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Editorial: A sharper focus on sex trafficking

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There is much more work to do to find solutions for the roots of the problem, but the overarching issue seems clear enough: Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented among the girls in the islands who go missing and are the targets of sex trafficking.

That wakeup call is a key finding of a report from the Missing and Murdered Native Hawaiian Task Force convened by the state Legislature last year.

One of the principal findings in the report, titled “Holoi a nalo Wahine ‘Oiwi,” is that more racially specific research data is needed to understand fully what conditions and problems are the cause of the peril faced by Hawaiian girls and women.

It makes sense to make this an important focus — funding agencies and organizations could then better tailor programs to address the specific issues that leave Native Hawaiians so vulnerable. And the resulting outreach to remedy the causes inevitably helps other racial groups caught up in similar circumstances.

But the 22-page document, released last week, already says enough to justify immediately amplifying work already being done by government and various organizations to address concerns for women and girls.

The report notes that more than one-fourth of the missing girls in Hawaii are of Native Hawaiian ancestry, whereas only one-fifth of the state’s people are part of its Indigenous host population.

Even more startling data points: 43% of sex trafficking cases involved Native Hawaiian girls trafficked in Waikiki, and that 38% of arrests for soliciting sex from 13-year-olds have been of active-duty military personnel.

Social service experts trained in this area say that, while they are not surprised by this, these observations validate what activists have observed for years.

The task force is patterned after similar panels established in several other states after a worrisome report by the Urban Indian Health Institute identified large numbers of missing and slain Indigenous women and girls.

In 2021, state House Concurrent Resolution 11 was adopted to establish the task force. It is administered through the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, with additional research funding support from nonprofit Native Hawaiian health board, Papa Ola Lokahi Inc.

The methodology was to survey literature on the issue and draw data from state and community agencies. It explained the systemic barriers faced by many Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, such as poverty, substance abuse and involvement in foster care and the criminal justice system. Some takeaways from the report:

>> More than one-third of adults experiencing physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner in this state are Indigenous, according to 2013 data.

>> Of the nearly 30% of high school students reporting emotional abuse by an intimate partner in a 12-month span in 2017, 38% are Hawaiian.

>> Of the sex trafficking cases tracked by Susannah Wesley Community Center between October 2021 and May 2022, 45% are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Agencies that serve Native Hawaiian interests, such as OHA, Kamehameha Schools and Hawaiian civic groups and nonprofits should seek ways to fund or otherwise assist social service groups already confronting the crisis.

But there’s a lack of precision on where problems lie, due to varying definitions agencies use and the absence of consistent information on ethnicity, according to the report. Lawmakers should support efforts to gather that granular detail.

To do less would be to deal another blow to Native Hawaiians. Lifting them up instead would elevate all of Hawaii.

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