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Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls

Human trafficking -- the equivalent of modern day slavery -- is an affront to human dignity, and goes against everything our country stands for. Protecting women’s rights is a top priority for the Department of Justice, and for the Obama Administration.

Human trafficking -- the equivalent of modern day slavery -- is an affront to human dignity, and goes against everything our country stands for.  And yet, it occurs in so many communities; workers are exploited for labor behind closed doors, hidden from the public eye.  This includes horrific incidents of sex trafficking, where women and girls are forced into prostitution, often after being lured from other countries with promises of legitimate employment and better lives.

This week, I had the opportunity to discuss the Justice Department’s efforts to combat human trafficking at the Hispanic National Bar Association’s annual convention in Dallas, where I was honored to receive the Latino Lawyer of the Year award, and I wanted to share with you information about this important work.

The Justice Department is committed to the aggressive prosecution of human trafficking cases.  In the last full fiscal year, we prosecuted more human trafficking cases than ever before.  Those 52 cases charged 99 defendants with crimes related to labor and sex trafficking.  Many of these cases target complex international cartels and involve many victims.

Last spring, for example, defendant Amador Cortes-Meza was sentenced to 40 years in prison on sex trafficking charges.  Cortes-Meza was the ring leader of an organization that brought 10 victims, including four juveniles, from Mexico to the United States and forced them into prostitution.  Once in the United States, many of the victims were beaten and threatened or their families in Mexico were threatened in order to force them to work as prostitutes against their will.

The Justice Department’s aggressive prosecution of cases like this one should send a signal to other would-be traffickers that their actions will not be tolerated in America.

Trafficking prosecutions are just one area where the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the rights of women and girls.

  • Since the beginning of the Obama Administration, the United States has filed seven cases under the Fair Housing Act alleging that a landlord or a landlord’s agent has engaged in a pattern or practice of sexually harassing female tenants.  We have found the similarities in these cases are striking; thevictims are typically low-income women with few housing options who are subjected to what the Department of Justice has found are repeated sexual advances and, in some cases, sexual assault by landlords, property managers, and maintenance workers.
  • Our pattern or practice investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) marked the first time ever that the Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that a police department had engaged in a pattern or practice of gender-biased policing. Among other things, the Division found that NOPD systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape, and other sex crimes.
  • We have stepped up enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, protecting the right to access and provide reproductive health services without interference.  Since 2009, the Civil Rights Division has filed eight civil FACE complaints, which have already resulted in three consent decrees.  Comparatively, in 2007, one civil FACE case was filed, and in the preceding eight years, the Department did not file a single civil FACE cases.
  • The Division has stepped up enforcement of employment discrimination. For example, last spring, we reached a consent decree with the Hertford County, North Carolina, Public Health Authority to resolve a claim that the Health Authority rescinded an offer of employment and refused to hire a woman for a Health Educator Specialist position after learning she was pregnant.
  • The Division has also looked for opportunities to weigh in on Title IX cases. In 2009, we filed an amicus brief in a case against the Florida High School Athletics Association, which had reduced the maximum number of competitions that a school could schedule while exempting 36,000 boys who played football and only 4,300 girls and 201 boys who participated in competitive cheerleading.  After the court accepted the Division’s brief, the association voted unanimously to rescind its policy. 

Protecting women’s rights is a top priority for the Justice Department, and for the entire Obama Administration.  The Civil Rights Division will continue its efforts to aggressively enforce civil rights laws to give meaning to the promise of equal opportunity.

Tom Perez is the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the US Department of Justice