Imagine being lured away from your family by the promise of a financially secure job in another country, only to find yourself in the curtained-off room of some dingy, impromptu “hotel” about to succumb to the sexual whims of yet another customer. Perhaps you were kidnapped, or you were sold into this nightmare by someone you loved and trusted, like a family member.
For the fortunate girls of the more than 2 million enslaved in the sex trade worldwide annually, the first step is rescue. The next step is restoration. The staff and volunteers at recovery centers and aftercare programs offer food and shelter along with medical/psychological assessment, evaluation of educational/social development, child care and legal assistance. Often, sex trafficking survivors are taught a vocation such as sewing, weaving, jewelry design or beauty techniques as part of the rehabilitation and reintegration process.
The victims of the quickest growing crime syndicate in the world are getting younger (some reports say girls as young as 3 have been rescued), and are often raped up to 30 times a day. The physical, emotional and spiritual damage to these girls is catastrophic. The staff and volunteers at these shelters are key in aiding the survivors in the crucial transformation from traumatized and broken to vibrant and productive.
“First the girl has to be aware that not everything in the world is brutal,” says Dr. Gundelina Velazco, director of aftercare for Love146. “She is made to feel loved and worthy through the love and caring of the staff and through the Word of God that says she is a beloved and worthy child of God. Self-concept changes. Since behavior is an implementation of self-concept, then behavior follows. From this new, safe base, where the child sees herself in a new light, the child finds the courage to explore herself and the world, and tries what she can do and be.”
Different survivor programs utilize different operating systems, depending on the locale. Charlotte Salasky, director of anti-trafficking programs at the Somaly Mam Foundation, says the SMF is modeled after Mam’s own story. Mam was sold into slavery at age 12, managed to escape and now helps rescue and restore other girls from brothels in Cambodia. Family is a word that is very important to SMF. Salasky notes that Cambodia has a very “family-based culture,” but there is also a “culture of distrust.” Therefore, the shelters at SMF resemble more of a family “where Somaly is the matriarch,” Salasky says. She adds that it’s “very rare that you see [a shelter] bringing in new [staff].” In fact, often the survivors (who generally stay in a recovery center for 18-24 months) go through the program and return to the shelters as staff and volunteers themselves. The Somaly Mam Foundation also has shelters in Vietnam, Laos and the U.S.
“Some of them are social workers, some are teachers and nurses. Some house parents are under grads. One thing we want [the aftercare workers] to have in common is that of being scientists—together we study each girl systematically for the purpose of being able to help the girl appropriately so that, in a way, we are all scientists of each girl, regardless of [the workers’] educational level and background,” Velazco says. “We also train the workers to listen and observe more and talk less,” she says.
Various shelters have their own set of quandaries when dealing with the cultural backgrounds and the specific needs of the girls. Speaking the survivors’ native language is, of course, important. “The only staff that does not speak the girl’s native language would be the English teachers. However, you also have to keep in mind that the children trafficked from other countries may not speak the local language, and they will learn it in the shelters,” Salasky says.
However, as the trafficking of children becomes more prevalent, aftercare workers are observing more bridges than chasms amongst trafficked girls from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. “Amazingly, children-at-risk from different parts of the world [who have] similar problems have more in common with each other than with other types of children within the same culture. Their needs are very similar,” Velazco says. “People who have the expertise to work with trafficked children in one culture, for example, could apply many of the skills in working with similar children in another culture. It seems that whatever has been destroyed in their humanity could be restored in some basic way that touches all affected humans in a common way.”
Workers in recovery and aftercare are taught to lead by example. “We are trying to stir the girls away from their previous life of needing to seduce and be attractive outwardly, so we need the workers to be models of how we want the girls to look,” Velazco says.
Additionally, structure in the daily life of a rescued trafficked girl is extremely important. A typical day for the girls at a shelter includes a regimen of meals, school, vocational activities (such as sewing or gardening), artistic activities (such as dancing or painting), rest, exercise, free time, counseling and psychotherapy.
Once a girl achieves sufficient stability, the staff and volunteers assess whether she is ready to leave the shelter, and reintegration into society is the next natural step. “We have a program on reintegration and two staff are assigned to this. We are committed to each girl for as long as necessary, in terms of monitoring, counseling, and assistance in livelihood and major life events such as marriage, moving, births, etc.,” Velazco says. Many shelters provide the graduating girls with a “startup kit,” which includes money and “items specific to what vocational path they’re taking,” Salasky says.
The process of aftercare is an affirmation of the strength and love of the workers in shelters the world over, as well as a miraculous declaration of the survivors in overcoming monumental odds. “One girl was suicidal; compared herself to a dead leaf: fallen, hopeless. Now she compares herself to a ‘big, strong tree that is full of life, and even though some branches are blown away by the storm, the tree will remain standing, and the remaining branches will continue to sway, as if singing praises to God,’” Velazco says. “This is a story that is repeated in various ways among a number of girls.”