Held by ECPAT-USA, the Freedom Awards bring together a highly selective group of 200 luminaries in the corporate, philanthropic, government, and media communities in support of ECPAT-USA’s vital work to ensure no child is bought or sold. The highlight of the evening is the recognition of the world’s most remarkable individuals for their contributions in ending child trafficking.
Retiring Executive Director of ECPAT-USA
For over 25 years, Carol Smolenski has served as the executive director of ECPAT-USA. Under her leadership, the organization has grown from the ground up and has become the top policy organization in the United States seeking to end the commercial, sexual exploitation of children.
In the early 1990s, Smolenski was working in the field of child rights when she was invited to attend a presentation about the sexual exploitation of kids in Asia. Activists there had identified large numbers of children being bought and sold for sex in Asia - often by individuals from other countries. The presentation was targeted specifically at those countries from which the demand for the sex trade was originating, and it was there that Smolenski first saw how children were being marketed for exploitation. She left the presentation knowing that she had to do something.
A small team of people started developing the organization that would become ECPAT-USA. They raised money and hired their first staff member and little by little, started growing the organization. The first step for ECPAT-USA was overcoming the lack of awareness around the issue, including the lack of understanding that sex trafficking isn’t an issue that affects only kids in foreign countries. Initially, no one wanted to talk about child trafficking, especially those in the systems and industries that were unknowingly facilitating exploitation.
“We kept going despite how difficult it was in the 1990s,” Smolenski said. “No one was was talking about sex trafficking, but once you heard about it, you couldn’t just walk away. At least, I couldn’t just walk away.”
Eventually, public perception of the issue started to shift. Through the work of ECPAT-USA and other activists, legislators, law enforcement and the general public started to understand that kids who were arrested as participants in the sex trade should be seen as victims instead of perpetrators. In 2004, Carlson signed the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct, and the travel and tourism industry began to come on board as allies in the fight to end trafficking. Programs were developed to empower students to become advocates against exploitation in their communities.
“I do want people to understand that if you keep at it, it gets better,” Smolenski says. “Because I do have this long perspective and I have seen a tremendous amount of change, it gives me faith. It gives me confidence to tell people that if you keep working at it, things will improve.”
After working on the issue since 1991, Smolenski will retire later this year. After a lifetime working for child rights organizations, she expects that she will continue in some capacity, but she also hopes to travel and spend time with her friends and family.