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Lauren Hersh for Equality Now  – WNN SOAPBOX

Graffiti showing a woman's body as an object for abuse inNew York City

An image of graffiti on the streets of New York city show’s clearly how women can be objectified, used and abused for sexual purposes. Young women caught up in the prostitution industry in New York are not exempt from this kind of abuse. Image: Air Moore

Making a pivotal decision today, legislators at the State of New York Assembly (U.S.) are voting on an important bill that affects women and girls throughout the State – the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act. Over 100 organizations statewide have come together to plea for the passage of the Bill today in its entirety.

(WNN/EN) New York, New York, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Three months ago, Ruth came into my life. Sixteen years and two weeks old, Ruth is spunky, smart and lights up a room with her contagious smile. But the smile I have come to love was hidden for many years.

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 and sex traffickers like Ruth’s ex-boyfriend prey on their vulnerability for financial gain.

Over the past four years, I have met many girls like Ruth; girls who the masses call “throw away kids”, “sluts” or worse; girls who have been viciously abused by pimps and then re-victimized 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.

When the New York legislature passed the Safe Harbor Act in 2007, it recognized that prostituted individuals under the age of eighteen are sexually exploited. Likewise, the US Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act establishes that all prostituted children are victims of trafficking. However, there is a major loophole. In New York, victims of trafficking who are under 18 continue to be treated as criminals and cannot access shelters and other support services.

Later this month, in a comprehensive attempt to align state with federal law and close this loophole, the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act will be put in front of New York legislators. The TVPJA seeks to eliminate the need to prove coercion when dealing with minors, thereby holding buyers of children accountable and classifying sex trafficking as a violent offense. There is no guarantee that this bill will pass and we urge everyone to do what they can to support it.

However, legislative justice is only part of the solution and sexually exploited girls like Ruth also need to be supported in their recovery process. On a chilly day in March, I began Project IMPACT, an eight week leadership-through-storytelling journey at Gateways, a residential facility for youth, operated by the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA). 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 – that the survivor gets to select if, when and how she wants to share her story.

On that first day, Ruth sat in our “circle time” with survivors, social workers and activists from Equality Now and The Arts Effect. 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, 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 paralyzing pain, resilience shone through.

Ruth was not alone. As the weeks passed, it became apparent that each girl in the room had her 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 own voices heard, a group of these girls joined us recently 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 quietly to the debate. However, as soon as the Assembly member inquired why sex trafficking should be a violent instead of a non-violent felony, her 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 richer. “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 many 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 story and her voice to educate the misinformed that sex buyers cause harm, that sex trafficking is inherently violent and that “prostitute” is a stigmatizing word.

Whether she is 60 or 16, she who has lived it, understands it.

It’s time for New York to listen to the real experts.

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Take Action On This Issue NOW

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In 2011 author Raymond Bechard, author, speaker and human rights advocate, as well as member of the The Good Men Project shows the inside world of the late-night illegal sex-industry on the streets of New York. Bechard has worked against injustice and for the freedom of all people for over twenty years. As he rides along late one November night with NYPD Detectives, what they discovered gives a brief, stunning look into the hidden world of commercial sexual exploitation.

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Lauren Hersh joined Equality Now as New York Office Director in July 2012 after having worked as a prosecutor at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office (Brooklyn, NY), combatting violence against women and girls. As the Chief of one of the United States’ first Sex Trafficking Units, she implemented victim-based strategies to investigate and prosecute traffickers and spearheaded efforts to raise awareness about sex trafficking. Prior to that, Ms. Hersh worked as a Senior Trial Attorney, handling domestic violence homicides, rapes and assaults. In 2012, she received the National Organization for Women’s (NOW-NYC) Susan B. Anthony Award for her work to improve the lives of women and girls and advance equality. Ms. Hersh is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and Brooklyn Law School.

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