How to walk in high heels, the proper way to apply eyeliner, and the hip sway are not things your average 13-year-old girl just knows how to do. She doesn’t wake up every morning with the latest edition of Cosmopolitan downloaded into her brain and the seven ways to seduce a man written on Post-it notes all over her wall. These are things that young girls are taught, and whether she learned it through a protective mom who only allows her girl to wear clear nail polish, or a too-mature-for-her-own-good popular girl at school, she learned them somewhere.
Learning the ways of femininity can be a joyful experience for a mother and daughter; a real bonding time, an opportunity for these girls to be taught about who they are in Christ, and what it really means to respect your body. Lip-gloss could be taught to be a fun accessory instead of ending up being a strained reminder of past experiences with unnamed men. Unfortunately in this day and age, home is not a safe haven to learn the ways of femininity; it is a dangerous place where young girls find themselves at risk of abuse. Because of this, it has become a new trend for girls in Georgia to learn the art of being a woman on the streets, and generally at an age far too premature.
Unfortunately, teenage girls nowadays are not just up against your average bully in middle school, or not being allowed to wear make-up, they are threatened with being lured into the sex-trade industry. There are a couple of reasons these girls could be susceptible to this industry, and authors Alexandra Priebe and Cristen Suhr of Hidden in Plain View: The Commercial Exploitation of Girls in Atlanta give us some good insight into why these girls look to the streets as an acceptable way to escape. Priebe and Suhr note that in 2001, Estes and Weiner found that “between 200,000 and 300,000 children are believed to be at high-risk for sexual exploitation in the United States,” identifying Atlanta as a hub for this underground trade. However, the city of Atlanta is not the only place traffickers’ hover. The “Leave it to Beaver” image that Georgia suburbs portray is not necessarily the crisp and clean environment that we see as truth. At Wellspring Living, girls have joined our program from innocent suburban areas such as Alpharetta, Marietta, Valdosta, Albany, and Savannah, as well as many other surrounding Georgia areas. This leaves us to wonder, who are the girls at risk? What precautions can we take to ensure safety of these teenagers?
Priebe and Suhr discuss two major issues that push girls out of their homes and onto the streets, and why so many girls are ‘at risk’ for the sex-trade industry. The first reason a girl might think the world behind her tiny walls is better than where she is now, is because of problems she faces at home. If the girl is not getting that emotional connection from her immediate family or a covering of protection and provision from them, “She becomes vulnerable by seeking love and validation outside her family” (Brannigan & Van Brunschot, 1997). It can be anything from something as simple as not receiving enough attention or praise, to something as drastic as blunt sexual abuse. These situations make the home the unsafe place, and the streets a much more inviting environment, simply because it is unknown. The unknown gives room for hope, and certainly seems to be better than what home offers.
One of the more common reasons a girl might leave her home is because her family is facing poverty on the home front. In 2000, the Annie B. Casey Foundation, KIDS COUNT, took a census and found that “thirty-nine percent of all children under 18 in the city of Atlanta lived in poverty.” This is a startling amount considering the number of families who live in the city limits. For obvious reasons, this can lead to neglect, a lack of resources, and a strong push for these girls to think that they can do a better job of providing for themselves.
A good friend of mine mentors a young African-American girl in Atlanta. She was telling me that this 14-year-old is one of five children, all from the same mom, but different dads. They all live in a two-bedroom apartment, with all the children sharing one room, have very little food, and receive almost no attention from their mother. This is a perfect example of a girl who is ‘high risk’ for human trafficking, because she does not have a healthy home life, and realistically any lifestyle has the potential to look more enticing than her current one. Lucky for her, she is smart, and has a good head on her shoulders. She is on the honor roll at her middle school, and with the help of my friend, she is being cared for and mentored on a weekly basis.
Regrettably, this is not the case for every at-risk teenager in the Georgia state limits. Generally in this type of lifestyle, the girl has the option to runaway in order to see what the world has to offer, but also exposing herself to the dregs of our society. So she packs a small bag of her meager belongings, steals her mom’s leftover milk money, and hits the road looking for something better. And that’s where I will end this post. At the plight of the runaway, desperately seeking acceptance and emotional support from someone on this earth, only to find that she is looking in all the wrong places.
***Post number two in this mini-series will be titled “The Capture,” and will discuss the Pimp’s pursuit of these girls. Coming soon***