Recently, collaboration between the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Ms. Foundation for Women resulted in a much needed report, “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”. The report details how girls are routed from the child welfare system to the juvenile justice system—particularly when they’re arrested for non-violent "crimes" such as running away, truancy and , domestic minor sex trafficking, commonly known as prostitution.
Sexual abuse was found to be a primary predictor of incarceration, particularly for young African American women, who comprise one-third of all incarcerated girls, though African American youth are only 14 percent of the general US youth population. A California study found that 60% of jailed girls had, at some point in their lives, been raped or in danger of rape.
As sexual abuse and child sex trafficking thrive on silence – the voices of survivor-leaders are at the very nexus of filmmaker Sheri Shuster's new documentary, Still I Rise. The film team includes Emmy Award winning producer Layda Negrete and four-time, Academy Award winning sound editor Mark Berger. In order to raise awareness about sex trafficking survivor-leadership, Shuster recently released an eight-minute clip of Still I Rise, her debut documentary.
Despite being too young to legally consent to sex, in some states, children are charged with prostitution. 59% of those arrests are of African American children, 76% are girls. “Why is the status of victim or survivor denied to girls of color at the margins?” asked Malika Saada Saar, an author of the report.
On the surface, the silence that perpetuates child sex abuse of all kinds appears to be breaking. In the last few months, media has been flooded with the faces and stories of perpetrators: Subway executive Jared Fogle (linked to accused child pornographer Russell Taylor), reality TV star/child molester Josh Duggar and dozens of trafficking charges in McLennan County, Texas. And yet, what is the cost of centering the story of the abuser, while the experiences and expertise of those most impacted by these crimes are relegated to the periphery?
The media risks replicating, on a macrocosmic level, the phenomenon of invisibility that sexually abused children face in their homes and their communities. “Like so many others, I did not focus on our girls enough. I believed that our girls were, comparatively, less harmed by the failures of our criminal justice system,” admitted media mogul and philanthropist, Russell Simmons. “The terrible truth is that if you are a poor Black or Brown girl who is victimized by sexual or physical violence and trauma, your suffering is denied. [...] For too long, our girls' lives have been lost, disregarded, or forgotten.”
There is a movement to reframe that narrative. The healing trajectories of those who have been wronged - by their aggressors and by society at large - are being mapped and documented. GEMS' More Than A Survivor: More Than A Story Campaign and Poster Series features 22 survivor-leaders from across the US. The traveling photography exhibition celebrates scientists, political figures, non-profit leaders and artists - all of whom escaped commercial sexual exploitation.
The protagonists in Still I Rise are already modeling the policy recommendations outlined in “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline”. The report indicated that law enforcement and judges should be provided with training on gender and racial bias, that children should be protected and offered services, rather than funneled into the juvenile justice system.
Still I Rise, which is in it's last stages of filming, follows survivor-leaders that have bravely broken their silence to advocate for better legislation, education, and provide victim services. Executive Director of Bridget's Dream, Leah Albright-Byrd sits on California’s CSEC Action Committee to influence service provision for domestic minor sex-trafficking victims. She is a subject matter expert in the development of law enforcement training curriculum. Leah fearlessly tells her story so that it can impact activists, policy makers and young girls in the life. Principal character, Regina Evans founded Regina's Door - an enterprise that employs and mentors formerly trafficked girls and pairs them with housing and psychological services at Love Never Fails.
Nola Brantley, another Still I Rise protagonist, has personally trained thousands of professionals, community members and faith-based organizations on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). She co-founded M.I.S.S.S.E.Y, an organization that provides case management, mentorship and advocacy for CSEC and continues her first responder trainings as the CEO of Nola Brantley Speaks!.
Still I Rise invites the viewer to watch the movement from the inside out, rather than the outside in. Each survivor-leader gaze demands that this time, the public should not look away.