Human Rights Watch recently released a harrowing report about the imprisonment of Afghan women and girls for “moral crimes.” These moral crimes are primarily the crimes of “running away” and “zina” (sex outside of marriage). In many cases, the women who have run away are fleeing forced marriages or abusive homes, or the sex outside of marriage was the result of rape or sexual abuse. Regardless of the circumstances, these women and girls face prison time and retaliation from their families and communities for having committed these “moral crimes.” While the women are clearly victims of crime, the justice system treats them as perpetrators.
After reading HRW’s report, it would be far too easy to believe that such an upside down approach to treating victims of crime “doesn’t happen here.” But if we look at trafficked and exploited youth in America, we would see that 46 states of our 50 states persist in arresting and imprisoning youth in the sex trade. (Illinois, by contrast, has enacted the Illinois Safe Children Act, that protects youth in the sex trade from detention and prosecution.) Runaway and homeless youth across the country, who are often fleeing abusive homes or maltreatment, are often drawn into the sex trade to meet basic survival needs. Many of those have been turned out by their families for their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. These young people, despite the fact that they are often victims of crime, abuse, and systemic discrimination, are subject to criminal laws that punish them for engaging in prostitution, skipping school, violating curfews, and other crimes that, like Afghanistan’s running away and zina, are clearly our version of “moral crimes.”
Our treatment of runaway and homeless youth in the sex trade and the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan are clearly two points on the same spectrum of deficient, exclusively criminal justice oriented responses, which simply cannot address the root causes of complex social problems. Pieces of legislation like the Illinois Safe Children Act are important first steps in reframing our response, but we must continue to insist that victims of exploitation receive the support they need and deserve, before they become victims again of an ineffective system.