COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina lawmakers are looking to do more to protect victims and survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence.
This week, the Senate passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) that would increase penalties for traffickers and change the state's law to be gender-neutral.
There were more than 416 human trafficking victims last year, according to a report from the South Carolina Human Trafficking Task Force.
“This is overtaking the drug market and we all know how big and prevalent the drug market is," said Lisa Kejr with the anti-human trafficking organization Lighthouse for Life. “Even victims themselves are understanding what the world of human trafficking is, so they don't always identify as victims."
A separate proposal passed earlier this month would increase penalties for traffickers and change the state's law to be gender-neutral.
“This is a human being and when we use labels like a prostitute it takes our mind in a direction that misguides us and misrepresents," said Kejr.
The domestic violence crisis line received 18,000 phone calls in 2021, according to a report from the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. The report also found that 42.3% of women and 29.2% of men in the state experience physical violence from a partner.
A third bill awaiting debate adds dating partners to qualifying relationships for orders of protection and makes the law gender-neutral.
Sarah Ford with the State Victims Assistance Network (SCVAN) said this legislation could save lives.
“Particularly in the work that I do at SCVAN, many victims don't qualify for the order of protection because they did not live together," said Ford.
"This will really open up that protection for them."
Similar proposals stalled in the House last year. Advocates like Kejr and Ford hope this year is different.
"We need to put politics behind us and move forward to protect crime victims because they're, their lives at stake," said Ford.
Three bills in the House would update dating violence education, help keep survivors' information confidential and create a criminal charge for spreading sexually explicit material.