In 1992, at age 14, I was a shy, insecure and angry teenager. I had just graduated eighth grade middle school, and I was afraid of starting high school. I was afraid of getting beat up, I was afraid of never having a boyfriend who loved me and I was afraid of losing my friends. I was also very depressed and in need of real help and guidance.
I grew up in South Jersey, and my friends and I often hung out at a local mall. It was at this mall that I met a man who picked me out of the crowd and asked for my phone number. I felt special that this man picked me, and he told me that I was special when we talked on the phone. He said I was too mature for high school, that I was pretty enough to be a model. He said he could introduce me to famous bands and that I could become a songwriter. As a kid who grew up on MTV, this was my dream. After we talked on the phone for about two weeks, this man convinced me to run away from home with him.
Within hours of running away, though, I was forced into prostitution in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Thirty-six hours later, I was arrested by police and treated like a criminal. Without appropriate aftercare services, I struggled for many years to overcome my victimization. However, with the help of my family, school teachers and school counselors, I managed to put the past behind me, and I finished high school. I went on to graduate college with a 3.6 GPA in Biology and a Minor in Writing. I had been working as a microbiology analyst for nearly ten years when I happened to watch a documentary on sex trafficking in India.
It wasn’t until then that I realized that what had happened to me as a child happens to women and children across the globe.
Today, I advocate against all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex trafficking, and all forms of human trafficking of any person. Last year, I had the honor to be chosen to be one of 25 participants from 13 different countries to participate in a program to help end child sex trafficking. Together, Vital Voices and Hilton Hotels Worldwide launched the first Global Freedom Exchange, an innovative, multifaceted educational and mentoring program for emerging and established women leaders working on the forefront of global efforts to prevent and respond to the crime of child sex trafficking.
The two-week program spanned 3 U.S. cities that have strong resources focused on addressing human trafficking: Washington, D.C.; New York City and Dallas, Texas. Activities included opportunities to meet with government officials and NGO leaders in an effort to learn about internal organization, services and funding structures, as well as community collaboration with law enforcement, criminal justice and social services. The most meaningful part of this experience for me, though, was the opportunity to sit in a court session of the Dallas Prostitution Diversion Initiative.
Two women, the newest participants to the program, stood before the judge. One, a black woman, stooped and whooped a terrible cough into her fist. She looked tired. She looked as though she’d been tired for a very long time. The judge did not question her long, and she was allowed to sit and rest. The other woman, a young white girl, bounced to her feet. She swung her blond ponytail as she spoke and it was clear that her mental age did not match her chronological age. She mentioned how much her social workers were helping her and said that participating in the diversion program was the happiest she’d been in a long time.
My heart broke for these women.
Here I was, a college graduate and international speaker, and there they were, feet away, attempting to start their lives over. What was so different between them and me? Was it that I had been on the street only 36 hours as a teenager? That I had been raised in a two-parent home, well-fed and clothed? My test scores in school had always been above average, was that it? Or was it that I had teachers and counselors who worked with me, helped me? Or was it all of these things and more?
I sat on the bench feeling guilty for my own good luck and feeling proud of them for trying to overcome their own bad luck. The judge then turned her attention to the women participants who had been part of the diversion program much longer. They each stood in turn and talked about their setbacks and accomplishments. They laughed together, cried, and encouraged each other. I rarely get emotional when I speak or participate in programs, but I could barely retain my emotions in that courtroom.
Afterward, we had a Q&A session with the court officials, social services, and graduates of the program. It was one of the few times in that two-week time period that I remained quiet, and I left that session with a renewed motivation to fight for human rights worldwide.
I believe every community should have programs similar to this one for women who have been exploited, for women who have been disadvantaged, and for women seeking better lives.
As part of the United Nations World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, I wish every advocate renewed strength in the fight to prevent commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking across the nation and beyond, and to provide better aftercare and opportunities for victims and survivors as they move forward and continue to overcome.
Holly Austin Smith is the author of Walking Prey, an academic non-fiction book about the commercial sexual exploitation of children.