“What would you do if you saw a 13 year old girl walking up and down the street?” The opening line of 19 year old Rebecca Dharmapalan’s TedxTeen talk is a shocker. What exactly would you do?
Well, here’s what she did. With the support of an Oakland Police Captain, Rebecca began filming the plight of young female prostitutes on one of the most dangerous streets in America. The award winning documentary, International Boulevard, captures the stories of these girls. The fact that children were being sold for sex and trafficked so close to home was more than disturbing to her. Even more so, as she discovered, one of her friends was one of these children being “pimped out” (sold for sex), by her ‘boyfriend’ at parties so he could use the money to pay bills. She says in her speech, “One weekend she refused, and he beat her so badly that we never saw her again”. This motivated her to make a stand and take action through the power of her camera lens.
We caught up with Rebecca after her talk, ‘In Our Back Yard’, at TedxTeen to find out more.
Child trafficking varies in its content. Dharmapalan shows young women being sold for sexual gratification, but child trafficking sadly includes more. According to the NSPCC, children are forced into marriage, domestic service (cleaning, cooking etc) and criminal activity such as selling drugs and pickpocketing. They can also be forced into drug transportation, carrying drugs for whoever ‘owns’ them. Dharmapalan realised that the unfortunate situation of her friend was not exclusive to just her: “It could happen to me or my sisters, it could happen to any one of us so I think that was my real driving force in everything that I do”. And it’s true, this could be happening anywhere in the world, and it is. Trafficking can be conducted by an individual, group or large criminal network, who are usually well organised. It can happen locally or internationally and it is extremely difficult to track children or anyone else who is taken. Some people are kidnapped, some sold by their families because they are so poor, others manipulated and sold a dream of love and a better life.
We were completely inspired by her work and wanted to find out what her aspirations were when she was younger. She said, “I’ve always kind of had a passion for people and community change basically, coz you know growing up in Oakland, you see this stuff everywhere around you - it was just this moment of understanding that I had, when I realised that it was happening to a class mate, it wasn’t just some girl on the street, it was so much more personal. So I think that moment of understanding happened in my sophomore year in high school, when I actually heard what happened to her and then I found the words to kind of describe that, and I realised she is not a prostitute, she’s a victim of exploitation.”
Rebecca spoke about the importance of education and self-worth in combating the effects of trafficking in her talk. Conversations about this need to be open and honest, they can’t be hidden away. Her drive and hunger for change were clearly evident – she wants trafficking and sexual exploitation to end. We at Incredible Brilliant Youth believe boosting the self-esteem of young people is priceless, and wanted to hear how she defined the concept in relation to her work, and how she would encourage others to follow their passion. “I think it’s really about empowerment. And having you know young folks, especially young women of colour understanding that they are powerful just being who they are, because there are all these other things coming at you from every angle, you know the media, always putting down women of colour and so finding that power is extremely important. And I think that once you find that thing that you really like, that little ‘nidge’ and you find your own power you can really make a lot of change, and embodying that and turning that into change-making is, like, really cool and that needs to happen.”
We asked everyone that we spoke to whilst we were in New York for a word of wisdom, something we could share with you. Staying with the topic of young women, Aimee asked Rebecca for her's: “You’re beautiful ……like I mentioned your body doesn’t have to be a sexual object, you are powerful because of who you are, not just your body and your body’s characteristics. You’re powerful because of your mind and your experience as a woman and I guess my word of advice is just really that, you know, anybody can be a change maker, you just have to find that empathy and really work in your own community to do that.”
So let’s set a challenge – what have you noticed in your community that you would like to change? Let us know in the comments section below.
If you would like to find out more about Rebecca and her work or watch her talk, In Our Own Back Yard, at TedxTeen, you can find all the info you need below.
If you, or anyone you know has been affected by or are involved with any of the issues mentioned in this article, please tell your teacher, youth worker or an adult you trust. Call the police immediately on 999 and alert them to the situation. You can also call the NSPCC for free on 0800 1111.