Cyntoia Brown: 15 Years On – Free At Last?

In 2006, Cyntoia Brown was convicted of shooting and killing Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old man who had “bought her for sex” for $150. She was sentenced to 51 years in prison.

Earlier this month, Governor Haslam granted her clemency as one of his final acts in office. She has survived 15 years of her sentence already but will now be released to parole supervision in August this year.

Cyntoia Brown has received a lot of media attention due to the specifics of her case. She was only 16-years-old when sentenced yet she was tried as an adult. She argued against her sentence by citing a 2012 ruling which stated that to give a child a life sentence without parole is unconstitutional.

The case raised an enormous number of questions and issues – why was a young girl so scared for her life that she shot a man dead? Why was she tried as an adult when she was only 16? And most uncomfortable of all – would this sort of sentencing have happened to a 16-year-old white girl?

There is no point hiding from these questions anymore. Silence on these horrific issues allows for them to continue.

It could be argued that the high profile celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Ashely Judd who shared messages of support for Cyntoia Brown on social media brought her case into the public eye. Of course, this did help, but in reality there has been a huge amount of grassroots support and momentum – raised predominantly by women of colour.

Democrat Stacey Abrams tweeted: “Justice has finally been served … This victory belongs to Cyntoia Brown & to the Tennessee human trafficking activists, especially Black women, who refused to concede to injustice & instead organized to create change.”

Although this change took 15 years to push through, cases like Brown’s show the influence the general public can have when they refuse to be silent on an issue.

But what happens when people do stay silent on an uncomfortable issue, such as race? Black women and girls are not being kept safe, and not only that, their voices are not valued as highly as their white counterparts’.

To put this into perspective, the docuseries ‘Surviving R Kelly’ aired in the US this month, documenting the life and alleged abuses of the global megastar. (Another documentary, ‘R Kelly: Sexy, Girls & Videotapes’, was broadcast in the UK in 2018).

Why have this man’s actions been allowed to continue for so long? Is it merely because of his money and influence, or it is because his victims have all been young black women? Had R. Kelly been abusing and violating young white women, would this have been allowed to go on for so long, with the same ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude?

It’s vital, although massively depressing, to remember that Cyntoia’s story is not unique. Since 2007, a national hotline for sex trafficking operated by Polaris has received reports of 34,700 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.

The Washington Post describes research showing that “black girls accused of crimes find less leniency in the criminal justice system.” A study by Georgetown University found that prosecutors dismissed an average of three out of every 10 cases involving black girls, but seven of 10 cases involving white girls. 

Now a 30-year-old woman, Cyntoia Brown is still not ‘free’. She won’t be able to vote, or apply for many jobs. She will be on parole for the next 10 years, and she will have to live with the horrors of what has happened to her.

But, she is one module away from completing a bachelor’s degree, and plans to set up an organisation to help stop other young girls ending up in her situation. Essentially, Cyntoia Brown is freeing herself, and hopefully she will feel some of the love that is pouring her way from all over the world.

If you’re interested in learning more about Cyontia Brown’s case, there is a documentary called ‘Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story’. If you want write to Cyntoia, you can send letters to “Miss Cyntoia Brown #410593, Tennessee Prison for Women, Unit 1 West, D- 49, 3881 Stewarts Lane Nashville, TN 37218.

Russian Mail Order Brides also known as Human Trafficking

While scrolling through the internet it’s impossible to not come across ads. One particular message that consistently appears, and is joked about, is the concept of a “Russian Mail-Order Bride.” Even when googling Russian phrases the ads that appear read along the lines of, “Beautiful Russian Brides”, “Find Russian Brides”, “Buy your Russian Wife Here.” Whether it be through a spam email, an over-heard green card joke, or just conversation, everyone has heard of the “Russian Mail Order Bride.” This phrasing clouds the true horror that is the Russia’s “shadow economy.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire the nation of Russian alongside all post-communist states were faced with this growing second economy. Those who were Soviet prisoners had networks, mafias were given the chance to make huge profits through the interdiction of a capitalism based market, and the newly opened border depleted the need for checkpoints and the observation of migrating.

