Earlier this month, in response to a growing international condemnation of the April 14th kidnapping of more than 300 Nigerian girls, Abubakar Shekau, a leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram, made a defiant statement that will live with me forever. On his intentions with the 276 kidnapped girls that remain missing, Shekau stated, “I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”
The outcry on social media was swift and strong–#BringBackOurGirls continues to be a popular demand among those hoping for their safe return. President Obama has committed U.S. resources to help in the search for these girls and Michelle Obama weighed in to say that she was “outraged and heartbroken” over the kidnapping—all of which I feel was appropriate and overdue. That said, what has been painfully underdeveloped in our collective critique of Boko Haram, the vulnerabilities of girls, and even discussions about human and sex trafficking are the hundreds of Black girls in the U.S. who suffer the same fate as their sisters in West Africa.
These are serious and dangerous times to be a Black girl child—and I’m not just talking about in Nigeria.
Our demands for justice with respect to the Nigeran girls should be separated from a call to action for African American girls who are abused, kidnapped, commodified, and “sold in the market” each day—right here at home. Black females are 40% of confirmed sex trafficking victims in the U.S. but under-represented in news coverage on missing children and over-represented among women and girls arrested for prostitution. Perhaps as a function of the deafening silence on their presence “in the market,” African American girls remain vulnerable to kidnap, rape, and commercial exploitation.
In an interview that I conducted last year for my own research, a 13-year old African American girl told me, “When you’re a prostitute, ‘cause I have been one for a couple of months now, like, when you’re a prostitute, you gotta stop going to school because [prostituting] is something that you have to do all day…[but] you could still go to school for like, a couple of months. You could still get your education…that’s if he lets you.”
If he lets you…
Black girls in the U.S. are too often left out of the public outcry against sexual exploitation, and instead are presented as “prostitutes” who “choose” to participate in the sex trade. Latent in our willingness to cast them as willing participants in this underground economy are racialized gender stereotypes about the hyper-sexualization of Black girls—a myth that was historically used to justify the rape of enslaved Black females, and which has since morphed into a stereotype about “fast” Black girls that renders them vulnerable to multiple forms of abuse.
Nola Brantley, Co-Founder and former Executive Director of Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (MISSSEY)—an organization that predominantly serves African American young women—said that the public’s failure to embrace Black girls as “trafficked” may also be a function of how Black girls present to the public when they are still under the watchful eye of their predator, pimp, and/or gang. Brantley argues that sexually exploited Black girls are not choosing to participate in the sex trade; they are in the traumatic throes of a “domino effect” of choices made for them.
“Did they choose to grow up in poverty? Did they choose sexual abuse? Did they choose to get raped, some of them before they could walk? Did they choose to grow up in a world where women and girls are not safe?” asked Brantley. “As women and girls become more sexualized in the world, the more they are seen as property.”
But Black girls are fully human—they are more than “a little Black ho” or a thing to break and/or take.
African American girls have been our forgotten daughters in responses to the global convergence of racial and gender inequality. But this cannot continue. We have a responsibility to continue to address the acts of terror that objectify and victimize girls, of all racial and ethnic affiliations, anywhere in the world. Recognizing that there is a universal threat to the safety and wellbeing of all of “our” girls, I pray for the safe return of the more than 200 Nigerian girls who remain missing, as well as for every other girl in a similar predicament.