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Sharmila Wijeyakumar

2020 (Narrative date)

There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.

Sharmila ran away from her home when she was a teenager. She found herself working in a nightclub where she was trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Sharmila was helped to escape by a patron of the brothel where she was being kept. However, finding herself homeless she agreed to work in another brothel. She was rescued by her family from the second brothel. While training to be a chef in Florida, Sharmila finally felt safe enough to share her trafficking experience with people she knew. However, 48 hours after doing so, she was trafficked for a third time. A church helped Sharmila escape these traffickers and she now works for the organisation Rahab’s Daughters to help other people escape their traffickers.

So, I mean, I’d like to just have people imagine a sheltered high school teen. Who moved around a lot, different countries, different cities, pretty insecure. Preferred a book to social interaction. Ised to hide their book inside their textbooks to walk between the halls of classes, always a book in hand. Grew up in upper middle-class neighbourhood in an upper middle class nuclear traditional family. And imagine that due to bullying and justice being misunderstood, not very popular, particularly with the undeveloped social skills. This teen runs away from home and just very quickly finds herself in uncharted waters. She applies for a job and finds one at a nightclub as a cashier to collect the cover charges.

At the end of the first night she asked to come to the manager's office because they say that take on the tills not adding up. Too late she realises it's not an office at all and her life changes forever in an instant. And that girl was me.

 After months of abuse and being forced to perform unconscionable acts it was actually a patron of the brothel that helped me to escape the first time. And you’d think that I had had enough, but I was so broken and had so little value in myself at this point that, you know, I I really just didn't know what to do. I had no place to go, I didn't feel like I could go home, I didn't feel like I could go anywhere. Or that anyone would have me.

So, after several nights on a park bench homeless hungry exhausted and terrified, I agreed to work in a different brothel. This one run by a woman and I thought it would be better, but it wasn't. It was, you know, okay this, I had a little bit of money this time but, you know, they would still take the majority. And I still, you know, didn't really have a home.

I was rescued by my family but, you know, due to lack of training and coping mechanisms for both myself and my family,  bcause back then there was no such thing as rehabilitation programmes or you know awareness of this sort. It was something that you just swept under the rug and you tried to move on with your life. So I went off to high school, I finished there and then I decided to go to college. I thought I wanted to become a chef, so off I went to a culinary Institute in Florida and as part of the curriculum I got a job in a very upmarket club working, you know, serving breakfast and lunch and dinner too. And I got to work in the kitchen and I thought this is great.

So I started to share a little bit of my story and this was a huge mistake, because it took about 48 hours from the time I shared my story to be trafficked again. And this time it was a much more complex trafficking ring and I was taken around the country. And I was sold at parties and Super Bowls and sporting events and conferences. And it took me several years to escape from this and when I did, I was within an inch of my life. I, you know, I'm truly blessed to be here, and I thank the church that hid mean and you know didn't allow me to put anything in my name cause I was hunted for a long time. I couldn't have any property, you know, cell phone, a car, anything in my name because it was traceable.

 And I still to this day suffer trauma and flash backs from this, but I’m super lucky to have folks in my life, like doctor Debbie Lassiter from the Convergence Resource Group that helps you know, keep me dealing with my triggers as I work with other survivors. And you know being more of a doer than a spectator. I definitely feel that it's important to be out there doing this kind of thing and it definitely helps with my healing process as well.


I mean like, information is power and the more information reported to hotlines the more armed we are in the field to really like understand that actionable information. But sometimes it's just the smallest tip that unravels things in a way that we can see a pattern, that our AI software can see correlation, where we can uncover which are red light districts or even physical ones. Information just really helps us. So, for example, you know this year we did a Superbowl mission as we do every year and we rescued about 55 women and children. But it was the tip lines that help us piece together the information and that comes from all of you out there watching this. It comes from law enforcement, it comes from hotel staff and convenience store clerks, and anybody calling the hotline to give us even the smallest tip. Because it does give us real time information that can affect public safety but also it helps us prevent. You know, I mean we recently had a call from the local pastor’s wife who had heard of Prevention Talk and when she saw a young lady on the side of the freeway she called us. And interestingly enough, we've also had other reports from truckers passing by, but this young lady was trying to hitch a ride and we sent folks out to you know speak with her. They were able to intercept her and they, you know, given that we were able to say hey this is what we heard from people calling us and tell us a little bit about what's going on, we were able to figure out that she was leaving a very challenging, you know trafficking situation. And you know, even if she hadn't been, we’d have been able to refer her to you know other organisations like the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children or the runaway hotlines. Because prevention is better than cure and if we can prevent, that's way more important because cure, it takes us 4-6 years to really unpack this for someone. Whereas if we can prevent it, it's a much easier cycle and the tips help us to triangulate that information from a prevention standpoint.


Narrative as told during a live panel for It’s a Penalty

The full panel and original narrative can be viewed here