In 1998, Rachel Lloyd first came to New York City with a missions team from the U.K. As a former victim of commercial sexual exploitation, she worked with adult prostitutes in the city, helping them exit “the life” and begin a new one. But Lloyd noticed some younger girls showing up in the same programs as the women, teen victims for whom there were no specific shelters; a group of girls that, not so long ago, 21-year-old Lloyd had been a part of. She had $30, a computer and just enough room in her home to start a small outreach program, but that was all Lloyd needed to found what is now known as GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services.
Today, GEMS is recognized as the oldest and largest service of its kind in the NYC area, and provides more beds than any other U.S. shelter designed for female victims of sexual exploitation, ages 12-21.
“This is one of the few places girls can come where nobody here will judge them for the life they’ve lived,” GEMS’ media relations coordinator Muhammida El Muhajir says. “They see an organization that is led by a survivor, so that gives them a lot of inspiration.”
GEMS offers a variety of services to these young women, including counseling, transitional housing, education assistance, job placement, clothing, court advocacy, leadership training, medical referrals and incarceration alternatives. Under Lloyd’s expert leadership, they’ve also worked to pass new legislations against sex trafficking. A fresh start is never easy, but in 2009 alone, 327 girls came through their NYC program.
“It takes a lot of work to change the thinking of a person, to build their esteem back so they believe there is a future and there are alternatives for them,” El Muhajir explains.
Supporters of GEMS can join the Council of Daughters, a campaign carried by more than 1,100 women nationwide, including celebrities like Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Demi Moore. These women are what El Muhajir calls the “arms” of their program, expanding the advocacy of GEMS through events and fundraisers across the country.
A catalyst for their mission came in 2008 when Showtime produced Very Young Girls, a documentary with GEMS as its focus. The exposé received much critical acclaim, and screenings have been seen by 3 million people to date.
“That has done work that we could have never done,” El Muhajir says of the film, which features interviews with young victims and even reveals shocking footage shot by pimps. “When people see that, we don’t have to say anything else.”
Another creative tool in GEMS’ multi-tiered awareness effort is Breaking the Silence, a collection of poetry, prose and paintings from victims of sexual exploitation. For girls who may never have been allowed to look their trafficker in the eyes, this cathartic expression is a step toward normalcy.
The conversation about sex trafficking is growing, and more Americans are recognizing that this injustice occurs in their own backyard, to girls who fit no stereotype. It’s a realization that can lead to transformation for organizations like GEMS that invite victims to become survivors.
“You see the power of an unconditional love,” El Muhajir says. “When you see that in action, it’s such a powerful thing, and I think that it restores your faith.”
For more information on GEMS, visit GEMS-Girls.org.