Some people think serious human rights violations only happen in faraway, distant places — not in the United States, the land of the free.
But this is a huge misconception, especially when it comes to young women and children affected by the sex trafficking industry.
While it's true that more than 20.9 million adults and children are bought and sold globally into the sex trade, think about this: Every year, in the United States 100,000 to 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, according to a 2001 report by the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.
And it's happening in our own backyard. There are an estimated 2,200 children victimized annually by this industry in New York City alone.
As a response to the staggering number of people who are at risk, or have fallen victim to sexual exploitation, an organization called Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, better known as GEMS, was created to provide services and programs to disenfranchised survivors.
GEMS' mission is stated on their website:
...to empower girls and young women, ages 12–24, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential. GEMS is committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of girls and young women by changing individual lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth.
GEMS was founded in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a woman whose own experience of surviving sexual exploitation inspired her to help others like her. Before creating GEMS, Lloyd worked with adult women survivors of the sex trafficking industry. But it was during this time she noticed the remarkable lack of services provided for young women and children in need. GEMS was created to fulfill those needs.
GEMS provides all kinds of services and programs to youth survivors.
GEMS offers help in many ways including prevention and outreach, trauma-based therapy and clinical support, workshops and empowerment training, direct Intervention, transitional and supportive housing, and court advocacy.
Programs are led by staff members and trained volunteers, who work under GEMS' founding principles to support "survivor leadership and transformational relationships."
Every survivor has an important story to tell.
Part of GEMS' philosophy is that youth survivors' stories and voices should be an essential part of the development and implementation of GEMS' programming. A few young women have shared their experiences on GEMS' website. Here's just one account:
Most people don't understand why we stay with a pimp. Many of us have been exploited by our peers, society, and often by the people that we trust. When we're the most vulnerable, pimps attack, promising us stability, a family life, a future. They reel us in. He becomes our father, and our boyfriend, until we see what he really wants. Then he intimidates us and reminds us constantly about the consequences if we leave. Most tell us that they'll find and kill us, no matter where we go. We're afraid of being afraid. Resources are limited and many of us do not see a way out." — Anon
"We believe that all young women have great beauty and worth, and the potential for future success. " — GEMS
From its humble beginnings as a small, independent project, GEMS has grown into a nationally acclaimed organization and "one of the largest providers of services to commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked youth in the US."
Every year, GEMS supports about 360 women, and their services succeed in freeing approximately 89 percent of them from commercial and sexual exploitation.
These survivors often go on to achieve great things.
GEMS' education initiative helps survivors attain goals like getting a degree or a vocational certificate. According to their year-end report, In 2014 alone, 28 percent of the women involved in GEMS educational initiative program enrolled in college, and two percent successfully earned a bachelor's degree.
Last year 2,106 survivors also received training and technical assistance.
"Girls are not for sale." — GEMS
GEMS continues to grow, raise awareness, help youth survivors, and spread the message that girls are not for sale.
The organization is one that deserves support as so many people are at risk or have fallen victim to commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking right here in the United States.