Malika Saada Saar has spent her entire life around strong women.
When she was 12, her mother went back to college. By the time Malika was 15, her mother had graduated with a degree in social work."We'd go to the library together and study," Malika said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "I witnessed her struggle to stay in school as a single mother and woman in her later years. It wasn't easy."
But her grandmother was the "rock of her existence," Malika said, and thanks to her the family was able to live a somewhat stable life considering the circumstances.
Her mother's determination and her grandmother's commitment to the lives of others inspired Malika from an early age. That inspiration has paid off -- not just for Malika, but for women across in the U.S. Since the Rebecca Project a decade ago, Malika has become a leading advocate for women's rights, fighting human trafficking and the inhumane treatment of incarcerated women and empowering girls to become strong women like her mother and grandmother.
After graduating from Brown University, Malika headed out west to Stanford to study education and got a job teaching at a high school in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco. But she quickly formed an aversion to the confinements of the public school system, which she felt unequipped to handle at the young age of 22.
"I was working at a school under court ordered desegregation," she said, recalling how overwhelmed she felt by the situation. "They were shipping students of color in from East Palo Alto to this wealthy neighborhood in Menlo-Atherton. So all the wealthy students were white and the students of color were poor. There was no middle class. There were 16 year old kids who couldn't read or write. What could I do with that?"
But during her time at the school, Malika developed a passion for women's rights. "I started working with pregnant girls at the school," she said. "There were no additional support services for them and they had nowhere else to go."
So after graduating from Stanford, Malika moved to San Francisco, and soon forged the Family Rights and Dignity program, an initiative that focused on homeless women and families in the Bay Area. It was difficult task, she says, considering that there was only one shelter for families in all of San Francisco at the time.
"I met a lot of mothers who were at risk of losing their children to child welfare because they had to live out of their cars," she said. "Other women were being kicked out of public housing and sleeping on the streets with their kids."
Malika headed back to the East Coast, to Georgetown, to obtain a law degree. When she graduated, she immediately jumped right back into advocacy work. With a generous grant from the Ford Foundation, Malika founded the Rebecca Project, which stands today as one of the most powerful and influential organizations serving vulnerable women and families in the United States.
Since its inception in 2001, the Project has successfully eliminated the practice of shackling incarcerated women during childbirth in American prisons, raised tens of millions of dollars for welfare reform practices and, in the past few years, dedicated countless hours toward ending the practice of domestic human trafficking.
Almost 300,000 girls in this country, Malika says, are at risk for commercial exploitation. The average age of these girls is 12-14. "The internet has opened up a whole new arena for this. You can do things on the internet you couldn't do if a child was just standing on a street corner. It's less risky and more profitable to sell a child for sex than it is to sell crack or meth, and its mostly anonymous."
Malika hopes to make this issue a political priority in the coming years despite the fact that it's still a taboo subject (as major celebrities like Ashton Kutcher have recently tried to address, to the disdain of some critics).
"We have to talk about the comfort with which we sexualize very young girls," Malika says. "You know, I have to work very hard to find an outfit for my own 7-year-old daughter. Thongs for tweens is a multi-million dollar industry."
Not to be outdone, Malika and her team have created an astounding laundry list of other programs and allies under the Rebecca Project umbrella, including "Sacred Authority," a national leadership network of parents in recovery from substance abuse and violence, and "Crossing the River," which facilitates creative workshops for incarcerated mothers and fathers.
Check out the comprehensive Rebecca Project website for more information.
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