When Alika Kinan was a teenager in her native Argentina, she thought was going to go on a great adventure. A woman offered to buy the 18-year-old a plane ticket to Ushuaia, a port city about 2,000 miles away from her hometown. Kinan imagined she’d work at a shop in the bustling tourism or industrial district.
Instead, she was trafficked — stripped of her travel documents and taken to a brothel, where she was expected to have sex with 15 to 30 men a day.
It was nearly 20 years before she was rescued. She went on to become the first Argentine woman to sue her traffickers and the state, winning a total settlement of about $50,000.
Her years of activism against trafficking led her to the U.S. State Department this week, where Kinan, now 41, was one of eight international activists honored for their work at the unveiling of the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.
“It is our hope that the 21st century will be the last century of human trafficking,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a room of diplomats and policymakers.
When Kinan arrived at Ushuaia, she was taken to a brothel called “Sheik.” Women in bathrobes explained how the job worked. Posters with rules on the wall reminded women to lay around in their beds until four in the afternoon so they would be alert all night. No one could make friends outside the brothel. The pimp and his clientele belittled and abused them.
In an interview with NPR, Kinan spoke of how vulnerable she felt: naked, trapped between four walls with a stranger. “You use alcohol, you use drugs, or anything that will help you disassociate from the situation you are in,” she says.
In 2012, agents from PROTEX, the government’s anti-trafficking prosecutors office in Buenos Aires, rescued her. The organization reportedly got word of her brothel – which is illegal in Argentina — after another woman said she was forced into prostitution there. At first, Kinan wasn’t happy about it. In fact, she was angry — and she sympathized with her pimp.
That’s not an unusual reaction. “People shouldn’t expect a trafficking victim to behave in a certain way,” says Susan Coppedge, who leads the State Department’s efforts against human trafficking. “Every person reacts differently to a situation.”
As the years passed by and with therapy, Kinan began to understand what she’d been through. She realized that her rights had been violated. “Her trafficker had not been prosecuted. So she took matters into her own hands,” says Coppedge.
In June 2014, Kinan started a volunteer-based organization for trafficked women, the Gender Institute of Sapa Kippa. The group helps women access services to rebuild their lives, like medical treatment, housing and job training. She also works at a university as a researcher on sex trafficking, while occasionally helping the Argentine government prosecute traffickers.
In 2016, Kinan took her pimp, his wife, the brothel’s madam and the local government to court. A week before one of the trials, she received a fake video purporting to show her own daughter working as a prostitute — only it was another girl.
With the help of PROTEX and her attorney, Kinan’s pimp was handed a 7-year prison sentence and a fine of $4,500 last November. The pimp’s wife and the madam received 3-year prison sentences, and the municipality of Ushuaia was ordered to pay Kinan $45,000. She is the first and only known trafficking survivor in the country to have filed a successful lawsuit.
After the verdict, Kinan vowed to turn her attention to traffickers across the country. “Because of my experience, I have the will and the power to go after them,” she says. And she has inspired other women in the country to consider suing their own traffickers.
According to the State Department report, Argentina continues to struggle with human trafficking. Not only are citizens recruited, but victims from other countries are sent there. Argentina is also a transit point in trafficking routes to other countries.
In 2008, President Cristina Kirchner passed a law to prevent and criminalize human trafficking in Argentina.
But the law is not enough, suggests Coppedge. “Now we need to include law enforcement awareness and training to identify trafficking cases. And we need to train prosecutors to bring those cases, and judges to understand what that new law is,” says Coppedge. It’s critical, she says, to inform law enforcement officials around the world that trafficking victims are not themselves criminals.
Kinan, a mom of six, is starting to share her story with her children. Her eldest daughter, who is 16 and also named Alika, is already fighting for women’s rights in Argentina.
“[My children] think I am some kind of superwoman because I do so many things,” Kinan says. “And on top of everything, I bake pizza for them.”
Veronica Barzelatto and Suzanne Kleis interpreted for Alika Kinan.
Sasha Ingber is a multimedia journalist who covers science, culture and foreign affairs for such publications as National Geographic and Smithsonian. Contact her @SashaIngber