When you're the head of a non-profit organization, there is a constant, ever-present drive for growth; more programs, more funding, more resources, all which translates into more people served, more lives impacted, more success in achieving your mission. As the Founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), I know that by all standards we've accomplished a significant level of growth. I started GEMS 15 years ago on my kitchen table with $30 and a mission of serving girls and young women who had experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking. Today, we're the nation's largest provider of services to victims and survivors of domestic trafficking and exploitation, we've gone from a staff of one (me), to a staff of almost 40. We have comprehensive programming that includes housing, educational support, crisis care and counseling and last year GEMS provided intensive services to over 350 girls and young women. This month marks our 15th anniversary and while there's a part of me that feels incredibly proud of what we've accomplished over the years, I can't help thinking about what success in this work really means.
I started GEMS in 1998 and today we've created a place where girls who've been commercially sexually exploited can come for safety and support. Some of the girls that are walking in our doors now were born in 1998. Some were born in 1999, 2000. I'm glad that GEMS is here for these girls, these children, and that they're able to get intervention and services that weren't available if they had been coming out of the life fifteen years ago. But there's still something incredibly sad about the thought that when I was starting this work, these girls were just being born, were learning to walk and talk, were entering kindergarten and first grade and were just in the last few years recruited into the commercial sex industry. Even as we were continuing to grow, and being proud of our successes.
At this anniversary mark, I keep thinking about the next 15 years and where GEMS might be at our 30th anniversary; I'm sure we'll have a big party. Ideally, we'll have a brand new building, more housing, more staff, more services, but that begs the question, exactly who will we be serving in 15 years? The sobering answer to that is it will be girls being born right now, this month, next month, next year, in the next 3 or 4 years. And that answer leads to a larger question -- is that how we'll define success?
Surely success has to be about decreasing the need for services, preventing little girls growing up right now from ever needing to walk through the doors at GEMS, ensuring that our girls and young women get safety and support in their homes, in their communities, in their schools, in society, not in a program that serves girls who've experienced such intense trauma and violence. The true measure of success would be for there to eventually cease a need for GEMS to exist at all. We exist because children are being recruited into a billion dollar sex industry, because adult men buy and sell girls and young women, because most people still don't recognize what's happening to our girls as a crime, because even when girls get out they're still struggling with issues of employment, housing, education and because they need a place like GEMS to be there to provide love, support, and practical resources. I'm a pragmatist and I don't believe that there will ever not be a need for programs like GEMS when we live in a world with poverty, abuse, racism, sexual violence, greed, and oppression. I do, however, strongly believe that we can significantly decrease the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of girls and young women, but it will not come through salacious news coverage, huge stings, or rescue-focused work, but through the infinitely less sensational work of building resilience in the lives of vulnerable children, creating resources and support for under-served communities and ultimately addressing the inequities that girls and young women face.
The commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of girls doesn't happen in a vacuum, it happens in a world where girls aren't valued, empowered and provided with the critical educational and economic opportunities they need in order to thrive. We live in a world where girls are viewed as property, as sexual objects, as less valuable than boys. On a global scale, we know that being born female puts you at risk for many things. The Coalition for Adolescent Girls estimates that out of 130 million children who are not in school, 70 percent are girls; nearly half of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 and younger, and 82 million girls in developing countries who are now between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Closer to home, girls especially low-income girls and girls of color, face myriad challenges. One in four girls will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18; overall, one in four girls will not graduate high school and for black and Latina girls that number climbs to four out of every ten.
Prior childhood abuse and neglect make girls and young women vulnerable to recruitment into the commercial sex industry, lack of options, education and employment keep them there. Trafficking and exploitation is a symptom of the larger systemic inequities that girls and young women face in our society and while we can't change all of that overnight, we can begin to build the support systems necessary to prevent girls from ever experiencing commercial sexual exploitation in the first place.
There are little girls being born this year, a block away from where you live, who deserve to never have to experience the trauma of being trafficked, who deserve to grow up without ever being sexually abused or experiencing dating violence, who can, and will, given the right support not only graduate from high school but from college and go on to be anything that they envision.
Today, we're launching A World for Girls campaign to begin to shift the conversation about trafficking and exploitation from one of rescue and prosecution to one that focuses on empowering girls and changing the world that our girls are growing up in. Over the next few months, we'll be highlighting specific actions that you can take to begin to shape a different world for all of our girls and we'll be asking you to commit to standing with us as we work to redefine what success in this work looks like. Help us create a world for girls where they're empowered, valued, respected, safe from violence and not for sale. Imagine a world where no girl being born this year needs to walk through GEMS' doors in 2028 -- now that would be real success and something to celebrate.