The Intersectional Panel at a United Nations Human Rights Day Conference at the University of Louisville last week.| Photo by Elijah McKenzie

Correction appended.

While child marriages have steadily declined, Kentucky ranks third for the highest number of child brides in the country from 2000-2010, according to a recent estimate from The New York Times

And data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that girls and young women who marry between the ages of 16 to 24 encounter the highest rates of intimate partner violence, while girls 16 to 19 experience victimization at rates nearly three times the national average.

Jeanne Smoot | Courtesy Tahirih Justice Center

“This is a significant concern, not only because of the numbers but because of what they speak to,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center. “There are some very young ages of girls getting married and some very large age differences of the adults that they’re marrying.”

Smoot was the keynote speaker at a United Nations Human Rights Day Conference at the University of Louisville last week in recognition of Human Rights Day — celebrated internationally on December 10 each year.

The event was open to the public to help raise awareness about the intersectional exploitations of women, children, immigrants, and LGBT youth, and how such circumstances manifest in the form of domestic violence, sexual assault, forced marriage and human trafficking.

Social work professionals, first responders, educators and law enforcement were among the most represented attendees at the conference. However, according to Teena Halbig, president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA, KY Division and organizer of the event, it’s just as crucial to get everyday citizens involved, too.

Teena Halbig, president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA, KY Division | Photo by Elijah McKenzie

When it comes to reporting suspecting trafficking activity, Halbig explained that members of the community call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline 27 percent of the time — more than any other subset of hotline users.

“I was totally wide-eyed to see that 0.8 percent, not even 1 percent, of the calls came from schools…and they are in contact with children so much,” Halbig said. “To me, this was alarming but also a signal to continue to raise awareness, education and advocacy for human trafficking and the hotline and text numbers.”

During the conference, Halbig suggested that everyone in the audience should put the hotline number into their cellphone immediately, saying, “You never know when you can help someone.”

Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization that works with sex trafficking victims, provides annual report cards for each state that evaluates the effectiveness of their anti-trafficking and exploitation laws.

Kentucky’s 2015 report card showed the state earned 81.5 percent, or a “B” grade. This is partially because the state punishes convicted traffickers fairly harshly with 10 to 20 years imprisonment, as well as a $10,000 fee and mandatory criminal asset forfeiture, officials at the event said.

However, for trafficking survivors to obtain remedial compensation, they must file a claim within five years of the crime and it must be reported to law enforcement within 48 hours. This presents a barrier to recovery as most victims often face social stigmatization for having participated in sex work, even if for survival.

According to Smoot, the forced marriages of girls are driven by some the same factors that come into play in human trafficking: poverty, abuse, exploitation and financial motives.

“That’s one of those misconceptions people have is that somehow marriage is a stabilizing factor, or security for a girl who is underage,” Smoot explained. “It actually can have the opposite effect. It can compound her dependency long-term and increase any instability or insecurity she’s coming from in her home.”

She says much of the blame falls on lax state laws with wide-open loopholes that permit, and maybe even facilitate, the abuse and exploitation of girls in marriage.

In Kentucky, there is no statutory age minimum that defines how old a person must be in order to get married. So if a judge approves the marriage and there’s a pregnancy involved, a girl of any age can get married.

“A judge isn’t even involved unless the girl is under age 16 and pregnant in which case she’s very likely a statutory rape victim, so those are marriages that shouldn’t be approved at all.” Smoot said. “You have judges seeing what should be inherently red flags all over the place, and instead giving the green light to those marriages. The system is set up to give very little inquiry to these cases at all.”

Near the end of the conference, an Intersectional Panel made up of activists and trafficking survivors gave a presentation on how these overlapping issues have historically affected LGBT youth in Kentucky.

Megan Chernosky, a “mintern” (mentor/intern) with the Louisville Youth Program, explained that the prevalence of homelessness among LGBT youth revealed a deep disparity that frequently goes unnoticed.

“Approximately every 1 in 4 youth who disclose their sexual identity or orientation to their family will, at some point, leave the house, run away, or be thrown out of their house,” Chernosky said, adding that even though roughly 7 percent of the U.S. population identifies as LGBT, 40 percent of the homeless youth population are members of the LGBT community.

Furthermore, there are no state laws that prohibit individuals from being fired due their sexual orientation or identity. The same goes for housing: if you live outside Louisville, Lexington, or any other city that has adopted a Fairness Ordinance or any other anti-discrimination policy, tenants can be evicted by their landlords even if there’s an assumption that they may be gay.

“So automatically, it’s harder to get a job, it’s harder to retain housing in Kentucky,” Chernosky said. “LGBT homeless youth have to find some way to survive and the majority of them turn to illegal activity, including survival sex, which is having sex with someone or engaging in a relationship in order to get food, sleep, and the other essentials.”

This data is significant because of a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children showed that in 2016, 86 percent of the cases they worked on involved endangered runaways and that one in six of these children were expected to become victims of sexual trafficking.

To cap off the conference, Halbig gave advice on how ordinary citizens can help support victims of trafficking or abuse in their own neighborhood.

“It is best to not directly engage with victims or traffickers,” Halbig said. “Help is best given by being aware of specifics: was there a vehicle license plate? Where did this occur? What did you see?”

While interacting with vulnerable individuals, examples of what could be considered red flags of trafficking activity include bruises or other signs of physical violence, submissive or fearful behavior, if the individual is allowed out in public alone, or appears to be in a relationship with a much older person.

Some of these signs could indicate labor trafficking, which is the exploitation of a person for services through force, fraud or coercion. Though often times these signals could mean a person is being used for both labor and sex.

Officials at the event said suspicious activity should immediately be reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline number at 1-888-3737-888 or via text at 233733 or “BeFree.”

“There are no repercussions should the info prove to be wrong,” Halbig said. “If someone is in danger, you can call 911, but the hotline number routes back to the city the person is calling from and has access to multiple contacts.”

This post has been updated to correct a quote from Jeanne Smoot, of Tahirih Justice Center, regarding when a judge becomes involved in child marriages.