Girls in Action: Rebecca Kantar Fights Child Sex Trade
Minga's the Word! One Girl's Fight to End the Child Sex Trade
Rebecca Kantar, age 18, and "Minga," her youth-run civic organization, are dedicated to ending the global child sex trade through educating teens. Kantar has actively been presenting Minga's message in front of large audiences of teens at places like Harvard University, Cornell Medical School, and the Clinton Global Initiative Conference. Kantar was recently selected as a finalist in the Staples/Ashoka Youth Social Entrepreneurs (YSE) competition and was named as one of Time magazine's Tomorrow25 winners. Teen Voices' Michelle Golden got to speak with Ms. Kantar, who is currently a freshman at Harvard.
Teen Voices: Tell our readers a little bit about Minga.
Kantar: In 2006 one of my friends heard a boy speak about the plight of the global sex trade, particularly in the Philippines. She had never heard about the topic and she was shocked. She told a group of us about the issue. No one really knew about it. No one was talking about it much, so we did a lot of research. We were 14 years old at the time and we found out that the average age of entering into prostitution was 13. I remember feeling this personal responsibility to do something because I felt it was so wrong that kids just like me weren't having the same opportunities, weren't able to go to school, weren't able to have a safe environment to live in. Instead, they were being sold to 20 or 30 men a night. And to me, that wasn't okay.
So the group of us said, "We need to do something."" But we didn't really know what. Obviously, none of us had experience in management or fundraising." But we told our parents that we were going to raise $5,000 for a rehab center in the Philippines and that we were going to hold a giant yard sale." Everyone told us that we were crazy to think that a yard sale would ever raise $5,000. But we went ahead and we raised $6,500 in one day. That's when we realized, "Hey, yes, we're a group of teenagers, and yes, we're not experts on the issue, and we're certainly not experts on fundraising or profit management. But we're powerful and able to make change." Four years later, we've raised more than $95,000. We've educated more than 10,000 young people in the United States on how to prevent child exploitation here. We've built an entire rehabilitation center in the Philippines. We've worked with teenagers in Guatemala. We've empowered teenagers to take action against the child sex trade in their communities. Today, Minga is the only youth-run nonprofit that focuses on preventing sexual exploitation in the U.S.
Teen Voices: How does Minga educate teens worldwide about the global sex trade?
Kantar: We focus on the United States. We did start off with a very international focus, but now we concentrate on educating teenagers in the U.S. We do this in three ways. First, we travel around the country giving speeches. I personally speak to dozens of teens a month in different cities and states and for different youth groups. We don't really care how the teens are organized, just as long as they are there and willing to listen. Our public service announcement campaign, which is what I'm currently directing, is an initiative to empower two million teens via screen. We are producing a public service announcement that will air on networks like MTV and ABC and will feature an array of celebrities who will appeal to different demographics of youth. All teens in our country—regardless of race, socioeconomic status, and geographic location—are at risk of being potential victims and/or abusers in the child sex trade.
Teen Voices: What is your role in Minga?
Kantar: I'm the director of Minga. I do a lot of public speaking for Minga. I do work with a bunch of teenagers. Every time I talk with teenagers—regardless of the context—I feel like I am effecting change in our community because a large piece of preventing sexual exploitation is just letting people know that it exists. Since the average age in the child sex trade is 13, even kids who are as young as 7 or 10 years old are targets for pimps. By talking to audiences of teenagers—both boys and girls—we are addressing both potential victims and abusers all at once.
Teen Voices: What exactly is the "Let's Get Real Campaign?"
Kantar: The Let's Get Real Campaign has a very simple goal: to empower two million teenagers to take action in whatever form they want within the context of our program. Each month we have an "Action of the Month" on our website. Teens can hold a "Don't Pimp My Ride" carwash and raise awareness while washing people's cars. " Other examples are: Invite a Minga speaker to your school." Or talk about the child sex trade on your Facebook page to raise awareness that way. The reason we chose two million teenagers is because every year two million children are exploited, so we figured that if we have two million people in our generation speaking out against the trade, that will send a really clear message to our country that this issue is a priority for young people. It's not something our generation is going to tolerate in the future. It's something that we demand: global change affects us now"“we're not just going to sit around and wait for someone else to solve the problem. We're going to take an active role in making sure that young people in our country aren't involved as victims or abusers.
Kantar: Minga means the coming together of a community to work for the betterment of all. We heard the word "Minga" as high school freshmen and thought it summed up exactly what we were doing. We were uniting this community of young people around the world and we had a common goal: working together to improve the lives of teenagers worldwide.
