It's that time. Time to get away from the circus and back to the stories of Heroes. They may no longer exist on our airwaves - or in our highest office - but make no mistake, they're out there. This week, MEANS features Yasmin Vafa, the relentless doer behind Rights4Girls - a leader in prison reform education and action. Enough with the noise. Time to get back to work...
Thanks for taking this time with MEANS. Where are you from originally?
I was born in Tehran, Iran, but I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. My family moved during the Iran-Iraq war — a decade long war between the two countries that resulted in over a million casualties. I was five years old.
What was your childhood like? Were you active in these issues?
I was politically conscious from a very early age, and I think that has a lot to do with where I was from and the circumstances surrounding our move. But I would say that the event that really shaped my political consciousness was the Bosnian War. The effects of the war were even more pronounced in Cleveland because many of the Bosnian and Serbian refugees were relocated to our city and so I actually had the chance to meet and interact with those who had directly experienced the war. It really gave me a greater appreciation for my own family’s experience and how fortunate we were to have survived and moved when so many others could not.
Tell me how Rights4Girls came to be.
Rights4Girls was founded in 2011 by a group of female attorneys, researchers, and activists to address the pervasiveness of gender-based violence facing young women and girls today. We really wanted to frame issues of gender-based violence in the U.S. in a human rights context and educate policymakers and the public on the conditions of violence, rape, exploitation, and trafficking that affect marginalized young women and girls right here in the U.S.
How does the organization’s early going compare to today?
Well we lost a few co-founders along the way — part of the natural consequences of being a small nonprofit startup. But we have made tremendous strides in the last four-five years.
What are you guys working on right now?
We are hosting a [series of] briefings... to get the message home that American kids are actually being exploited, and the vast majority of sex trafficking victims in the US are actually US citizens. And it makes perfect sense, if you think about it…
There's a photojournalist [we’re working with], Tim Matsui who did a documentary called the Long Night, where he looks at two young girls who are victims of sex trafficking ...he looks at Seattle in particular.
King County, where Seattle is located… has a really innovative model for addressing trafficking and sexual exploitation. They basically realize that there is an undeniable connection between sex trafficking and prostitution. So what they've done is [reclassify] the offense of prostitution as sexual exploitation.
Similar to the Nordic Model.
Exactly. They are the closest jurisdiction... moving toward the Nordic Model approach, where they are recognizing the nature of prostitution as inherently exploitative, because it always involves someone with more means taking advantage of someone with less means. They basically instituted a buyer beware program very similar to the Nordic Model where they really started targeting the buyers.
Typically when you do stings... one of the chief criticisms is that it just leads to more arrests of women and children. What the King County has been able to show is that over the last several years, they've had more male arrests for sexual exploitation that has outpaced the arrest of women and girls significantly...
What we [try] to do, because we are positioned in DC, is take some of the most innovative approaches and update them at the national stage, in hopes of being able to get the word out about what’s working.
Are there any studies done about how these approaches relate in terms of cost? Certainly victim support has got to be cheaper than putting people under lock & key.
Exactly. One of the things that is true in the child welfare, juvenile, and criminal justice context[s], is that investing up front is much more cost-efficient than being reactive [through the criminal court system] once the damage is done.
It sounds cynical but it's amazing that when you speak in terms of dollars and cents, people are willing to listen.
Well that's what we're seeing as being the primary basis for the bipartisan support around Criminal Justice Reform. Democrats may be coming at it from a different angle, but Republicans are now seeing that it's just fiscally irresponsible - that it actually makes more sense financially to not be housing millions and millions of people in the justice system.
We've seen how they get-tough-on-crime approach from the eighties has actually cost municipalities exorbitant sums of money.
And decimated certain communities… Too often, American kids are being misidentified as child prostitutes, so they're being incarcerated for prostitution in many cases when they're not even old enough to consent to sex. We have federal law that defines them as victims of trafficking. Nevertheless the lens of human trafficking only contemplates the foreign victims.
