On February 26, Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), visited the Center for Human Rights Leadership and the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. GEMS is a non-profit organization that Lloyd established in 1998 to provide support to girls and young women victimized by the commercial sex industry. As their official mission statement reads, “GEMS mission is to empower girls and young women, ages 12-24, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the industry and develop to their full potential. GEMS is committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of children by changing individual lives, transforming public perception, and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth.”
I was able to sit down with Ms. Lloyd for a brief interview prior to her Athenaeum talk to discuss her background, the creation and history of her organization, and what she is looking forward to next.
Talia: How did you first decide to create GEMS upon immigrating to the US?
RL: When I first came to the United States in 1997, I visited the high school at Rikers Island and met many of the young girls in prison for “prostitution.” I knew that these young girls did not belong in prison. I realized it became necessary to change the way in which these victims were being perceived as criminals as opposed to the survivors they really are.
Talia: What were the main difficulties in establishing your organization, growing it to be the internationally recognized non-profit it is today?
RL: Initially, the most difficult aspect of creating the organization was being taken seriously as both a survivor from the industry and a young woman. However, once I established credibility, the most difficult aspect of growing the organization is related to staff management. It is hard to find people who are just the right fit for working at the organization. The young people who work for GEMS need to be selfless and strong. While not easy, those of us at GEMS cannot become too attached to one girl and her story. Rather, we need to focus more on the overall mission of the organization.
Talia: What are the activities of the organization on a daily basis?
RL: Our main program at GEMS is a drop in center that provides various services to all the girls. We run two housing programs, totaling 15 beds available for the girls to stay in until they get their feet on the ground. We have outreach programs into various facilities – schools, homes, and detention facilities, and we provide legal support in the courts to the girls so that they can find an alternative to incarceration. Additionally, we provide training programs with hospitals and law enforcement so that they are better prepared to handle cases of sexually exploited girls.
Talia: What did it take to pass the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act?
RL: The Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act came about as a way of changing the perception of the girls and the industry to prevent them from being incarcerated and help them seek the proper assistance they need. Passed in 2008, the Safe Harbor Act recognizes sexually exploited girls as victims in need of protection by Family Court, not as criminals that should be sent to prison. It took about four and a half years to pass the Act and since then ten other states have passed it!
Talia: How did the idea for the documentary come about?
RL: The idea for Very Young Girls came about after the MTV True Life Series approached GEMS looking to create an episode about sexually exploited girls in the prostitution industry. However, after reviewing all of our work, they decided that this topic needed to be addressed in a full documentary and they pitched the idea to Showtime. Since then, more than 4 million people have seen the documentary.
Talia: What is the best piece of advice you have to give to students looking to make a difference on human rights in the world?
RL: The best piece of advice I have for students is do not get into this line of work because you think you will save or rescue people. You need to do it with the goal of empowering people. Human rights is a difficult area of work because you need to be a bit idealistic but you will quickly learn that everyone gets hurt at one point or another. In order to be the most successful, you need to create a balance in life and find a great mentor to help you keep that balance.
Talia: What is next on the agenda for GEMS?
RL: Our next big focus is building up the National Survivor Leadership Institute. In the past, GEMS has focused on helping the girls make the transition from Victim to Survivor. However, those working at GEMS feel that these girls have so much more to offer than just their story. There are so many great opportunities for these girls to become leaders. All future policies must be survivor informed and change will be better created if survivors can act as leaders in making policy initiatives. The institute will help them transition into this role, gaining all necessary leadership skills.
–Talia Segal, ’15