At age 22, Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, arrived in the US. While working for an organization serving adult women emerging from the commercial sex industry, Rachel was spending nights on the streets doing outreach and days visiting Rikers prison and homeless shelters.
Through her work, Rachel began meeting girls as young as 11, overwhelmingly low-income girls of color, and children who had been arrested and charged with prostitution. At the time, the word ‘trafficking’ hadn’t even entered the lexicon and the girls she was meeting were treated as pariahs by law enforcement, service providers and child welfare workers.
Rachel on the other hand saw only smart, strong, resilient girls and young women, who had been manipulated and coerced, women who desperately needed love, support and practical resources like housing, clothing and access to education.
Rescue can’t be a plan for anyone’s life...That’s not a long term plan. It has to be about empowerment, about opportunity, about building on the inherent strengths that someone has.
– Rachel Lloyd
After participating in Out From the Shadows, the first International Summit of Sexually Exploited Youth in Canada in 1998, Rachel saw that providing shelter and food to individual survivors, while critical, was not enough. There needed to be a true cultural change in how victims and survivors were viewed including:
Training for professionals interacting with youth to help identify and serve victims
An understanding of factors that put some children at higher risk than others
A shift in legislation to stop protecting guilty men and persecuting victims
Raising awareness that commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking exists
Inspired by the summit and the other young adult survivors she met, Rachel also knew that all these efforts needed to have survivors at the forefront. So with $30 and a borrowed computer, Rachel founded GEMS, on her kitchen table and created an organization that has:
Created a place of safety and support for thousands of girls and young women
Passed legislation that finally protects children
Reached millions of Americans through awareness and cultural change efforts
Created the survivor leadership movement
Permanently changed the conversation and landscape on CSE (Commercial Sexual Exploitation) and domestic trafficking in the U.S.