A pioneering new law institute is working to put an end to sex trafficking, and the group has its home -- and is launching its work -- in the Philadelphia area.
The Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation held its official kickoff Wednesday night at Villanova University School of Law. The grant-funded institute began its work around sex trafficking after a soft launch last year, said Shea Rhodes, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who is the director of the new institute.
The institute is focusing on four areas around the issue of sex trafficking, Rhodes said: training law-enforcement and attorneys on how to recognize and handle sex trafficking cases, providing policy education and model legislation around the issue, gathering and disseminating data and offering assistance to help educate the public on sex trafficking, which Rhodes said is a little-known problem that happens right in Pennsylvania.
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"I think when people think of human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, they think it's happening in other countries," Rhodes said. "The reality is it's happening right here in Pennsylvania. It's happening all across the state. The Internet is making it incredibly easy for pimps to sell children and young adult women ... and the reason why it's such a lucrative industry is because there's a market to purchase sex. It's what people are doing, and the Internet basically is the new street corner. It's happening everywhere."
Rhodes said the institute is the first of its kind, and although its early work will be focused locally, she and her partners hope to expand horizons nationally and internationally in the future.
As part of the launch, Malika Saada Saar, a leading human-rights lawyer from Delaware County who specializes in sex trafficking, delivered a keynote address about how the justice system currently treats people forced into prostitution as criminals, rather than victims, and why she and others are committed to changing that.
Sister Terry Shields was presented the institute's inaugural "Justice Done Award" for her work around trafficking. Shields helped to establish Dawn's Place in Philadelphia, a special home for women who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
"There are so many people out there who are being violated in a sexual fashion, and we as a community here in the U.S. should not be allowing this atrocious human-rights violation to continue," Rhodes said. "Children, young people, boys and girls, young adults should not be sold as a commodity for sex. It's absolutely a human-rights violation, and we need to stop it."