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Cindy McCain Talks About Her Work On Combating Sex Trafficking


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Brazil hosts the summer Olympics this year, and officials are preparing for a flood of visitors from around the globe. With all those people often comes a surge in demand for prostitution. It's a demand frequently met by children sold into sexual slavery. The problem of human trafficking is everywhere and not just at major sporting events.

CINDY MCCAIN: Unfortunately, most people in the United States still believe that it takes place only overseas, which couldn't be further from the truth.

MARTIN: That's Cindy McCain of the McCain Institute, which she and her husband, Sen. John McCain, founded. The organization focuses in part on anti-human trafficking. She says the problem is a global one.

MCCAIN: These are little girls, home grown, right here. Once you get outside the borders of the United States, it's in every country. I think some of the larger countries - like Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Middle East - are very notorious for this as well. They're notorious for selling their children. It begins in poverty. It begins in great distress. Nobody wants to sell their child, but what they wind up doing is selling their child to be able to support their family.

MARTIN: So walk me through a case study of how this would transpire in the United States. I mean, I think people will hear this and think, how could that be happening within our borders?

MCCAIN: Most generally, these are kids that are on the edge. They're either in foster care, or they're in troubled homes, or they're runaways. And somebody, for instance, in a mall, maybe a 20-something-year-old man, will come up and say, you know, you're really beautiful. Can I buy you a cup of coffee or a - you know, a Coke or something? And they begin this kind of relationship where the young lady believes that he really loves her. And indeed, he's just farming her for the sale of sex.

MARTIN: You have been working on humanitarian issues for a long time. But what happened to bring sex trafficking into your consciousness?

MCCAIN: I had an experience. I saw it. And this was in Calcutta, India, some years back. I saw it, but I didn't realize what it was.

MARTIN: What happened?

MCCAIN: Well, it was - I was in a kind of a little kiosk. I was buying some sari material for our youngest daughter who is from Bangladesh, as you know. And I could hear this kind of rumbling coming from below the floor. I asked the man who I was buying the sari from what it was. And he said, oh, it's just my family. You know, they live down there. It's just my family - very conceivable, you know, in a place like Calcutta, that a family would be living below this tiny shop. And as I began to, you know, pack up and kind of pay the guy and get out of there, I - there were kind of open slats. You could kind of see through the floorboards a little bit.


MCCAIN: And I looked down and I could see dozens and dozens of sets of little eyes. And I realized that there were - I assumed little girls, at the time. I did not know that trafficking was predominantly little girls at the time. But not only did I not know what to do, I was afraid to do anything. And I walked away. And so ever since then, we've been working on this issue and trying to combat it, and make sure that people understand what is and not make the same mistake I did.

MARTIN: What's the strategy for fighting this? You testified on Capitol Hill earlier this year. Is there actual legislation you're trying to push that would make a difference?

MCCAIN: Oh, absolutely. There are several pieces of legislation. They have passed and are pending within the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. It's kind of like the perfect storm right now. People are beginning to know there's a problem. They may not be completely sure, but the message has been pumped so hard into the public that I believe people are starting to pay attention to it.

MARTIN: I'd like to pivot to presidential politics, if I could, which is something you've had a lot of experience with.


MCCAIN: And I'm glad we're not doing it this time. I'm thrilled.

MARTIN: I mean, our audience will know Sen. McCain ran for president in 2000 and 2008 As someone who has endured the rigors of tough campaigns, how are you watching all this unfold, besides being relieved that you're not in the center of it all?

MCCAIN: (Laughter) Well, relief being the largest part of this for me, you know, I always watch it because, you know, it's a very small club. So my eyes - I say I don't necessarily watch the candidates. But I do watch the families because I know that the effect on the family is - it's life-changing, and not always for the good, either.

MARTIN: Yeah. You and your family had your own run-in with the GOP front-runner earlier in the race. Donald Trump said that your husband is not a war hero because he was captured. You have thick skin. I imagine you've been through tough personal politics and attacks before. Did that feel different you?

MCCAIN: Yes, it did. It did. You know, it's always toughest on those who really can't say anything, and that's myself and other spouses. So all too often we have to sit there and kind of just take it. Not only does Donald Trump not understand the sacrifice that my husband and all the other men that were captive during those years and what they had to endure, but it was shallow and stupid. So, you know, my husband takes it in stride. He's - that's why he's good at what he does. I, on the other hand, like to kick the door occasion.

MARTIN: Donald Trump carried your state in the primary last month. If he wins the nomination, will you support him?

MCCAIN: You know, I - who I support really doesn't matter in all this. What matters is that our country is strong and respected and safe. We really are, you know, a very good country. We make our mistakes, but we're also very, very strong. And so I don't know. You know, I hold grudges. But I do believe in the process. With all my heart, I believe in the process. And I believe in our country. So ask me later, OK?

MARTIN: I will.


MARTIN: Cindy McCain, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

MCCAIN: Thank You. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.