Obviously one of the big bits of information on your website is the Sex Abuse to Prison Pipeline. Tell me more.
That's something we've actually been working on since our inception. One of the Rights4Girls founders, Shakira Washington is a researcher, who had done a number of focus groups across the country with young, justice involved girls, and actually talked to them about their experiences - what [they dealt with] in the system. What we started hearing [was that many/most of] those girls had been abused. They had run away from foster care placement or they were being abused by mom's boyfriend at home, so they ran away… Girls who are facing harassment or violence at school and we're becoming increasingly truant.
We were... also seeing [that girls] are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice population now. They are not becoming increasingly violent. They're not committing more delinquent acts. Why is it that we now have more girls in the system?
What we realized is that it's due this process of being more aggressive in policing non-violent, innocuous offenses. Things that are called status offenses . These are things that aren't even real crimes. They are only defined by the perpetrators age, so they're not something an adult could ever be found culpable for. Things like curfew violations and running away.
And the interesting thing about many of the status violations is that they're directly correlated with the suffering of abuse and trauma. So it makes perfect sense that someone would run away. Or they would be out past curfew or they would be truant or that they're engaging in alcohol abuse.
There was so much advocacy and attention around what was dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline, where the dominant narrative was around the disproportionate amount of harsh discipline rendered to young boys of color into the justice system. [Likewise], we realized... that these were predominantly girls of color [being subjected to this] sexual abuse - what we are calling the Sexual Violence to Prison Pipeline. We have all written on it and talked about it, but we felt it was time to turn it into a report.
This must be unprecedented in terms of the scope and depth of the very data.
We were really pleasantly surprised with the amount of attention it got. In the first week the New York Times and the Washington Post covered it,... The president mentioned the Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline in his remarks before the Congressional Black Caucus... [It] was all very exciting for us because we're always the ones in the room chiming: “and girls too… and girls of color too.”
We are always trying to use the report to educate and help frame what's playing out in the lives of these girls. The judges have been the greatest example of when the [proverbial] light bulb clicks. At first they’re like “No, these aren't the kids we are encountering. These girls are very angry. They're very aggressive. They are rude.”
And then once you kind of do that basic Trauma 101, it makes sense - then it allows the level of empathy, where judges can do their job, which is to help these kids heal.
It is such an important report. On another topic, Rights4Girls has also initiated the No Such Thing campaign. Tell us about that.
No Such Thing is a program that we launched, and it really is to target one aspect of the the Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline, which is the arrest and incarceration of American girls who are victims of child sex trafficking for prostitution. We realized that nationally, over 1,000 American kids are arrested for prostitution each year, but again, many of them are too young to be consenting to sex. We have federal law - The Trafficking Victims Protection Act - that defines kids involved in a commercial sex act per se as victims of human trafficking.
So there's this contradiction, where the state consent laws don’t allow these kids to be having sex and we have Federal protection. Nevertheless, we’re still seeing these kids funneled into the juvenile justice system without any regard for the fact that they’re being trafficked, tortured, and abused in much of the same ways that are foreign victims are.
We really wanted to highlight that contradiction with the campaign, and declare that there's ‘no such thing’. And we have actually worked with survivors on this issue - Survivors like “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew who we worked with for a number of years. She's an amazing survivor advocate.
We hear stories all the time from survivors and providers all over the country. A fourteen year old will be found in in the act with a forty-five-year-old buyer and the girl will be hauled off to juvenile hall and the buyer at most we'll get a citation.
...This is the only form of child abuse where are systemic response is to incarcerate the abused child... What is it about the nature of the transaction that absolves the statutory rapists - these child rapists - from accountability?... There ought to be no difference between abusing someone and paying to abuse someone...
So No Such Thing is trying to make clear that... what we're talking about are really victims of child rape. We're trying to eradicate that term child prostitute both in the Public Square and in the media.
