Rights4Girls (R4G) is an organization based in the Washington, D.C. area that “advocates for the dignity and rights of young women and girls so that every girl can be safe and live a life free of violence and exploitation.” According to their website: “Rights4Girls works to change the narrative and policies that criminalize girls who have been impacted by gender-based violence. We advocate for solutions that provide girls and young women with access to safety, justice and support. We do so by centering the voices and experiences of our most marginalized girls to ensure that their lives are not only contemplated in mainstream conversations around justice reform and gendered violence, but that their needs are made a priority.”
I sat down with their Cherice Hopkins, Senior Counsel, to learn more about the work she and the rest of the team does at R4G.
Cherice joined R4G in 2017, but the organization recently celebrated its 10th birthday. I asked Cherice to share how she has seen the organization grow over the years. Cherice talked about how instrumental R4G has been in changing the narrative and working at the intersection of race, gender, and violence and centering the experiences of girls of color. She truly believes that the organization’s advocacy efforts have been making a positive impact. Since the launch of their No Such Thing Campaign, the number of children arrested for prostitution charges has dropped 65% (as of 2018). Cherice says the goal is for their initiatives to become bigger than the organization. At R4G, they really want to shift mindsets so that children of color are seen and treated as children, so that they won’t be held accountable for their own victimization but instead will be protected from harm and provided with the support needed for their safety and wellbeing, and end the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline.
Education at all levels
I then asked Cherice to discuss why she believes the initiatives work to change the narrative and policies that criminalize girls who have been impacted by gender-based violence. Cherice responded that the key is education on all levels, from lawmakers to girls of color themselves. R4G works to fill those gaps in knowledge about how gender-based violence, including trafficking, impacts girls of color. They want to make sure to uplift survivor voices so that their needs can be centered in policies and practices. While they don’t want to engage in practices that harm survivors, their approach is more about respect for survivors as the experts of their own experiences and whose leadership should be guiding the movement to end violence. Stories with data can be powerful, but it is also important to give survivors a seat at the table, so they are not reduced to their stories.
Sex trafficking can sometimes be a difficult topic to have others engage with and care about (especially the middle-to-upper class white men that dominates decision making in this country), so I wanted to know how R4G gets buy-in from partners and constituents. Cherice emphasized the need to lead with humanity. Kids are kids and are deserving of love and protection. R4G wants to share who these young people are to break down bias and try to dismantle and change existing harmful narratives. People are becoming bolder in talking about things like racial injustice, so we shouldn’t shy away from talking about things like trafficking. People oftentimes get defensive because they are focusing on themselves and R4G wants to turn the focus to that child experiencing violence.
Of course, I had to ask what book recommendations Cherice had for us. She suggested Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris, and Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long. Both books talk about different accounts of girls of color being criminalized for the violence they have been subjected to. And as a bonus recommendation, she’s currently reading Dread Nation by Justina Ireland.
We all have a role to play
Finally, I asked Cherice what we can all do to change the narrative and policies that criminalize girls who have been impacted by gender-based violence. We all have a role to play. We must be mindful of how we talk about and treat girls in our communities. We need to pay attention to how we show love, support, and respect to these girls. We need to provide education on what healthy relationships look like, showing boys how they should treat girls, and showing girls how they deserve to be treated right. Let our elected officials know that we don’t support the criminalization of girls and that we believe girls should be met with support and service.