Giving back choice: why New York's sex trafficking law needs to change

It's time to listen to the real experts, says Lauren Hersh.

Three months ago, Ruth came into my life. Sixteen years and two weeks old, Ruth is spunky and smart. She loves Hello Kitty and iced coffee, listens to Alicia Keys and spent days planning her Sweet 16 outfit. Ruth wants to build schools in Africa. Her contagious smile lights up a room. But, for years, the smile I have come to love was hidden.

Ruth is a sexually exploited child. At 12, after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, she met an older man who promised to love and care for her. Instead, he brutally beat her, repeatedly raped her and sold her for sex more times than she could count.

There is a common misconception that girls like Ruth choose to enter prostitution. This could not be further from the truth. Sex traffickers like Ruth’s “ex-boyfriend” prey on the vulnerable for financial gain. They provide girls and women with the “love” they are yearning for and through coercion and manipulation force them to make them money through prostitution.

Over the past four years, I have met many girls like Ruth; girls who the masses call “throw away kids”, “whores” or worse; girls who have been viciously abused by pimps and then re-victimised by a criminal justice system which targets the prostituted and fails to hold accountable the real perpetrators – the traffickers and sex buyers who fuel the demand. In 2011, three times as many women and girls were arrested for prostitution in New York than pimps and buyers.

Later this month, in a comprehensive attempt to target the traffickers and sex buyers and provide necessary services for victims, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA) will be put in front of New York legislators. The TVPJA seeks to eliminate the need to prove a minor sex trafficking victim was coerced into prostitution, align statutory rape penalties with penalties for buying sex from a child and classify sex trafficking as a violent felony. This bill is urgently needed.

However, legislative justice is only part of the solution. Sexually exploited girls, like Ruth, also need to be given a voice in the advocacy process. On a chilly day in March, we began Project IMPACT, an eight week leadership-through-storytelling journey at JCCA Gateways, a residential facility for youth who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation or domestic trafficking. The project was designed to introduce survivors to the concept that sharing a personal story is a powerful advocacy technique that can shift societal perspective, change laws – and changes lives. The project also strives to help survivors understand that storytelling is a choice – the survivor gets to select if, when and how she wants to share her story.

On that first day, Ruth sat in our circle with other survivors, social workers from Gateways and activists from Equality Now and The Arts Effect NYC. Ruth’s arms were crossed. She remained quiet. Her blank stare was cold. In my previous life as a prosecutor, I became accustomed to this “stare of distrust.” But, like the victims I worked with then, time, patience and jokes at my expense began to melt Ruth’s icy look. 

With each session, Ruth gradually emerged as a group leader and a compassionate listener. Through poetry, she told her story of trauma and terror. But despite moments of paralysing pain, resilience shone through.

Ruth was not alone. As the weeks passed, it became apparent that each girl in the room had her own unique story of survival and her own way of sharing it – through words, songs and drawings. This month, Equality Now is showcasing these girls’ truths through our Survivor Stories series. The stories demonstrate what can happen when you give survivors the space and tools to allow their voices to be heard.

Energised by their progress and keen to have their voices heard, a group of these girls joined us in Albany to lobby for the passing of the TVPJA. Our first stop was at the office of a New York Assembly member. Ruth caught my eye as she sat quietly, too nervous to speak. At our next meeting, she continued to hold back and listened to the debate. However, when the Assembly member inquired why sex trafficking should be a violent instead of a non-violent felony, Ruth’s hand immediately shot up.

Her hands trembled. Her voice shook. She began: “You see, I am a commercially sexually exploited kid. I was run by a pimp. A pimp who beat me, who raped me…” With each word, her voice grew stronger. “I have scars on my body from where my pimp hit me when I didn’t bring home enough money or when I tried to protect my friend. My mouth was duct-taped when I was out of line. I was raped by buyers.”

With the confidence of a seasoned lawyer, Ruth concluded, “There is nothing non-violent about sex trafficking.”  The room stood still.

Ruth is a change maker. Today, along with countless others, she chooses to use her voice to educate the misinformed that sex buyers cause harm, that sex trafficking is inherently violent and that "prostitute" is a stigmatising word.

Whether she is 16 or 60, she who has lived it, understands it. It's time for New York to listen to the real experts.

Lend us your voice - Take Action and call on the New York State legislature to pass the TVPJA this June.

Lauren Hersh is the New York Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organisation. Further information is available here.

 

Lower Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images
LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times