You started the program in Los Angeles
Los Angeles County is the largest in the country. [Our thinking was] if we can make this dramatic progress in the largest county in the country, we can do this everywhere. The really great thing about Los Angeles County, is that they were able to get juvenile justice, Child Welfare, victim service organizations, common law enforcement, the DA - you know, everyone to come together and buy into it.
I'm sure some jurisdictions are going to be tougher than others. It's almost like having to just retrain the thought processes within the various systems.
It's like challenging the cultural norms that still called these individuals John's. We were able to get a huge billboard outside the Superbowl this year that basically had an image of a young girl holding the note that said "If you buy me for sex, you are not a John. You are a child rapist". These are people who are paying to abuse vulnerable individuals.
Where did the No Such Thing term come from?
I think T - the young Survivor Advocate T - was the first person to say that [term] doesn't exist. Child prostitutes don't exist. So it was really the framing that came from the survivors themselves.
Was T’s insight personally impressive to you?
I mean she is personally impressive to me. I think she’s a Force. Absolute Force. I think there is something very important about acknowledging that [survivors] are the true experts.
One of the things that I'm very proud of that Rights4Girls if that all of our advocacy is Survivor informed. We started moving heavily into the demand reduction after we [asked] about six young girls - all survivors of child sex trafficking - all of them on probation for some type of offense - ‘what's the one thing you want us to tell these folks here in Washington? What is the one thing that's missing that they need to hear?’ All of them said to go after the buyers. They were sick and tired of being the ones to put behind bars.
Do you see movement? How is it looking?
We were very excited to the passed groundbreaking piece of Federal legislation called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act or the JVTA. It basically addresses this demand aspect. It makes clear that the federal anti trafficking statutes apply equally to pimps as well as to buyers - that those who solicit individuals for sex are guilty of trafficking.
But for the demand of buyers out there, we wouldn't have a child sex market...
Does it take a process between passage and implementation?
Absolutely. It's been challenging because there's not a lot of time left on this Administration so we've been working very hard with the Department of Justice to make sure that aspect of the legislation is being carefully implemented.
It's great to see that door pushed open. What motivates you as a group? What are you proudest of?
We've been around for almost 5 years. I'm incredibly proud that in those very few years we've been able to pass a major piece of federal legislation every year. The JVTA... was a new law that did not exist. Before that, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act which was a foster care bill... to better protect foster kids from being vulnerable to trafficking… T was the one who framed it in an amazing way when she said foster care was a perfect training ground into a life of trafficking.
One of the provisions in that law that I'm really proud of is that it requires State Child Welfare agencies to report kids missing from care. That was totally based on something T said in a congressional testimony: "There are no Amber Alerts for us when we go missing".
She is! She is absolutely brilliant.
And also the [Sex Abuse to Prison Pipeline] report. It's something we've been working on for a very long time. To see that it was out there and the attention that it received - people are like using the terminology - When I think about that stuff, I'm incredibly proud of our team.
This year, you became Executive Director. Congratulations. How have you embraced the new role?
I always look forward to working with and lifting up the voices of young girls. We are partnering with some of the organizations out in California to conduct more focus groups with girls who are survivors of crime, particularly child sex trafficking.
I am also looking forward to getting back into the juvenile justice facilities. Maybe trying to do some workshops with young girls. Maybe... spoken word workshops or creative writing workshops… ramping up our cooperation and our Partnerships with some of the providers here in DC and elsewhere… Courtney's House, I think is amazing. It's run by Tina Front, who is a Survivor herself, and is just an absolute Powerhouse.
You spoke briefly of your childhood in Cleveland. Were you always something of a news hound?
Yes! I was always following the news. I went on to found our Amnesty International branch at high school, and was really into all that stuff… It actually got me talking more to my parents about what it was like... Hearing stories about our own past and our own history... Hearing stories of the revolution… Understanding our own history and the ways in which these things are still playing out.
