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How IJM helped the Dominican Republic reduce child sex trafficking by 78%

Francesca’s* father was fiercely protective of her, and for good reason. His family lived in a dangerous region of the Dominican Republic (DR) where it was not uncommon for women and girls to be robbed, violently assaulted or trafficked. He often warned Francesca not to go out alone or talk to strangers because he feared someone would eventually take advantage of her trusting, friendly disposition. But it was part of her nature to see the best in people.

“My dad would say, ‘Sweetheart, if anyone comes knocking on the door don’t open it like you do sometimes, there are robbers that will break in and hurt you,’” she recalls.

She was only 16 years old when her father’s biggest fear became a reality.

Francesca had become friends with a girl named Maria*, who convinced her to sneak away for a trip to the beach. But they never made it to the beach. Instead, Francesca was tricked, and Maria delivered her into the hands of a trafficker.

Her father wouldn’t see her again for months.

2021 Survivor Story Dominican Republic Francesca 2021 Survivor Story Dominican Republic Francesca Limited Use14

A powerful reason for hope in the face of a global epidemic of slavery

For decades, Francesca’s vulnerability wasn’t the exception for young girls and women in the Dominican Republic, it was the rule. According to a report by the U.S. government, the Dominican Republic was recognized as a global hotspot for child sex trafficking in 2013.

Francesca’s experience is part of a much bigger problem – a global epidemic of violence that affects millions of the world’s most vulnerable people. Some studies show it’s only getting worse.

A report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) revealed that in 2016 roughly 40 million people across the world lived in various forms of modern slavery like forced labor, sex slavery and child marriages. An updated report from 2022 says the number is now estimated to be almost 50 million. In just under six years, the problem has grown by 23%.

And yet a closer look at the global problem of violence shows that there is good reason to believe we can solve it. While numbers have climbed globally, as of 2023 IJM has effectively reduced the prevalence of slavery and violence by 50-86% in the nine different jurisdictions where program work has been completed.

These numbers aren’t the result of sleight of hand tricks or creative accounting. They are real, verified by external audits and represent millions of people who have either been rescued or protected from some of the worst forms of violence you can imagine. These people are daughters, sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers, cousins, best friends and significant others. And now they are also free.

In 2013, the Dominican Republic invited IJM to help tackle child sex trafficking using the same proven method responsible for reductions in violence in other territories: justice system strengthening.

The turning point in the crisis of child sex trafficking

By the time IJM began to address the prevalence of child sexual exploitation in the Dominican Republic, authorities in the country had already been hard at work for a decade. Local officials were first moved to act in 2003 after the ILO released a staggering report. Out of the 25,000 to 35,000 female sex workers in the DR, an estimated 60% of them had entered the industry as children.

In child sex trafficking hotspots around the world, children are typically sold out of bars and brothels – openly, but with a slight pretense of discretion. In the Dominican Republic, there was no need to be subtle; children were sold in the streets.

This revelation triggered authorities to enact the country’s first anti-trafficking law. The new law not only criminalized commercial sexual exploitation but included provisions for prosecution, protection and prevention. But despite the introduction of this new law, the government simply didn’t have the resources and systems in place to effectively enforce it. More than a decade passed before a successful conviction related to child sexual exploitation occurred. For the everyday lives of vulnerable children, the law had no effect.

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As a result, child sex trafficking remained rampant throughout the country. Sex tourism flourished as people from Canada, the U.S., Germany, Australia and all over the world traveled to the Dominican Republic to exploit children. At that time, if you sold a child for sex in the DR, you would be more likely to win the lottery jackpot than to receive a conviction. Since neither traffickers nor customers feared any consequence for their actions, children were easily bought and sold.

But everything was about to change.

A cutting-edge IJM study reveals a shocking insight

At the invitation of government leaders doing everything they could to help protect children in their country, IJM began assessments in the DR in 2013 by launching a study to better understand the extent of the problem. It was the first of its kind to provide a statistically significant, real-time measurement of minors in the country’s commercial sex industry. While the ILO study in 2003 helped unearth the broader issue of sex trafficking, IJM’s study focused more on the vulnerability of children. What we found shocked even some of our most experienced caseworkers.

