This post was co-authored by Katie Cappiello, Artistic Director, The Arts Effect.
It's dark outside, 20 degrees, and we've taken to Super Bowl Boulevard in NYC with a team of teen girls who are passionate about ending modern day slavery. They've traded their usual homework-filled Thursday night for hours of in-the-trenches advocacy. Bundled in Uggs and puffy coats, the girls walk arm-in-arm, encouraging each other with every step, as they engage passers-by with trafficking facts and dispense information on commercial sexual exploitation.
"If girls my age are forced out in the freezing cold every night to make money for some brutal pimp, I can handle this until dinner time. It's my way of fighting with those girls and being part of the solution." says Dominique, a 15-year-old from Brooklyn.
These girls are just some of the over 100 girls we've been working with in our collaborations to inspire young people to take a stand against sex-trafficking. Over the past year, our two organizations, Equality Now, an international human rights organization, and The Arts Effect NYC, a feminist youth theatre program, have joined forces with the mission of building an army of energized, young activists.
Our journey began in March 2013 with the creation of Project Impact, an arts-based leadership workshop for teen trafficking survivors. We spent three months working with the 15-18 year-old residents of JCCA's Gateways -- girls transitioning out of a life under constant threat from pimps, johns, and law enforcement into an often overwhelming new life of high school, new homes and possibility. Our goal was to introduce storytelling as a form of healing and advocacy.
The girls quickly found comfort in shared experiences and strength in the support of their fellow girls. Their stories came to life in the form of monologues, songs, drawings, and poems -- detailing childhoods of abuse, isolation walking the streets, brutal punishments and through it all, a powerful determination to survive.
"I'm realizing my story matters because it could help other girls like me," said 15-year-old Ruth proudly one afternoon. For survivors, the fear of being shamed and judged often silences them; the realization that their stories can educate and inspire others is freeing.
In fact, storytelling can be life-changing and law altering. In May 2013, Project Impact participants, Ruth, Lowyal, Janelle and Veronica traveled to Albany to lobby for the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. "There is nothing non-violent about sex trafficking and yet it is a Non Violent Felony," Ruth bravely explained to a room full of lawmakers.
It's a feeling of solidarity with these survivors that motivates Dominique, Nina, Ashley and Sarah on Super Bowl Boulevard and beyond. As part of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company, they've spent the last year exploring domestic trafficking. After learning about the girls of Project Impact, the teens of the 20-member theater ensemble threw themselves into research -- reading survivor testimonials, visiting neighborhoods where trafficking is prevalent, examining laws -- as they worked toward developing the original play A Day in the Life, which exposes the devastating effects of the commercial sex industry on the lives of girls. In the process, they've become fully-charged advocates. "It needs to stop -- the only way is for girls to stand up for each other," explained Nina.
Witnessing this passion motivated us to launch Generation FREE, a teen driven anti-trafficking training for 75 high school students from all five boroughs. The program began with a performance of A Day InThe Life and ended with an advocacy workshop, during which teens created a campaign calling on Governor Cuomo and Speaker Silver to improve legislation and protect victims. In the weeks that followed, participants unified behind this common goal -- writing articles for school newspapers, giving classroom presentations, using social media to amplify their message, and supporting local efforts to end exploitation.
On Super Bowl Boulevard, the team of change-makers tweeted, facebooked and instagramed their progress as they raised awareness about trafficking. At 45th Street, Ashley stopped short when she received an Instagram comment from a male classmate: "What you're doing is stupid. I'm gonna buy a hooker this weekend." Ashley felt paralyzed, but the sisterhood mobilized. Girls across the city began to campaign together -- silencing the boy's ignorance with trafficking facts and statistics. The coalition came full circle that night when survivors took to twitter and joined the efforts.
This month, feminists and politicians from around the world will come together for the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women. We hope these leaders will spend time inspiring girls to be brave, showing them the importance of solidarity and including young activists in decision making.
The world benefits when girls are part of the solution.
Visit Equality Now's Survivor Stories to hear more from survivors of sexual exploitation from around the world. #ListenToSurvivors