By Claire Harlin
Since they pushed off from Solana Beach on Sept. 1 to embark on an ocean-to-ocean bike ride, Amanda Christmann Larson and Deb Hoenig have been better known as “Babes Blocking Traffic.”
Sure, the two may find themselves in front of a car or two as they travel 3,093 miles, ending up on Oct. 16 in St. Augustine, Fla., but that’s not what they meant when they gave themselves that name. Larson, of Arizona, and Hoenig, of Alabama, are talking about human trafficking — more specifically, the child sex slave trade in Lake Volta, Africa — and they are raising money to free the more than 40 kids they met there by building a school high in the mountains seven hours away.
“We knew we needed to do something to create awareness, and I love cycling, so the bike ride seemed natural,” said Larson.
After meeting and talking to each of the child slaves in Ghana on their two-month-long trip, the two women confronted the slave owner, who said it was actually a hassle to keep them all. He said he would gladly let them go if they had somewhere to go to. The duo has just begun fundraising and has raised about $2,000 toward the $10,000 goal to build the home, but the bike ride is also meant to raise awareness, too.
“Our message is that it does not matter what color skin someone has, where they go on Sundays or what flag flies over their country,” said Larson. “We all need to join together as human beings and decide that we will no longer tolerate children being sold and exploited for sex or labor.”
The name of the home to built is “Melor Vinyewo,” meaning “I love all children” in Ewe, the local language of Ghana. The home, on 7 acres of land donated by village chiefs, will house 16 kids to begin with, and they will receive medical care, educational and vocational opportunities, as well as art, music and other types of therapy. Larson and Hoenig are still looking for house parents to move to Ghana and care for the children.
“Like everything else that has fallen into place with this project, we are sure the right people will come along,” Larson said.
Hoenig, who has two daughters in college, quit her job as a nurse to make the cross-country road trip, which worried her, but her boss offered her another position upon her return. Larson is a freelance writer for a magazine in Phoenix and took a leave of absence. She also runs her non-profit, Compassionate Journeys, which is dedicated to the ending of child slavery in Ghana and creating awareness worldwide. She has three kids, and her youngest, 12, has been to Ghana twice and understands why his mom works so hard for the kids there, Larson said.
Hoenig and Larson have partnered with a U.S. non-profit, StreetLightUSA, which focuses on trafficking in the U.S. The partnership is an effort to spread awareness that child slavery doesn’t just happen abroad.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates that there are at least 100,000 children and teens trafficked in the U.S., but Larson said that number is likely even higher.
“In the U.S., trafficking is the most common in the sex industry,” Larson said. “It’s a lucrative business. Unlike trafficking in drugs or weapons, a prostitute can be sold over and over again. Most victims are girls, and they can come from anywhere.”
Larson said the common thread is that the women are vulnerable for some reason, maybe the divorce of their parents or maybe they’ve run away from home and feel they need to help “pay the bills,” Larson said. “The notion that prostitution is a victimless crime is simply not true.”
She added that the average age of being inducted into prostitution is 13 years old, and it can be through family members, friends, boyfriends — you name it. They are often kept in it through physical violence, and fear leaving their pimps for both physical and emotional reasons. This is often due to the grooming process in which pimps tell the girls they are beautiful and buy them nice things. They become dependent and, according to StreetLightUSA, it often takes an average of three months to realize they have been victimized due to the manipulation.
Larson and Hoenig have gotten great feedback so far, even though they say there are a lot of people who think they are crazy — “and we don’t deny that,” Larson said.
“We know it’s kind of out there for a couple of 40-year-old moms to be riding bikes across the country,” said Larson. “But we believe in what we are doing and are dedicated to giving kids a voice.”
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