Earlier in the summer I shared a list of books that were on my summer reading list and “Girls Like Us,” by Rachel Lloyd, was on the top of the stack. While not exactly light summer reading, it it was one of the most compelling books I have ever read.
The book is based on Rachel’s own experiences as a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. Her own story is mixed together with the stories of many other girls that she has come to know as the founder of an organization called GEMS, Girls Education and Mentoring Service, based in New York. Rachel will be an upcoming speaker at our Women Moving Millions Summit and I cannot wait to hear from her personally. She is a nationally recognized and acclaimed speaker and one of the foremost experts on the issue of child sex trafficking in the United States.
I have a twelve year old daughter and a fifteen year old son. While I was reaching this book I kept looking at Allie with the same eyes that just read about an 11 year old girl, a 13 year old girl, that was being bought and sold for sex over and over and over again. With the same eyes that I pour lovingly over my husband I read about the man who nearly beat Rachel to death while telling her how much he loved her and could not live without her. Tears would come pouring down my face, as they are now, reading about these girls who really had no options and then were treated like criminals. The world by and large had given up on these girls, but not Rachel.
I have always asked myself “how does this happen?” How do these girls end up in this situation? Rachel explains it like this. “These girls were already bruised and vulnerable from the adults in their lives when they met the adult men who would seize on their vulnerability like sharks smelling blood in the water. The same tactics would be used over and over again – kindness, violence, mindless, a bit more violence.” A study by UN Women estimated that 150 million GIRLS (under 18) suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 along. As women,as mothers, as fathers, as brothers, as human beings the ending of violence against women, against our children, has got to end.
Rachel played a key role in the successful passage of New York State’s groundbreaking Safe Harbor Act for Sexually Exploited Youth, the first law in the country to end the prosecution of child victims of sex trafficking. The Showtime documentary Very Young Girls was based on her advocacy work and was also the bases of her memoir Girls Like Us. For a full list of her amazing accomplishments, awards and speaking engagements visit her bio on the GEMS website.
She founded GEMS in 1998, the only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. She did so with virtually no resources but a heck of a lot of passion as she saw the need and said, I must meet it. At our summit we have asked her to talk about leadership, about seeing a huge need, a gap, rising to meet it and yet struggling to get the resources needed to make it happen.
I am often confused by the language used when referring to girls ( under 18 ) that are in the sex business so I thought including the definitions here would be useful. According to Rachel..
“Identifying any child or youth, girls, boys, or transgendered youth under the age of eighteen in the commercial sex industry as commercially sexually exploited is critical in ensuring that all children and youth who are bought for commercial sex acts are recognized as exploited, even if their experiences don’t fall under the definition of trafficking. A sixteen-year-old who trades sex for shelter, or a seventeen-year-old girl who works in a strip club, is commercially sexually exploited; those under the control of a third-party exploiter, i.e., a pimp, are victims of domestic trafficking” (p.217-218).
Commercial sexual exploitation is defined by the International Labor Organization as, “the exploitation by an adult with respect to a child or an adolescent – female or male – under 18 years old; accompanied by a payment in money or in kind to the child or adolescent (male or female) or to one or more third parties.” If the child or adolescent is not under the direct control of a third party or ‘pimp’, they are still being sexually exploited but not necessarily a victim of domestic trafficking although they are trading sex against their own will. Rachel goes on to say, “In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act defined sex trafficking as ‘the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act where such an act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained eighteen years of age.’ Under federal law, there was no need to prove force, fraud, or coercion if the victim was under the age of eighteen” (p. 217).
In my next blog entry I am going to highlight the work of two women in the Women Moving MIllions community whose passion and resources are working to make a difference in the lives of our counties sexually exploited children – Ambassador Swanee Hunt and Kayrita Anderson.
Though this book will likely upset you as much as it upset me it it ultimately a book about hope. It is a book about never giving up and knowing that every life has a purpose. Thank you Rachel for being an incredibly brave women and for sharing your story with us. Henry Goddard said “the destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” Rachel I believe in your story and it has served as a further call to action in the work I do every day to bring more funding to women led organizations serving women and girls. Thank you.