Amid the recent outcry over the separation of children and their families at the US border, the Trump administration has released photo after photo of detained adolescent boys. At first, however, there were no images released of adolescent girls.
After reporters, elected officials and the public began asking #wherearethegirls, the administration released a few carefully cropped images of detained girls. Wishing to avoid further outcry, they selected photos of girls who appear healthy and well. First Lady Melania Trump might even describe them as “very happy”, as she described the detained children she visited last week.
Despite the pretty pictures and First Lady’s eyewitness account, I do not believe that all, or even most, of the detained adolescent girls are healthy and well. I’ve worked in enough humanitarian emergencies to know that adolescent girls – especially those who are separated from their families – are at risk of sexual abuse, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. Although we would like to pretend otherwise, the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border is no different. All of the same risks are thrown into the cauldron, and adolescent girls feel the heat more acutely than anyone else.
As in every humanitarian emergency, in this border crisis girls between the ages of 10 and 17 seemed to have vanished under our nation’s radar. The US Government lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children last year, so it is not a huge jump to worry that the few pictures and scant information on the girls that have been released might be all of the information that exists.
The Department of Health and Human Services revealed that some girls have been sent to shelters with boys in Homestead, Florida and Bristow, Virginia. Other reports indicate that some are being sent to foster care in New York City. Those places seem random to me, but perhaps they are selected precisely because they are random. They are a long, long way from the border and a long, long way from where their parents are detained – if these girls even are in Florida, Virginia and New York.
At the risk of being accused of focusing on the extreme, I worry about trafficking. Each year, over 300,000 children are trafficked in the US. Although these children come from different backgrounds and include boys, I’ve never seen a refugee crisis in which girl children weren’t trafficked.
In the US, the networks and demand to enable trafficking already exist, and here we have a population of girls taken from their parents and placed in a system that criminalizes their existence. The Trump administration has also created a narrative that these asylum seekers are subhuman, which heightens their risk of abuse and exploitation.
We call out the unjust and inhumane treatment of babies and toddlers, using what we know about early childhood development to understand the trauma being inflicted upon these young children. But we stop short of using what we know about gender-based violence to understand what’s going on with the absent girls. We ask the questions, but stop short of stating the obvious: many of these girls are being assaulted, abused and exploited. We recently learned that a facility in Houston is accused of medicating children, and yet there is no outcry about what that means for girls. Men, drugs and power have never resulted in anything positive for women and girls.
This administration has consistently undermined and dehumanized women and girls, and women and girls of color and migrant women and girls have taken the worst of it. Although I often feel helpless amidst the tides of violations carried out by this administration, I know helplessness gives space for continued human rights abuses.
Ultimately, it is our right to be seen and heard regardless of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or ability, and this applies to girls as well as to those who care about what’s happening to them. ‘We the people’ includes all of us, and I believe that ‘we the people’ includes those girls who are out there, somewhere, depending on other people’s voices until they are in a space to raise their own.
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