I thought I was going to be a journalist for a long time. It wasn't until I worked with Amnesty [after college], where I really considered a law as the vehicle.
You worked at a firm right out of School. What was that like?
I finished law school during the financial collapse. I was given a great offer to work at a firm. A bigger firm, but a very progressive firm - very committed to social justice issues, pro bono initiative. And so for me I was like "if I'm going to make it and any kind of firm, this would be the one"... So I did that for two years.
But after those two years, you were longing for...
Job satisfaction. Look I have nothing but respect for people who do that... It was really great and challenging legal work, but for me, it wasn't what I went to law school to do.... So I made the decision to ultimately leave the firm and to start Rights4Girls.
I had already met a couple of the women who we ended up starting it with... The idea was to [focus] on the human rights of young women and girls in the US - which was really interesting to me being from the Middle East. We always talk about how most other countries denigrate the rights of women and girls and how they subjugate people…. But what I realized in... the work that my peers were doing, was that there were a lot of human rights violations of women and girls right here in the US. They just weren’t being framed as human rights violations.
[For example], we would be working on the shackling of pregnant women and mothers behind bars, and every time I would mention it, people would be like "oh what country??" And I’d be like “Oh, Tennessee!” you know, this is stuff that is happening everywhere.
How would you characterize the reputation that Rights4Girls is getting?
I think Rights4Girls in DC, [has] developed a good reputation. We work really well on the Hill. We're very well known. We work with the Administration really well.
Personally, I'm very lucky. It’s very important that I work with people who've been doing this for a very very long time. One of the things now, in my tenure as Executive Director that I'm very focused on, is building closer relationships… I think it's really important to surround yourself with [strong] individuals and advocates…
I really am curious about your own take on the strength you bring to it.
I think I'm pretty well known on the legislative front - not only the work but also the strategy... I've been nominated for awards for excellence and federal advocacy…. very House of Cards (laughs).
But I also think in terms of being a Woman of Color and an attorney, and speaking for other young women and girls of color. Making those issues the forefront of what we do... making sure that those issues aren't lost.
From more of a philosophical standpoint, what needs to change in terms of the hearts and minds of American citizens.
One of the frustrations I think I still have is seeing the younger generation of women and feminists miss that element of the inherent exploitation of the sex industry… this kind of modern feminism that somehow characterizes this type of thing as empowerment. We [certainly] haven't seen that. Many of the girls that I have seen - and some are now adult women - the way they describe it is not empowering.
...Take Amnesty International [and last year’s published support for legalized prostitution]... It was like a huge blow. To feminism. To survivor voices... Countries like Sweden and Norway - that not coincidentally have the highest levels of gender parity - basically recognize this as an inherently exploitative thing.
...I mean the head of Human Rights Watch released a statement in solidarity with Amnesty saying yeah, ‘we all want to eliminate poverty, but in the meantime, why deny for women the option of voluntary sex work.’
What if [instead] you changed what he was saying to ‘okay we all want to eliminate poverty, but why deny poor children the option of voluntary Sweatshop labor?’ Everyone would have made him quit!
So what is it about the female body - and particularly the black and brown female body and its availability for purchase by men” ...And it's like we're comfortable with that? The reality is it is gender-based violence, because even when you have little boys or gender nonconforming individuals, it is always men [that are] buying.
It still feels like we have a lot of work to do...
But that passion is exactly what you guys bring and what is needed. What's ahead for Rights4Girls in the coming year?
We are really really excited. There's a lot of stuff going on but it's all good. I feel like we're finally getting it to a point where a lot of important issues that this nation is considering - around again racial justice, Black Lives Matter, women's rights issues, mass incarceration and the reform that's needed - all of these very important conversations are happening right now and we are excited to be able to at least continue to advocate on behalf of young women and girls. And of course we’ll be continuing No Such Thing... there's a lot of good stuff on the horizon.
Images produced for MEANS by Photographer Bethany Bandera