Human trafficking today is like criminal domestic violence was 20 years ago. Nobody wants to talk about it, people don't believe it's happening, and they don't understand it.

There are groups working hard to change that. One of them is the Zonta Club of Charleston, which held its Breaking the Silence awards banquet Saturday night, honoring those who help make a difference in the lives of domestic-violence victims. The local chapter of Zonta International has a dual focus on increasing public awareness of domestic violence and human trafficking in the Charleston area. “For our local club, this is new to us,” club president Diana Bogart said of the human-trafficking focus. “We've spent this year educating ourselves.”

The A-21 Campaign, whose slogan is Abolishing Justice in the 21st century, focuses on ending slavery of all types. The Zonta Club was able to make a donation to A-21's efforts in 2012 thanks to funds raised from their previous awards ceremony.

27 million

Slavery is not a term we associate with the here and now. However, there are an estimated 27 million people in slavery worldwide, A-21 says on its website.

As S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said in his keynote speech Saturday, human trafficking is what happens when your daughter goes on vacation to Paris with her clueless friend, and Liam Neeson has to come to the rescue. But that's not reality.

“This is actually happening in our backyard,” said Lisa Surratt, East Coast director of A-21.

It was going on last year when a man was charged with running prostitution rings in Charleston and Maryland. It was going on in 2010 when a woman from Mexico was being held against her will, having applied for a housekeeping job but instead was to be forced into the sex trade, by another Mexican woman.

And those are just two cases that got reported.

Raising awareness

Among other projects, A-21 Carolinas contacted 200 hotels in the Charleston area in an education effort about human trafficking, because that's where prostitution often happens. Nearly all agreed to participate in the awareness project.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that when girls age 11-18 disappear, 1 in 3 will be forced into the commercial sex trade within 48 hours.

“We're certainly not saying that all these missing girls are victims of human trafficking, but if they're under 18, cooperative or not, they're considered victims of human trafficking,” Surratt said.

South Carolina got a D on the Protected Innocence Challenge 2012 Report Cards from Shared Hope International, which ranks states' effectiveness at criminalizing the sex trafficking of minors. So there's more than enough room for improvement there. “It's really sad when we just kind of want to think that level of evil's not happening in our backyard,” Surratt said. “The truth is somebody's making a lot of money doing it.”

Zonta and A-21 are shining a light on two terrible problems.

And where there is light, there is hope.