Data collected from 20 towns in the country's south, east and north proved sex trafficking of children was a significant problem: nearly 1 in 4 commercial sex workers found on street corners, parks and beaches were minors.

"Dominicans know that trafficking is a huge problem—but no one has yet taken on this holistic approach to rescuing and restoring victims. Our work will bring real change, and I believe we can end this horrible crime."
– Jessica Ortiz, Director of Casework for IJM Dominican Republic

In child sex trafficking hotspots around the world, children are typically sold out of bars and brothels – openly, but with a slight pretense of discretion. In the Dominican Republic, there was no need to be subtle; children were sold in the streets.

A surprisingly simple, effective method of making communities safer

IJM has partnered with local governments for over 25 years to help reduce the prevalence of violence in vulnerable communities. After thousands of successful rescue operations, the nature of the problem became clear. And as a result, so did the solution.

When perpetrators of violence faced no consequences for their crimes, people in poverty became targets for exploitation. And while rescues helped relieve people from present situations of abuse, it couldn’t prevent them from being exploited in the first place, and it couldn’t shield others from being exploited tomorrow. The only way to build protection is through the strengthening of local justice systems.

IJM’s work in Uganda, the Philippines and Cambodia – and most recently the Dominican Republic – have become proving grounds for this astonishingly simple, effective method of making communities safer: As we rescue victims to address the symptoms of violence, justice system strengthening helps enable protection to tackle the root cause. Justice systems become stronger when law enforcement officers are properly educated and equipped to enforce laws, legal professionals are trained to better represent the rights of victims, and social workers have the appropriate resources to help survivors heal.

And when justice systems become stronger, perpetrators of violent crime are no longer able to act with impunity. Our 25 years of experience have shown conclusively that the existence of a functioning justice system is enough to reduce violent crime by up to 86%.

IJM's Impact on Sex Trafficking in the Philippines


79% ▼

in the availability of children for commercial sexual exploitation


86% ▼

in the prevalence of child sex trafficking


75% ▼

in the prevalence of child sex trafficking

The inauguration of the IJM Dominican Republic office took place in February 2015. A few months later, IJM helped the Dominican Police rescue Francesca from a bar where she had been trafficked, beaten and forced to sleep with multiple men every evening.

She was one of ten minors rescued.

Repairing the holes of a leaking justice system pipeline

Through individual cases like Francesca's, IJM experts and local authorities can uncover why legal systems fail to hold criminals accountable. The teams push cases through the justice system like water through a broken pipeline and take note of where points of weakness prevent the system from delivering justice. From there, a customized plan is built, not only to address the justice system's limitations, but to equip local teams to fix potential issues in the future.

One of the barriers to achieving justice in the DR appeared right at the beginning of the process: victims rarely went to the police in the first place. People who were victimized either faced social pressure to remain silent or had no confidence that coming forward would lead to a meaningful outcome.

To address this, IJM engaged community leaders to help normalize and encourage the reporting of child sex trafficking crimes. IJM led trainings with local press on how to cover sex trafficking issues in the media and taught pastors how to recognize signs of trafficking so they could better protect vulnerable people in their communities. The establishment of a Global Survivor Network chapter “Cicatrices de Oro” (Scars of Gold) also gave survivors a platform to share their experiences.

Another obstacle was that local police were under-equipped to handle child sex trafficking casework. In the rare instances a case was reported, police lacked the tools and training needed to gather evidence strong enough to secure a conviction. And when strong evidence was gathered, cases might be dropped because paperwork was misplaced in a paper filing system that struggled to be maintained.

In response, IJM focused on ways to equip the public justice system staff, like developing a training on trauma-informed care and an online trafficking training aimed at judges and prosecutors. IJM also helped the Dominican National Police co-design the anti-human trafficking department's first electronic investigation system.

