‘I didn’t know I had undergone FGM, now I want to...
In March 2013, Equality Now came together with The Arts Effect NYC, the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and the Inspiring Team at Gateways, a Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA) residential treatment facility for commercially sexually exploited youth, to develop and implement project impact, an 8-week leadership-through-storytelling workshop for teen trafficking survivors.
Building upon the tremendous treatment foundation and therapeutic arts programming offered by the dedicated staff at Gateways/JCCA, the goal was to offer a safe space and an additional creative mechanism for the girls of Gateways to come together as a community, openly discuss their rights and the current state of anti-trafficking legislation, and most importantly, discover the power and freedom that comes with telling their stories.
Why are you really here?” “Why are you interested in us?” “You actually want to hear about us?” “You want us to tell our stories?” “But...why?"
Meeting Ruth, Janelle, Lowyal and Veronica of Gateways was in many ways like meeting any group of teen girls we’ve worked with over the years across the globe. They’re girls—girls you’d maybe see on the subway, waiting in line for a movie, or sitting in your classroom - young, ever-observant, headphones in, quick with a half-smile or an eye-roll. Girls who listen to Alicia Keys, gush about their nieces and nephews, and dream of going to college or opening beauty salons. Girls, who like most teenage girls, are skeptical when you inquire about their lives, feelings, ideas, and opinions.
"I think telling my story matters because it could help other girls like me." "I guess storytelling is important because I lived this—I’m the one who knows what it’s really like." “because every person and every story is different and I think they all deserve to be listened to."
What sets these bright, impassioned girls apart is that, like countless other children in New York State, they have experienced horrors in their young lives that most of us don’t see in our worst nightmares. They are girls who deserve to be heard - bold survivors with the knowledge and power to be change agents.
Through poetry, music-writing, monologue creation, and visual arts, the girls revealed their truths—the painful reality of family strife, substance abuse, betrayal by the criminal justice system, brutal violence suffered at the hands of pimps and buyers, AND ALSO the details of their courageous efforts to fight back, break free, and strive for a vibrant future.
- Katie Cappiello & Meg McInerney, The Arts Effect NYC
* * * * * *
Ruth was 12 years old when her mother’s boyfriend raped her. She ran away and was picked up by a pimp who forced her to have sex for money. Today, she’s a brilliant poet and spoken word artist who dreams of one day becoming an architect and building schools for children in Africa. Here is a poem written by Ruth, detailing her painful past and her powerful ability to overcome adversity.
You see me; I can’t let this go on any further...
So I’m going to let the finish where it starts.
I’m going to help shed light on the places that are so-called too dark.
Oh yeah; I’ve been through some of it all:
The gang banging, the street walking & having sex in the park.
See, none of this would have happened if I had help from the start.
See, for me, it started in this place that sometimes felt like hell,
But I still had to call it home.
It even included a mother, a sister, even a niece that is only a few years old.
But even when they were home, I still felt all alone.
By alone, see, I was all alone when that light skinned 6 foot tall grown man raped me.
See, no one was in this place I was to call home where I had a bed;
I cried inside because I was fighting a light skinned 6 foot battle all alone,
But I soon went to war when I ran away from this place
With the unbelievable name of home.
At night I was never alone, walking down pimp city road.
I was only 12 years old.
Walking up and down what we call the stroll.
See, to him it did not matter if I was cold or if I was hungry,
All he cared about was me bringing in that money.
Let me let you in on something I find real funny:
That sex trafficking is a nonviolent felony.
But in this life, violence became my “frienamie.”
Now I’m going to shed my light on this place that is so-called too dark,
See, I was hit and beat for things that weren’t my fault
And when I would say something smart,
I was raped and called dumb.
I never thought this day would come.
See I’m not just saying this, this is coming from the heart.
Yes, maybe I want to get a new start.
But I want my voice to help others whose world has fallen apart.
My best friend is a victim even though she is now 17.
She is a victim of our pimp, she is a victim of the streets.
She wants to be free, but she can’t do it all alone, she needs me.
And I need a team to help me finish where it starts.
If only you can feel the pain in our hearts.
To feel 2 inches tall when 5’1” is where you started.
Me and a little girl parted when all this trauma started.
See our lives are getting tough and we really don’t have time to toughen up.
And now look, I’ve reached the finish line, my time is up.
But that doesn’t mean that I give up.
* * * * * *
Lowyal was 13 years old when kids started bullying her everyday at school. After tensions grew with her mother—“I thought I was grown...I wanted more than she could give me.” - she dropped out of school and stopped coming home at night. She started spending time with people who were a bad influence on her - she became involved in drugs and gang violence. Eventually, her “friends” introduced her to “the game” and started walking the stroll under the constant threat of pimps and johns. These drawings represent how Lowyal saw the world at that time: “In my eyes, everything was ruined and just burning.” Today, Lowyal is back at school - a self-proclaimed “nerd.” She wants to be a nurse or a doctor. She says, “Now I put my family first.”
Drawings by Lowyal
Over the past three months, as they pieced their personal Project IMPACT survivor stories together, the support, strength and confidence they've gained in their time at Gateways is alive in every word and sketch. The girls realize they are the teachers; they are the experts - that we all need to LISTEN and LEARN from them. On May 21, the Project IMPACT team had the distinct honor of accompanying the girls of Gateways to Albany to lobby for the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA). Listening to them speak, watching these brave teens command a room of lawmakers, it was clear they refuse to let their experiences in the life define them - instead, they’re choosing to own their experiences and serve as gaming-changing advocates. It is their powerful voices that will lead the charge toward a safer, more just world.
Members of the NYS Anti-Trafficking Coalition, Equality Now and The Arts Effect at TVPJA Lobby Day.