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Mercer forum targets human trafficking

A conference aimed at ending human trafficking begins tonight on the campus of Mercer University, where a freshman project launched last April has grown into an initiative supported by hundreds of students and faculty.

“STOP Sex Trafficking: A Call to End 21st Century Slavery” is taking place in Willingham Auditorium today and Friday.

Organizers say about 800 people have registered for the conference, which is free for Mercer students and faculty. The event is open to the public. Registration is $35.

Mercer students in STOP, the Sex Trafficking Opposition Project, began the initiative in 2008 as first-year students in Andrew Silver’s Freshman Seminar class.

They started a dialogue circle about the “growing worldwide crisis” of human sex trafficking, students said, traveling to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to attend an anti-trafficking conference.

When Silver’s class returned to Mercer, students from other classes and departments grew interested in the cause, said Hannah Vann, a junior women’s and gender studies major, who now chairs the STOP group.

“The biggest problem with this issue is that nobody knows,” Vann said. “Based on my research, it’s very easy to say that human trafficking goes on in every city in every state in every country in the world.”

The conference begins at 7 p.m. tonight with a reading by Patricia McCormick, author of “Sold,” a novel about a Nepalese child trafficked into sex slavery, according to a news release from Mercer. Trafficking victim Joana Santos also will speak about her experience.

Friday, presentations by state, national and international anti-trafficking activists, attorneys and government officials will be featured. Kika Cerpa, a trafficking victim, will speak early Friday. Lauran Bethell, founder of a Thailand trafficking refuge center and the recipient of the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Award, will speak Friday afternoon.

The conference will close with a screening of the anti-sex trafficking film, “Call+Response,” and a discussion by the filmmaker, rock musician Justin Dillon, according to the release.

Mary Alice Morgan, senior vice provost for service-learning at Mercer who is co-chairing the conference with Silver, said local law enforcement officials were invited, but she couldn’t confirm if any would be attending.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert is expected to be at the event, Morgan said.

Human trafficking and sex slavery became a local issue last summer following a series of Macon police raids at massage parlors and spas where employees where suspected of performing acts of prostitution.

Human rights advocates say the businesses often cover up human slavery and trafficking operations.

Authorities have not confirmed that such operations exist in the Macon area.

For more information and for a complete conference schedule, visit www.mercer.edu/stop.

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