Who: Rachel Lloyd, Founder and CEO, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)
Why She Had to Act: In 2006, Rachel Lloyd asked the police for help rescuing a 12-year-old named Yesenia who was being kept, drugged, and abused by a pimp in Harlem. Their response? If she's 12, she's old enough to walk out by herself. Shocking? A common attitude, says Lloyd. "Rather than being seen as victims," she says, "[girls in the sex industry] are seen as willing participants in their own abuse."
Proof Positive: GEMS provides services like counseling, legal assistance, and housing to domestic trafficking victims, helping more than 350 girls and young women leave the sex trade each year. "It's all the baby steps, the one-day-at-a-time decisions, and persistence despite the pain, that lead women [out of the life] and into getting their diploma, their first apartment, their first job," says Lloyd, 39. "You have to be there cheering them on every single step."
The Big Picture: In 2008, she lobbied New York state to pass the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which treats children in the sex trade as victims rather than criminals and provides social services instead of punishing them in juvenile detention. Eleven additional states have since passed this law. "It's about perception," Lloyd says. "These girls are victims, and they'll become survivors if we as a society value them."
Photo via Peter Hapak