Teen Voices: What can teens do on a local level to help prevent child sex trafficking?
Kantar: The number one thing is to raise awareness and right now, the best way for teens to do that is to take part in our Action of the Month. You can go to www.mingagroup.org and check out the Action of the Month section. You can also host a movie screening of "Very Young Girls" or "Trade" or "Taken" and hold a discussion afterward. It's all about being educated. Teens need to know about the issue. They need to make sure that their friends know about it, that their community knows about it. That's the first step in creating awareness. We don't typically ask teens to fundraise because more money isn't going to prevent the child sex trade. It's more about awareness and a shared commitment from our culture to reject the sexualization of teens that we see in the media and instead to realize that teens are worth so much more than their bodies.
Teen Voices: Why is it important for teens to know about the global child sex trade?
Kantar: It's important for teens to know that in reality, child sex trafficking in the United States isn't exactly as it is portrayed in "Taken" or "Trade." In the U.S. child sex trafficking is NOT kidnapping. You would hear if 325,00 kids were being kidnapped each year. Child sex trafficking is this very gradual coercion process whereby a pimp will take up to six months to build a trusting relationship with a vulnerable girl. He'll make her feel that he really loves her and cares about her and wants to be everything to her and that he'll buy her fancy clothes and buy her dinner and eventually ask her to live with him. It's only after he's established this dependent relationship that he'll start really abusing her and become her pimp instead. It's a very complex emotional situation. He'll often get her hooked on drugs as well. So you have this cycle with a psychological dependency where a girl sees the pimp as her boyfriend and her father figure. He'll literally have her call him "Daddy." At the same time, he gets her physically dependent on him for food, for clothes, and for drugs, unfortunately. Girls get trapped in this coercion process and that's where it is so important to know what this problem looks like, so if you are ever in a situation where you witness it, you are able to step in. It's very important for girls—especially girls in the United States—to know what could happen. It's not going to be that they're kidnapped and then taken into child prostitution. Instead, it's likely to be a much more gradual process with someone they trust and think is just their boyfriend, who is actually something else entirely. And to touch on the media part, a lot of times on shows like Gossip Girl, we have characters like Jenny Humphrey running away. Prostitutes are on that show all the time and they make the life of prostitution look glamorous. The prostitutes are always draped in diamonds, and the same is true in the movie "PIMP" by [American rapper/singer] 50 Cent, where you have prostitution looking like this glamorous, lucrative industry when it's really not like that at all. It's totally abusive and exploitative. It's much more an industry of trafficking than of prosperity and luxury. That's part of the reason raising awareness is so important. We can't have teenagers in our country thinking that that what's portrayed in the media is what prostitution is like in real life. Teens need to understand that prostitution is a very slippery slope and that it quickly turns into a downward spiral of drugs and slavery and everything that comes along with it. There is a very high rate of STDs and HIV. And most kids who get involved with prostitution when they are 13 years old die in their mid to late 20s. The sex industry is not the glamorous culture that the media makes it out to be. That's why it's so important that we share this knowledge with teenagers.
Teen Voices: Why is it important for teenagers to engage in their community and become active leaders?
Kantar: Engaging in any type of community service and discovering what you're really passionate about, what cause you really care about, is a wonderful way to learn and develop your techniques and skills and to get to know yourself better. When I started out at Minga, I could not imagine speaking to an audience of a thousand kids. It just terrified me. Now it's something I do often and enjoy. But so many other things come with it too. You work with teens. You learn how to manage people. You learn how to persuade people. You learn how to ultimately make people care about what you care about. And that's how we make change. Local change starts with people having conversations and sharing things that matter to them and I think it's really important for teenagers to be a part of determining our priorities as a society. If no one talks about an issue, there is no way for it to get any attention and why should only issues that are pertinent to adults or older people matter when so many issues involve young people? Teenagers can gain great skills from being involved in community service and they are a really important part of our population. Their voices need to be heard just as much as anyone else's, even though they're often voices that people don't want to hear. It's important to empower young people and tell them that [older] people do care. Some people want to listen to what we have to say. We have an organization and Minga has gotten a lot of attention, but it all started with a group of teenagers who said, "We have something important that we want to tell you, so you'd better listen."
For more information about Minga and to find out what the Action of the Month is, visit: www.mingagroup.org.
Tagged as: Girls in Action, Rebecca Kantar, social change, social justice, teens, volunteering