I will never forget the moment I said the words out loud: "My nanny, Waldy, has been forcing me to have sex with her since I was 11. And I want it to stop."
For six years, I lived in fear. I was a shell of myself. A captive in my own home. A child without a childhood. A victim. A girl without a voice. A child suffering in silence.
And now that I have found that voice, I will never again be silenced.
That's why I am so honored to be a 2013 L'Oréal Paris Woman of Worth. It is an invaluable opportunity to speak up and speak out, letting other victims know that they are not alone. That they are among 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse living in the United States. That it's possible to let go of the fear, shame and guilt that comes with being raped as a child. That it's possible to heal, to survive and most importantly to thrive. And that it all starts with one simple yet paralyzing difficult thing: telling someone.
Voice is a funny thing. It can be lost, found, raised and quelled. It costs nothing, but is worth everything. When I learned that 95 percent of sexual abuse can be prevented through education and awareness, I knew I couldn't run from my story. I needed to use my own experience, awful as it was, to create positive change and make things different for other kids. Now I'm preparing for my fifth annual 1,500-mile "Walk in My Shoes" walk across the state of Florida, zigzagging from coast to coast, town to town, to raise awareness and provide education. To give voice to an experience shared by one in three girls and one in five boys. And I walk with a message: "It's OK to tell."
Too often, though, there are those who don't want it to be OK.
I recently was counseled not to urge victims of sexual violence to speak up when I made an appearance on Al Jazeera, the international news source based in the Middle East, because victims in some parts of that region risk their lives by disclosing sexual assault.
I remember feeling grateful that things are different for victims here in the States ... until I was told that "snitches get stitches" when I participated in an educational safety training with kids from inner-city Miami. That was a harsh reminder of the oppression -- the silencing -- that still exists in my own backyard.
As I have grown as an advocate, woman and survivor, I have seen silence perpetuated in many areas, in many ways. Silence is reinforced when punishment of offenders is inadequate. Silence reigns when vulnerable children are not taught how to protect themselves.
Children with disabilities are a particular target for sexual abuse since they may lack the physical or cognitive ability to express what happened to them. Absent specific education to help them recognize and avoid abuse, 90 percent of individuals with a disability will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetimes.
And this silence comes at quite a cost.
The longer abuse continues undisclosed, the dimmer and darker victims' spirits become. As a result of six years of abuse, shame and intimidation -- followed by a grueling and very public trial -- I developed an eating disorder that dragged me down to less than 85 pounds, on the verge of vital organ failure. I was lucky. I made it out of the darkness and found my light ... but many are not so fortunate.
Many victims develop dependency on drugs or alcohol. Others have paralyzing anxiety, depression or impulse control issues. Still others turn to self-harm or eating disorders as a way to regain control of their bodies.
Pain can be transformed into something stronger when a victim finds his or her voice. But many do not, and as a consequence, too many voices ... too many spirits ... too many talents ... too many people are lost.
I challenge you to join me in raising your voice. Only by talking about unspeakable abuse can healing begin. Only by giving children a language to say "no" can soul-damaging sexual abuse be prevented. Only by saying "no more" can we create a world where sexual exploitation of children is not tolerated.
Visit LaurensKids.org to learn more about child sexual abuse and prevention.
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2013 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Bound by a deep sense of purpose and appetite for change, these women were chosen from thousands of applicants, and each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2014, please visit womenofworth.com.