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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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.