The Life Story: Moments of Change

By Joe Voeller, NoVo Foundation seeks to elevate the experiences and voices of women in the sex trade while exploring turning points in their lives that might have led them down a different path. Here, Joe Voeller, director of communications at the NoVo Foundation, shares information about this online resource that draws extensively upon the lived experience, leadership, wisdom, and courage of women. The goal? To inform and inspire those who work across the intersections of child welfare, education, housing, public health, mental health and addiction services, law enforcement, economic and racial justice, and many other areas to help change a misunderstood—but not intractable—problem.

The lives of many girls and women are marked by moments when our social support systems fail them. For some, those failures lead to greater vulnerability to violence—including the violence of sexual exploitation. The NoVo Foundation believes those problematic moments are also opportunities—opportunities for all of us to close on-ramps to exploitation and build exit ramps for those who have already entered “the Life”.

Identifying and converting those moments into opportunities for change is what is all about. We illustrate the trajectory of a life of commercial sexual exploitation by connecting the dots between knowledge, actions, policies, and intersecting systems, which in turn reveals new possibilities for marginalized girls, women, and communities that suffer from historical discrimination. It is a project grounded in NoVo’s longstanding work to end violence against girls and women and guided by our respect for lived experience and deep commitment to centering the perspectives of the most marginalized—including girls and women of color, trans, immigrant, and Indigenous girls and women. Our goal is to explore solutions and, ultimately, create system change.

The Role of Cities examines 13 key moments or interactions when survivors, service providers, funders, advocates, and allies can make a difference for those girls and women vulnerable to exploitation or who are already in the Life. Those moments are: Birth into Inequality, Child Sexual Abuse, Foster Care, School, Runaway, Immigration, Entry into the Life, Medical Emergency, Motherhood, Housing, Trauma and Addiction, Law Enforcement and The Long Exit.
At each of these pivotal moments in the life story of a woman in the sex trade, there is an opportunity to provide support and services. And, for so many of these moments, cities are naturally a nexus where those interventions can occur. That’s why the NoVo Foundation is pleased to partner with Humanity United in leading Pathways to Freedom. We believe a comprehensive citywide approach to prevent trafficking and support survivors has such great potential to positively affect the lives of these girls and women, as well as boys and men, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other people marginalized in our society. offers broad steps toward change, aiming to inspire cities and many others to identify what they can do to mitigate commercial sexual exploitation within their communities. We have seen that when stakeholders at the city-level collaborate effectively and hold survivor perspective front-and-center, cities can succeed in developing and implementing impactful solutions.

Public school systems, for example, can address some of the issues we know are problematic. While schools should be a place for safety and learning, many girls experience violence, abuse, harassment, discrimination, and punitive discipline. Seventh grade seems to be a critical time for many girls, and we’ve heard from practitioners that girls who have been sex trafficked had often previously dropped out of school or were “pushed out” by racially discriminatory discipline policies at around that age. Cities can help ensure that at a pivotal time in girls’ lives, school can be a place of prevention and intervention to stop exploitation before it starts or goes any further.

Housing is another place where cities can play a key intervention role for women already in the Life, as well as those at risk. On the streets, women and girls face violence and predation, and trading sex for safe shelter is a reality for many homeless girls and women. Whether a woman is experiencing homelessness or under the control of a trafficker, the individuals running social systems that control housing can help her meet a basic need for safe shelter or provide transitional shelter, so she can focus on developing life skills that will help her be self-sufficient. In addition, city shelters can create safe spaces for homeless women and their families appropriate for those fleeing violence, regardless of their immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, or a number of other factors.

There are many other examples. One of the first things cities can do is truly listen to survivors, understand their life’s pathways, and use that knowledge to develop policies and practices that will shut down on-ramps into exploitation and create off-ramps for girls and women in the Life. There is a real opportunity for all of us to recognize our connection to these thirteen defining moments and how we might play a role in better supporting girls and women in our communities.

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About Pathways to Freedom

Pathways to Freedom calls on cities to take urgent action to prevent human trafficking and address the unmet needs of survivors. This third challenge of the Partnership for Freedom focuses on challenging assumptions, spurring innovative city-wide responses, and sharing local solutions. Humanity United and the NoVo Foundation lead this final challenge in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities.

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