Native Hawaiians demand justice for sex-trafficking victims amid searches for missing women


(NEW YORK) — When someone goes missing in Hawaii, local activist Ihilani Lasconia says that many in the island’s Native communities first suspect one thing: sex trafficking.

“Everybody knows that it’s happening, everybody knows that it’s a problem,” said Lasconia, an advocate for the feminist group AF3IRM. “It’s been so normalized — with over 100 years of colonization — so people feel defeated and don’t have the vocabulary to articulate these experiences.”

A new task force created by the state House aims to gather data on the number of missing Native Hawaiian women, and the impact of sex trafficking on Native populations on the islands.

Women and children in Hawaii are facing a widespread epidemic of violence and sex trafficking, according to House documents.

The task force is being led by the Hawaii State Commission on the State of Women and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — and is backed by state agencies, local authorities and other activist groups.

Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the State of Women, said that “if there’s no data, there’s no problem.”

That’s why she and her team are researching the concrete numbers of how many women and girls may be missing or being sex trafficked in the state.

Why the data matters

The few figures that exist, like research from the commission and Arizona State University, suggest that Native Hawaiian women are disproportionately represented among sex trafficking victims in the state.

Sixty-four percent of the sex trafficking victims identified in the commission’s 2020 study identified as having Native Hawaiian ancestry.

The report reads: “The overutilization of Native Hawaiians to meet sex buyer demand may be directly linked to structural economic coercion and vulnerabilities connected to land dispossession, exposure to sexual violence, hypersexualization, incarceration, cultural dislocation, intergenerational trauma, mental and emotional distress, racism, poverty, and going inequities.”

Nearly a quarter of the sex trafficking victims were sex trafficked by a family member, the research shows.

But there’s still a lot that researchers don’t know, Jabola-Carolus said.

Native Hawaiians have been left out of federal and state research into the issue of missing and murdered Native and Indigenous women — according to Jabola-Carolus, because recent federal efforts have been focused on researching crimes on tribal lands in the U.S., and Native Hawaiians don’t have the same land designation as other Indigenous communities.

Indigenous women and girls are victims of violence at far greater rates than any other population in the United States, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.

Much of the research on these missing and murdered women have not included or researched Native Hawaiians, or the data does not offer the racial and ethnic nuances of these victims.

How did this happen?

The local activists who spoke with ABC News put the blame on tourism and lack of law enforcement resources for the widespread issue plaguing Native women across the islands.

“We can’t talk about the sexual violence that Native Hawaiians experience without talking about the tourism industry, because a lot of buyers come from either the United States, or internationally and they feed this market,” said Lasconia

Jabola-Carolus and Lasconia say there’s a mistrust in law enforcement, which they allege have never put the resources into finding missing Native women and girls — several of whom have gone missing in recent months with no leads.

ABC News contacted the Honolulu Police Department which wouldn’t comment on the matter.

They also say they believe the tourism industry often easily escapes accountability due to authority or temporary time in the islands.

“There’s nothing bad about Hawaii, right? It’s meant to be marketed to you as a blissful, problem-free place where you can leave your worries behind,” said Jabola-Carolus. “But for us, there is such a high cost.”

Now, the efforts to find these women — and prevent more women from going missing — are on.

Finding the missing

The disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white social media personality, and the media attention that followed her case has prompted calls to search for missing women from different communities across the United States. Activists, like Lasconia, say that missing women of color have been left behind, receiving little attention.

“There was so much conversation around this one white woman going missing … there were so many young Native Hawaiian girls [who] went missing within that same week, and not a single Amber Alert went out,” Lasconia said.

But local activists and organizers in Hawaii have long been working to fix this issue themselves.

Since the state passed its first anti-sex trafficking law in 2016, local agencies have been working to examine how widespread the issue of sex trafficking is.

Jabola-Carolus said that the Hawaii State Commission on the State of Women has been working to build trust with communities that have been heavily impacted by sexual “exploitation, neglect and criminalization.”

In 2019, SB1039 was signed into law.The Hawaiian law lets people vacate a prostitution conviction and expunge their criminal record as long as they haven’t been convicted of another offense within three years of the original offense. Before, the person would have to prove that they were a victim of sex trafficking to have the conviction erased.

In May 2020, the Department of the Attorney General established a human trafficking coordinator position for the state in an attempt to improve Hawaii’s anti-trafficking response.

The department plans on collaborating with law enforcement to increase the number of prosecutions, developing training programs for law enforcement and expanding outreach against these kinds of crimes.

Hawaii also passed a law in June to enhance the state’s ability to investigate and prosecute traffickers, “while improving outcomes for victims and survivors as they move through the justice system, which punishes sex buyers who exploit sex trafficking victims,” a press release from the office of Gov. David Y. Ige reads.

“These laws are the result of support and input from our partners in law enforcement, policy makers, community service providers, non-governmental organizations, and most importantly, those with lived experience,” said Deputy Attorney General and State Human Trafficking Coordinator Farshad M. Talebi in the statement.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.