Features

The abolitionist

International | Salvation Army's Lisa Thompson takes on sex trafficking, mutilation, and bling in a growing worldwide campaign

Issue: "Demsnami," Nov. 4, 2006

Ask Lisa Thompson what really makes her angry, and she will say: "Snoop Dogg and Hugh Hefner and Bling Bling Barbie Dolls." When the gangster rapper appeared in an Orbit chewing gum TV commercial, Thompson vowed never to buy the brand. "They're all part of the example of how American culture is accepting the commodification of women and girls," she said.

If Thompson is sensitive about the cheapening of women, it's because she spends working days-and nights-tracking the worldwide spread of the problem. In Sri Lanka, a huge billboard advertises a shop reading simply "Bling." In rural Sierra Leone, Thompson spied a village elder wearing a 50 Cent shirt, what she calls "the almost transcendence and omnipresence of pimp subculture in the world."

And that's just the tame stuff. "People get so shocked that there could be sex trafficking and sex slaves but not bat an eyelash when Snoop Dogg and [former Chrysler chairman] Lee Iacocca do a commercial together," said Thompson, 36, who heads a Salvation Army campaign to abolish sex trafficking.

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Eight years ago Thompson hardly knew what sex trafficking was. But the plight of stolen, kidnapped, and abused women grabbed her attention while working for the National Association of Evangelicals; now, the former grant writer, Beijing English teacher, and private-eye office manager says the work is "what I was born to do."

Thompson wants to cauterize a modern slave trade that sells women and girls into forced prostitution. In the faith-based community, Thompson is the face many associate with turning trafficking into a burning social issue.

It's the kind of job where many either "burn out very quickly or go crazy," said retired Major Marilyn White, a longtime colleague of Thompson's. Thompson confesses that the job duties and the travel stretch her into a "human crepe." But the horrors only make her work harder.

The latest State Department report on trafficking estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. About 80 percent are women and girls and up to 50 percent are minors. The 2006 report, released last June, shows an alarming trend-spurred in part by economic globalization-of trafficking persons for purposes of slave labor, too.

After being immersed in those statistics for over six years now, little shocks Thompson. When something comes along to rattle her, as it did last summer when she first heard of a West African practice called "breast ironing," she is quick to mobilize advocates and speak out against it.

With breast ironing, mothers try to flatten their pubescent daughters' budding breasts so they will seem less attractive to boys and men. One common method is to heat a wooden pestle in the kitchen and roll and hammer a girl's breasts. The pain is agonizing, and a recent survey in Cameroon showed a quarter of girls enduring it there. Sometimes the tissue damage is so extensive, the breasts disappear altogether. Or it haunts a woman in other ways: One woman, the Reuters news service reported, had trouble producing breast milk as a new mother, and her baby almost died as a result.

"Tragically, in far too many parts of the world women's bodies are viewed as bad and the 'source' of immorality," Thompson said. "It never ceases to amaze me how women's bodies are tortured with a view toward either preventing immorality, or on the other hand, stoking desire [or] attraction."

Thompson's passion can spill over into social gatherings, friends say, where she freely discusses sex trade details in mixed company. "When you ask Lisa how work's going, it's not just a matter of how some people say, 'Oh, it's fine,' or 'It's stressful,'" said Megan Lee, a high-school teacher and long-time friend. "I've seen her become very emotional." Earlier this year, Thompson broke down in tears when she saw photographs of Bangladeshi women who were victims of sulfuric or hydrochloric acid attacks. The women, who have horrendously disfigured faces, are often attacked by angry husbands or boyfriends, or become the object of anger in dowry disputes.

Thompson's dedication also has caught the attention of groups on the left. The American Prospect blamed her and other activists for a shift in U.S. policy, where groups lobbying for legalized prostitution no longer could receive federal funding. The magazine said the "most prominent figures include right-wing policy-makers, a Jewish 'moral entrepreneur,' [human rights advocate Michael Horowitz] and evangelical leaders, whom critics call overzealous and moralistic. Together, the 'abolitionists' have formed a potent political force." So potent, the article quoted one official, that for Thompson and others, "Horowitz is the Charlie to their Angels."

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