The media and women’s funding world is inundated with stories about girls in the sex trade, but how often do we get a chance to learn from girls in the sex trade themselves, about their needs, and about their whole lives? On Friday, January 29th, Third Wave grant partner Young Women’s Empowerment Project came to New York and presented findings and recommendations from their groundbreaking participatory action research project, “Girls do what they have to do to survive: methods used by girls in the sex trade and street economy to fight back and heal.” I had the opportunity to attend this event and to share some of the highlights.
While YWEP’s research and work may concentrate on girls who are in the sex trade, it is easy to say that a lot of what they say could be easily applied to other groups and individuals in different points of their lives. By looking the tactics and methods of survivors, we can further improve the knowledge about best and effective practices for people to heal.
One thing that stuck out to me from the research is the demographic information that they collected from the girls who participated. Out of 205 responses, 109 of the girls were classified as “African-American.” That is more than half (53%). Thirty-one were Latina and nineteen were mixed. I’m sure a number of them would be perceived to be “black” by the outside world, which connects to my question that arose after some reflection – how much did the race of the girls impact the amount of institutional violence experienced?
It was saddening to hear about the high levels of mistreatment by the systems that were created to help girls that ended up only serving to further hurt them. In their “Bad Encounter Line” – where girls from the street economy and sex trade would share their bad experiences with a certain hospital, organization, police station, etc – I was shocked to see that about two-thirds of the accounts were about mistreatment at hospitals.
I know that racism is very alive in the country – not only from the actions and beliefs of individuals, but also on an institutional level. If the statistics about black girls are true across the board in Chicago alone, imagine how the institutional mistreatment adversely holds back the physical health, mental health, and overall well-being of African-American women? And this is just one part of the population – there are many other ways institutional racism holds back and hurts people of color.
Another piece of the work that YWEP does that stuck out to me is their choice of words. YWEP are meticulous in their word choice and their reasons for arriving at a decision for what to call their experiences. They refuse to judge girls in the sex trade and street economies and clearly work to fill a huge void in the needs of girls. I only wish that there were more organizations out there to do this across the country and throughout the world.