GEMS founder honored for anti-human trafficking efforts

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Rachel Lloyd was not an average teenager.

At the age of 13, she dropped out of school in England. At 14, she began stripping and by 17, Lloyd was recruited by a pimp and began working in the sex industry. During her two years working as a prostitute, she was raped, beaten and attempted suicide three times.

“I knew something had to change; I needed a change,” Lloyd said.

After suffering a violent assault from her pimp, Lloyd immigrated to the United States at 19 and settled in New York City. She began working with adult women who were coming out of the sex industry as well as young girls around the ages of 12 and 13 who were coerced into working as prostitutes.

At 23, she began Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, an organization that aims to help and empower young girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.

For her efforts, The Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding presented her with an award at their third annual Evening of Uncommon Courage on May 1.

“It’s truly humbling to be part of this group and to be honored by all of you,” Lloyd said at the event.

She said she began GEMS on her “kitchen table” and did not initially realize the challenges she would face when forming her own organization and working from home.

“It was all literally in my house and girls would sleep on my couch and borrow my clothes and not bring my clothes back,” she said.

But it was all worth it for Lloyd – who, despite hailing from a different culture and region, was able to relate to the girls’ feelings of abandonment, especially when it came to pop culture.

“At the time, I had a really thick English accent and the girls kept saying, ‘You sound like Sporty Spice, Miss!’” said Lloyd, referring to one of the members of the pop group, Spice Girls. “I didn’t think it was a compliment.”

Domestic trafficking and child sexual exploitation is a large problem in NYC – 2,200 children are forced to work in the sex industry yearly with the age of entry being 12 to 14, according to GEMS.

Lloyd was especially angered by the treatment these girls face by law enforcement officials, social workers and “people who are supposed to know better.” Often times these young girls are arrested and thrown in jail, despite being younger than the legal age of consent.

This issue was chronicled in the 2007 documentary “Very Young Girls,” which follows the work of GEMS and the teenagers who are abused and sold by pimps on city streets.

Following a viewing of the documentary at QC on April 23, sophomore Monique Mojica said she was overwhelmed with emotions and admitted to tearing up during certain parts of the film.

“I was shocked to learn that this was an everyday issue that was occurring right near areas I often go to in Queens,” Mojica said.

Lloyd primarily deals with young women of color. She believes race is a factor in how much coverage this issue has received from law enforcement and government officials, because “these women are not high on anyone’s priority list.”

“She may not look like your kid,” Lloyd said. “But she is someone’s kid.”

In 2008, she helped lobby the NY legislator in passing the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act, which recognizes exploited children as victims and not criminals. So far, 10 states have passed the bill.

A large part of Lloyd’s work remains in helping young women find a voice, something she believes they often lose while being exploited.

“Being a survivor doesn’t just look like sharing your story,” she said. “It looks like

finding your powers and putting that to use, in whatever realm you can.”

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