Rights4Girls Blog

Because every girl deserves to be safe.


Washington, District of Columbia, United States
December 31
Director of Policy and Advocacy
Human Rights Project for Girls
Human Rights Project for Girls is a human rights organization dedicated to protecting the rights of vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.

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MARCH 8, 2012 1:15PM

5 Things I've Learned from Girl Survivors of Sex Trafficking

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By Jessi Leigh Swenson

In celebration of International Women’s Day “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures,”  Here’s some of the biggest lessons that I and my fellow advocates at Human Rights Project for Girls have learned in our work with young women and girls who are survivors of domestic sex trafficking.  

1. Inner strength is sometimes all you’ve got, and it can be enough. The girls we’ve worked with have all been in some of the darkest places imaginable.  In hotel rooms, trapped, being sold against their will to 10 or more men a night.  In ice baths, punished by their domineering traffickers.  In car trunks.  Raped and beaten. Sometimes tattooed like cattle with their trafficker’s ownership insignia.  These dark places are just a few miles from where you are now.  As heartbreaking and stomach-turning as it is to hear a young woman recount experiences like this, there is a point at which her story changes.  The point at which she ran, or was rescued, or somehow got out.  “All I knew was that I was worth more than this,”  I remember one girl saying.  She ran.  Her strength and dignity outshone every dark place she had ever seen.  We have to think that every girl has that chance, that light, within her.

2. Lived experience can be more powerful than all the charts and graphs in the world.  I will never forget witnessing a 16 year old girl who I’ll call “J” telling her story to policymakers in a capitol hill meeting room.  She stood up and, with a clear voice and her neck straight,  told a devastating tale of a childhood punctuated by sexual violation, her parents dying of AIDS before her eyes, and sexual abuse in foster care placements. J ran from foster care, and then was sexually trafficked from the age of 11 in California and nearby states.  After bravely telling her story, she looked every person in that room in the eye and said “girls like me are our future and you are telling us we aren’t worth anything.”  There was not a dry eye in the room full of policy wonks and administration leaders.  It was one of the most powerful moments that any of us as advocates have ever seen.

3. The value of voice.  As educated women with access to blogs and policymakers, we can sometimes take our voices for granted.  It’s important to learn just how much that our voices are worth. Girls who have been invisible their whole lives have never had anyone listen, have never had anyone honor their stories.  

4. Girls are our future.  It’s an obvious statement. Of course girls are our future.  But when you say that you have to mean every girl is our future.  From the first girl to the last.  That girl in the seedy hotel room? That girl in juvenile detention for truancy?  They are our future too, and we must claim them as our own.

5. Sometimes you set out to change a person’s life, and you end up changing your own.  As a group of human rights and women’s rights advocates, we started working with girl survivors because we wanted to give them a chance to find their voices and transform policies.  We wanted to change their lives for the better. But then something else happened.  We changed.  As advocates for women’s rights and justice we realized we must do this work.  We saw there was so much to be done for vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S.  So we came together, and in the name of the “J”s of this world, we started Human Rights Project for Girls.  And on this International Women’s Day, we salute the strength of girls and young women in the U.S. and honor the lessons they have given us. 

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