half feet tall, approached me, holding out papers. Her mouth was open in a smile; her front baby teeth were out, and the new ones had not grown in yet.

She handed me her addition and subtraction problems on lined paper. A staffer whispered, “We rescued her four months ago. Her father killed her mother in front of her when she was three, then relatives sold her to a brothel for tourists, where she worked from age four to seven.”

When the child was asked what things she had been made to do, she did not even know how to describe them. All she could say was, “Incorrectos.”

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My heart was breaking. Here stood a seven-year-old with shining eyes, proud of her arithmetic. I saw flashes of my own daughter. I asked her what she liked to do; she told me dancing. She showed me steps her teacher had taught her; I shared iPhone pictures of my daughter’s ballet class. But inside I was dying.

I soon learned that this kind of slavery and abuse is pandemic, children subjected to it from Latin America to Southeast Asia to our own United States: 100,000 to 300,000 American children are bought and sold every year. Our own children.

Trade of Innocents movie posterIn the new movie Trade of Innocents, Mira Sorvino plays a volunteer in a shelter for girls rescued from slavery. For more info, visit the movie's website.