Two weeks ago, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a Chicago-based organization run by girls and women with experience in the sex trade and street economies, gave a talk at the CUNY Graduate Center. This youth leadership organization, whose motto is “Girls do what they have to do to survive,” hosted the first event I’ve ever attended that stressed the resilience of young girls as opposed to their downtrodden status in society.
Having been to several conferences addressing the sex trade whose messages were couched in pity for the trafficked or coerced “victims,” I couldn’t help but smile when the members of YWEP insisted that these women and girls were capable of coping with and overcoming the stress of violence and did not need to be “saved from themselves.” This emboldening message of harm reduction and social justice initiatives, coupled with the extensive report they compiled and presented – “A Participatory Action Research Study of Resilience and Resistance” – reminded audience members that young women and girls can conduct research and support one another through the worst of times.
While this message was certainly inspiring, some of the vocabulary YWEP employs was disconcerting. For instance, while the organization promotes harm reduction as a component of resilience, it condones Self-Harm Resilience, defined as controlled self-injury and cutting, as a method for regulating one’s own body. This could prove troubling to advocates of healthy coping mechanisms, but YWEP is rooted in the language of non-judgment and supports “unconventional” resilience strategies.
For those interested in supporting the efforts of YWEP, the organization has issued these requests: members are seeking the aid of trained medical professionals to teach them how to perform self-exams, since many young girls and women cannot afford to visit a hospital or are afraid that a member of the medical staff could turn them over to the authorities. They asked that policymakers think through all aspects of proposed legislation to eliminate adverse effects to women and girls and to check abuse within the institutions – including police stations, foster-care centers, and medical centers – that often put them in more jeopardy. I hope others encourage these girls and young women to keep fighting back and assuming responsibility for their own lives.
By Nicole Cata, Policy Intern