The impact of justice can be measured. The feeling of safety is immeasurable.

After almost 10 years of collaboration with the Dominican Republic, IJM’s work supporting in the local justice system has yielded significant results. In 2022, IJM conducted several studies to measure the impact and answer a number of crucial questions: Did the prevalence of crime decrease? Did reporting increase? Are criminals being held accountable?

Performance of Dominican Justice System and Law Enforcement

2018-2021 compared to 2010-2013

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More cases registered by the Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público)

7x ▲

More cases with arrests

5x ▲

More cases with an indictment

The studies found that 130 cases of sex trafficking have been reported to the National Police since 2014, compared to zero from 2010-2013. This sudden influx of reports demonstrated renewed trust by locals that local authorities were willing, capable and equipped to enforce the law.

Local authorities met that trust with action. As reports began to pour in, law enforcement officers used new technology to manage cases. And, with the help of over 3,500 IJM-trained partners, a chain reaction of justice swept the country.

Since 2012, more than 300 children have been rescued from trafficking and exploitation, 90 suspected criminals have been arrested and 55 convictions attained. IJM also led the national anti-trafficking coalition's advocacy efforts, which successfully brought about a national ban on child marriages.

During the decade of IJM's presence, the Dominican Republic experienced a staggering 78% decrease in the overall prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

As we celebrate all that has happened – rescues, arrests, convictions and new legislation – the real impact of this transformation in the Dominican Republic is measured by what no longer happens.

According to IJM's 2022 endline study, during the decade of IJM's presence the Dominican Republic experienced a staggering 78% decrease in the overall prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation of children. The number of children in the commercial sex trade decreased from 1 in 10 to 1 in 45. And where children were once trafficked in 95% of the cities and towns investigated, today only 25% of those locations show any signs of child trafficking – and even these cases are very infrequent.

What the stunning numbers cannot depict is a fundamental shift in culture: traffickers are now afraid of consequences. During the study, undercover investigators tested to see if they could purchase a minor for sex. One trafficker replied, "That’s not allowed. The police will arrest you." Another trafficker responded, "It can't be done there."

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“I can’t stop saying that a major part of our results is due to IJM’s commitment. Dedication, gratefulness, strength, commitment - that was our experience with IJM. Thank you.”

– Colonel Francia Hernández, Commander of the Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Department of the National Police of the Dominican Republic

A new era of safety has just begun

If Francesca had been trafficked before 2012, the ILO statistics suggest she may never have been rescued.

But the Dominican Republic looks a little different today.

In 2019, Francesca's perpetrator was sentenced to three years in prison. After spending years healing from her trauma with the support of IJM and local social workers, today she is fully restored.

Despite what she endured, Francesca never lost her optimistic spirit. Instead, she has become an outspoken survivor leader who helped found Cicatrices de Oro. She has bravely shared her story in front of key government officials in the DR, including the First Lady, the Chancellor of the Republic and the President of the Constitutional Court.

“My dream is to live in peace, tranquility and with no fear. You know? I will not let anyone defeat me,” – Francesca

Francesca is safe and free today because of IJM’s collaborative work with the local government. But thousands more children across the country are now safer from the violence of trafficking because their leaders are better equipped to protect them.

IJM is confident that the Dominican government and our partners are equipped to sustain protection

The goal of IJM is not expansion, but rather to protect vulnerable people from violence by equipping local governments to better safeguard their own communities. So when IJM closes a field office, it means we are leaving behind a stronger, better equipped justice system capable of protecting those who need it most.

Because we have witnessed extraordinary change and are confident in our partners in the Dominican Republic, IJM concluded program work in the DR on March 31, 2023.

“The country is ready, their employees are ready, the structures are ready to act, so simply what we need for the Dominican authorities to remain with the political will to rescue the victims, to arrest the criminals and to continue to strengthen the Dominican public justice system”
José Monteiro – Previous IJM Country Director, Dominican Republic

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