NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon launched a campaign on Friday to urge U.S. lawmakers to protect, instead of prosecute, children who become victims of sex trafficking.
She wants Americans to sign a petition lobbying lawmakers to stop the prosecution of child sex trafficking victims as prostitutes. According to the "Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People" campaign only New York, Connecticut and Washington state have laws to protect child trafficking victims.
"It can be changed," Sarandon said. "It's really important that the public be educated."
The petition is part of a broader campaign by the U.S. branch of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), The Body Shop and the Somaly Mam Foundation, run by former Cambodian child sex slave Mam, to end child trafficking.
"We have a lot of minds to change, we have a lot of work to do here in the United States to make sure these kids are offered assistance and protection -- not a jail cell when some pimp recruits them at 12-years-old," said Carol Smolenski, ECPAT-USA executive director.
The U.N. children's agency UNICEF says that about 1.2 million children a year are trafficked for cheap labor and sexual exploitation. ECPAT-USA says 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being forced into the sex trade and U.S. citizens account for 25 percent of child sex tourists globally.
"Not that many people know that this is not just an issue that affects children in other countries. There are hundreds of thousands of American children who are sexually exploited and trafficked right here in the United States," Smolenski said.
The Body Shop has raised more than $1.5 million in the past year through sales of a special hand cream and tote bags for ECPAT-USA and the Somaly Mam Foundation, which run shelters in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
"It's easy to go to the brothel and save the girl. Five minutes you can save them, no problem. but make your five minutes 10 years to (help them) recover," said Mam, who last year rescued a four-year-old girl from a brothel in Cambodia.
Sarandon became involved in the Somaly Mam Foundation after meeting Mam at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy in 2006 when the pair participated in the opening ceremony. Sarandon then helped Mam set up her foundation in the United States.
"It's not just an emotional thing, she understands what these girls need and I know that the money is being well spent," Sarandon said. "It speaks to me so personally as a mother."
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Patricia Reaney