Shawna* was 15 when she first showed up on the radar of local service providers. Her days were spent walking the streets, soliciting men for sex. While most girls her age were at school, Shawna was working the noon and 3pm shifts.
She was an American citizen with American parents living in Oakland, California. Her home wasn’t safe: violent outbursts threatened her physical safety. Her school was broken, her neighborhood was dangerous.
While Shawna was searching for a support system, a pimp in her community was searching for vulnerable girls. He used a girl Shawna’s age to lure her into approaching him. He flirted with her and made her feel special, made her feel like his girlfriend. So when he asked her to start working the street, she felt she had no choice but to accept the offer. His love and affection were the most important thing in the world to her. She would do anything to keep them, and he knew it.
Exploiting a young girl through a close relationship is the most common form of coercion we encounter in our work domestically, and internationally. In our most recent impact report, we found that the most common entry into trafficking is coercion by someone the victim knew.
Venus Rodriguez [pictured above] has been working with commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) like Shawna in the Bay Area for the past 7 years. As we launch our first project in the United States, we have enlisted her help to develop a program that will interrupt the cycle of exploitation here at home. The problem is big: each year 300,000 US children become CSEC victims.
When we talk with Venus about her experience supporting survivors in the US, she reiterates that these young girls are living without any support system. Their families aren’t safe; their schools aren’t safe; they are deprived of the love and support children need to grow. They become prey. In the US alone there are an estimated 400,000 kids in foster care, many in environments notorious for abuse and instability.
The road to exploitation in the US is filled with long-term environmental factors, and exploiters who sell children for sex have a long-term plan to manipulate girls into a life so full of shame it is extremely difficult to leave. Venus explains that, “exploiters know that they need to invest time in breaking a girl down, gaining her trust and blinding her to all other options. Our work is to make long-term solutions. We need to prove to these girls that we care for them 24/7. We need to prove that we will be there when they need us.”
With the help of experts like Venus, we aim to give victims like Shawna and other youth in similar environments of instability a choice, something life has never given them. We’re ready to break the cycle of exploitation and empower youth to defy their circumstances.
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We are not for sale. We are so worth loving.