Advocating for Women: Girls Educational & Mentoring Services.

Courtney Martin writes that this International Women's Day, we should look at gender inequality in our own communities. Each day this week on TAPPED we will run a profile of an organization doing exactly that.

It seems that everywhere you look these days someone is speaking publicly about the urgent, international issue of sexual trafficking. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof goes undercover in foreign brothels. HBO creates whole miniseries out of the devastation and drama, replete with Eastern European thugs. Heck, even Ashton Kutcher twitters against it.

But how often do you hear about domestic sex trafficking? Rarely, if ever.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), is trying to change that. Lloyd, a victim of sexual exploitation during her own teenage years, founded GEMS in 1999. Born in the UK, Lloyd came to the U.S. in 1997 to work with adult women voluntarily leaving prostitution. After just a couple of years of working with women on and off the streets of New York, she decided to create an organization that met the needs of young women really trying to get out of "the life," as they call it.

GEMS, located in the Bronx, offers young women, ages 12 to 21, more than a place to stay while they reconstitute their lives. It offers a therapeutic community, job training, life-skills workshops, and mentoring opportunities. But their work is not only service-oriented. They also agitate for better trafficking legislation at the local, state, and national level.

GEMS has garnered much deserved attention in the last couple of years because of an eye-opening 2007 documentary film on their work, Very Young Girls. The film offered a brutal look into the real struggles and triumphs of young women trying to get out of devastating and dependent situations. Many of them come from poverty-stricken, love-starved households and are lured into sex work by pimps who promise both security and adoration -- both, of course, prove elusive. The New York Times called Very Young Girls "an effective scratch on the surface of a serious social problem" and, referencing the 2005 award-winning film Hustle and Flow, added, "However hard it is out there for a pimp, it's not nearly hard enough."

Unsurprisingly, the film's momentum, as well as some key celebrity support as of late, including a single called This is To Mother You, featuring Mary J. Blige and Sinead O'Conner (available on iTunes), has raised GEMS's profile, allowing them to raise more money, and ultimately serve more girls. What began as Lloyd's passion has now become one of the largest providers of services to commercially exploited and domestically trafficked youth in the U.S.

We may see sex trafficking as an issue far across the oceans, or at the very least, far afield of our own lives, but 17-year-old Dominique, a beneficiary of GEMS' work, brings it home:

What's Your Story?

Maybe you've never been arrested, convicted or did any time.
Never kissed a boy you've had a crush on, or never hung out past
your curfew. Never been in an abusive relationship. Never smoked pot
a day in your life. Never considered stripping just to get by.

I'll tell you what we've done. We've spent many nights alone
and helpless. Probably never made it past eighth grade. We've
been hit, arrested by the system. Abused by our boyfriends.
We've imagined flying away from all the pain.

We're gaining self-worth back. We've written it all down to
share what hurts. Some of us are out, some of us remain in.
Some of us are in danger, all of us are scared. None of us know
what makes us so different, but we all know what did.
Listen to our stories because now we're breaking the silence.

--Courtney E. Martin