Sexual exploitation is the sexual abuse of children and youth through the exchange of sex or sexual acts for drugs, food, shelter, protection, other basics of life, and/or money.
We at Homes of Hope have been frequently asked why, in this idyllic tropical paradise where everyone says “bula” and invites you to join them in a meal, so many children are being sexually exploited. Most sexually exploited victims will tell you they do not belong. Anywhere. To anyone.
“Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people tend to have an 'inherent' desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.” Wikipedia
A UK work called Barnardos has conducted a 20-year study on children who have been sexually exploited: “Exploited children, particularly those with patterns of historical abuse who have not experienced a sense of belonging, sometimes find a false sense of safety, security and a feeling of belonging with their abusers, even where fear and coercion has been exerted.” They go on to say: “Those children who have experienced a loving and connected sense of belonging, with a family/significant other that helps to nurture their sense of responsibility to self and others, tend to have better than average academic attainment and leadership skills, take fewer risks with their health and safety, and develop resilience and coping strategies to deal with life stressors. Therefore, those children who do not experience this are likely to be more vulnerable.” Barnardos
A sense of belonging is a basic human need universal among all humans, just like food and shelter.
Sara* is a beautiful, 14-year-old girl that our outreach team and I picked up for a week-long camp hosted by Homes of Hope for young girls who have been caught in sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The “home” that I picked Sara up from had raw sewage and pimps outside, dirt floors and 30 other children living there. Sara was just one of many boys and girls under the age of 18 who had been kicked out of home because her mother had remarried, and the stepfather did not accept the child. These 30 children had all either run away because of abuse at home or they had been kicked out. They found each other. They thought they finally belonged somewhere.
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” (Brene Brown)
Children will join a gang to belong. Girls run away from Homes of Hope to return to their traffickers, their abusive relatives, houses where pimps stand outside chanting for the next customer to come – because they are searching to belong.
Veronica* was sexually abused by her father and older brother from infancy. As she got older, she asked her friends if this was a normal thing in families. All of her friends were also victims of incest, so they agreed that it was normal. DePaul Uni in Illinois, USA, did a study on child sexual abuse and they state, “The need to share belongingness with other people becomes distorted when children are sexually abused. Normal experiences of belonging or attachment carry happy and unhappy memories for most individuals. But for the child who is sexually abused by a family member, basic belonging needs are compromised in confusing and complicated ways. The abused child still has a keen need to belong but can no longer trust that belonging will have positive consequences. When the perpetrator tells a child that he ’loves’ her, it becomes difficult for the child to discern what healthy love looks like in a family.”
Homes of Hope operates like a family. Our programs, activities, philosophies are all geared to helping the girls realize that they are not alone. They belong here, with people that love them and believe in them and with other girls who have experienced similar situations.
Look around. Who in your sphere of influence needs to know they belong? How can you help them? Open your home, open your life, share experiences with them.
There is hope: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”” Isaiah 43:1