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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

Voices From the Field: Malika Saada Saar

The founder and executive director of The Rebecca Project, in Washington, DC, talks about changing the common misconceptions about sexually trafficked youth, and how youth workers can lead the way.

Time: 4:04 | Size: 3.8 MB


NCFY:  Welcome to Voices from the Field, a podcast series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau. For too long, domestic sex trafficking of young people has been a hidden or misunderstood problem in many communities. Malika Saada Saar and her Washington organization, the Rebecca Project, are among those working to change how people--from social workers to police, to judges and legislators--view victims of human trafficking. We asked Saar how youth workers can contribute to the conversation.

First, Ms. Saar, why should youth workers care about domestic trafficking?

MS. Saar: We tell women who are being abused to run. When our girls run from abuse, they become very vulnerable to predators and especially to traffickers and pimps. And so because so many of these girls are runaways, it's really critical to identify these girls as victims of sexual abuse and give them the supports and services they need as victims of sexual abuse and trafficking. 

NCFY: What message tends to resonate best with communities when you explain the seriousness of this issue? 

MS. Saar: Well, often being able to dismantle the imagery of what this issue is. We often think about girls who are being prostituted as bad girls, bad girls who are making poor decisions. And when we start to unearth who the girls really are, we recognize that these girls are coming from homes that are already abusive. And that these girls are girls who then get preyed upon and are then in situations of being subject to child rape. And so understanding that these girls aren't bad girls, but too often these are girls who have already been abused and then are subject to child abuse and child rape, I think is a critical way of being able to create empathy and support for who the girls truly are. 

NCFY: And what message resonates with law enforcement who interact with these youth most often? 

MS. Saar: I think the same message. And why that message is so absolutely critical is because arresting and prosecuting these girls only creates more situations of devastation and despair for them. And so making sure that law enforcement understands that these girls again aren't bad girls or criminals, but girls who have been subject to child endangerment and child rape and need the protection and support of law enforcement rather than the criminalization by law enforcement.

NCFY: How can youth workers empower these young victims to speak out about this issue? 

MS. Saar: Again, the importance of really moving away from these constructs of harm reduction and survival sex to constructs of girls being victimized by predators and pedophiles, and giving those girls the support that they need in order to have safety and healing. And so while I think the harm reduction approach is important, and I understand the reasons for talking about many children as engaging in survival sex, what gets lost in those constructs is the reality that girls are being preyed upon and victimized and subject to sexual violence. 

NCFY: For more information on sexual trafficking, visit the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth online at