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
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What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”