NEW YORK — The girls, a dozen of them 15 to 18 years old, file into a conference room in a Brooklyn office building, taking seats in chairs carefully arranged in a circle. On the floor is a makeshift altar of comforting objects: A string of Christmas lights, plastic toys, crystals, a glitter-filled wand.
They arrive at the end of a school day in their usual hoodies and jeans, their smiles and easy banter masking the painful experiences that bring them together: This group is called “Sisters in Strength,” and its members are survivors of sexual violence or their supporters.
One high school senior describes being raped at 14, by a family friend she considered a big brother. Writing poems is part of her healing process. Soon after the assault, she scrawled in a notebook: “Did you not hear my screams? The screams I vocalized at the top of my lungs, burying my voice ten feet under.”
Another young woman, now 18, seeks peace through daily meditation. She, too, says she was assaulted by someone she knew but never reported it because she feared she wouldn't be believed. “Most people will say, ‘What were you wearing or what were you doing? Why were you out so late?’” she says. She found refuge in two trusted teachers, who sent her to “Sisters in Strength,” run by the nonprofit Girls for Gender Equity.
The arrest of R&B singer R. Kelly on charges of sexually abusing girls as young as 13 has focused the lens of the #MeToo movement on underage victims like these, as well as girls of color. The charges, which Kelly denies, follow a string of sexual misconduct accusations against Hollywood power brokers, media titans and Donald Trump during his run for president. But in those instances, as with the Harvey Weinstein scandal that launched the #MeToo era in October 2017, the accusers have been older, mostly white women.
“What happened with the media explosion of ‘MeToo’ is that it left out (a) population of people,” says Michelle Grier, director of social work at Girls for Gender Equity, where Tarana Burke, known for founding the “me too” campaign more than a decade ago, is a senior director. Part of the group's work, says Grier, is to empower girls to recognize: “Oh, this movement is about ME, too.”
Various studies have found that 7 in 10 girls endure some form of sexual harassment by age 18, and 1 in 4 will be sexually abused. Experts believe the rates are higher for girls of color. One government survey found that some 43 percent of rapes and attempted rapes against women happened before they'd turned 18.
Groups like Girls for Gender Equity and Girls Inc., a nonprofit with 81 chapters in 30 states, are working to help young women discuss sexual harassment, dating violence and other abuse. Girls Inc. last year launched a #GirlsToo campaign to ensure that the voices of young survivors become part of the narrative on sexual misconduct.
“With young people it's extra challenging, either because of who may be abusing them or the power differential,” says Lara Kaufmann, public policy director of Girls Inc. Often, they fear being punished by their parents if the abuse involves a boyfriend, ostracized if it's perpetrated by a relative, or stigmatized by peers if it occurs at school. Even more than older women, experts say, girls tend to fear they won't be believed.
The National Women's Law Center represents three girls who have sued their school districts over their handling of complaints they were sexually harassed at school or sexually assaulted by fellow students. The group says too many victims are being forced to transfer while offenders remain at school.
“Girls ... fear that reporting will make things worse instead of better,” says Emily Martin, the organization's policy director. “And there are really rational reasons to think that might be the case. Schools don't have the best track record at responding appropriately.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed new Title IX rules that would limit when schools can intervene. Critics include the School Superintendents Association, which says the changes would undermine the ability of its 13,000 superintendents to ensure student safety.
Though there is no federal database of student assaults at elementary and secondary schools, a 2017 Associated Press investigation uncovered about 17,000 official reports of student sex assault over the period from fall 2011 to spring 2015. Federal data that is available shows that most sex assaults involving teens occur at someone's home. About a quarter of the time, abusers are family members; nearly 30 percent of the time, they are a current or former dating partner.
In Brooklyn, each “Sisters in Strength” meeting begins with a check-in: The girls report how they're doing and what they need to keep healing. The seven-month curriculum of twice-weekly meetings includes education on everything from gender bias and racism to how to have a healthy relationship.
One takeaway: These girls want to be called survivors, not victims.
“At first you feel like a victim,” says one, “because you're in the mentality of this HAPPENED to me. But then you transition and you're healing ... and then you become a survivor, because you don't let the thoughts you had control you or consume you.”
It's a very conscious word choice, because the word “victim,” says Grier, “doesn't express the fact that you're still in the world, and there's so much more to experience.”
“This is one part of the narrative, but this is not the end.”
Dale reported from Philadelphia, and Noveck from New York. Both write about gender issues and #MeToo for The Associated Press. Follow them at https://twitter.com/Maryclairedale and https://twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP
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