The newly opened globalized world of interconnection, technology, travel, and lack of restriction gave Russia the opening to join the massive market of modern day slavery known as human trafficking. Although not all systems that match abroad males with women from Russia are instances of Human Trafficking, the underlying horrors of the market make up a great majority. The 1990s marked Russia as an origin, transit, and destination country for human trafficking, particularly focused on the sexual trafficking of women and minors. The exact number of Russian women who have been trafficked or sold is unknown. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) estimates between 1992 and 2002, about 500,000 women and girls were trafficked from the former Soviet Union, mostly from Russia. The disintegration of the USSR in 1991 resulted in extreme transfers in the region’s economic system from which rose an increased level in unemployment and poverty, especially for women. This widespread change in governmental structure, employment and investment patterns allows for many to exploit individuals in need, without the fear of the law.

Profit drove the market to exploit women of all ages, particularly those under the legal age, and sell them into illegal prostitution through Europe, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, China and North America. Companies began to invite women to become waitresses, dancers, nannies, nurses, office workers and travel agents. Immediately, their  passports would be taken, and they were sold to different brothels. Unwilling to comply more often than not resulted in rape, control and extreme violence.

Progress has been made.

In 2003, President Vladimir Putin spoke out in favor of making human trafficking illegal in Russia. Although this was not made a reality, until the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation was amended and Article 127.1 declared human trafficking punishable by prison terms. This small victory as well as the combating methods of the Russian government are not enough. The punishment for Bride-kidnapping, or forced marriage, involving the abduction and sometimes rape of a woman or a girl, can be exonerated from all criminal liability if the individual voluntarily releases his victim under Article 126.

In 2013 the US State Departments annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report downgraded Russia from its Tier 2 “Watch List” to its lowest classification of Tier-3, meaning Russia is not sufficiently meeting anti-trafficking standards. Because of the tense relationship between the US and Russia, Konstantin Dolgov responded to the downgrade by stating the authors used an “unacceptable ideological approach that divides nations into rating groups depending on the US State Department’s political sympathies or antipathies.” The women caught in the sex trade in Russia not only lack the support of their government but a great deal of their peers. In June 2007 over 43 percent of male respondents and 38 percent of females blamed the women and girls themselves for ending up in the sex trade. Over a majority of those polled believed that their institutions of government would not be able to combat human trafficking, while 23 percent also believed no one could effectively solve the problem.

Strong political will is needed to stop human trafficking across Russia and its borders. Through the cooperation of NGOs, governmental resources, and bilateral discussion more can be effectively done to support the prevention, rescue, and repatriation of trafficked persons. Sadly, the fight to end human trafficking, particularly sexual trafficking, is a long one and requires the cooperation of multiple entities. With Russia’s political focus being anywhere but human trafficking, the fight will be a difficult one.

Cover Photo Credit, celynek, Flickr Creative Commons

This post is part of Girls’ Globe’s #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Post series. Learn more about the #16Days campaign here, and join the discussion on social media with #16Days.

Save Our Sisters: The “Abused Goddesses” Campaign

Cover image
Image Courtesy of

What’s one way to draw lots of attention to an issue? Combine iconic religious imagery with modern day problems. That’s what the new “Abused Goddesses” Campaign highlighting domestic violence in India is doing. The campaign depicts hand-painted images (based off of photos taken with real models) of Hindu  goddesses bruised, battered and beaten with this caption at the bottom:

Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

Adjacent to this message is a telephone number to report cases of domestic abuse. The images are visually beautiful and attention-grabbing, making them a powerful tool for drawing attention to their message.

We’ve heard a lot recently about violence against women in India, sexual violence in particular. But this new campaign is expanding the lens of how we’ve been looking at violence towards Indian women. The campaign is reminiscent of the first public campaign against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia that showed women with black eyes in burkas that effectively brought about the Protection from Abuse law. Created by the Save Our Sisters (SOS) women’s empowerment initiative of the non-profit Save the Children India, SOS is working to prevent the trafficking of young girls into sex work. This campaign takes their mission a step further in not only working to prevent sex trafficking, but working to prevent and stop domestic violence, often a symptom that comes with trafficking.

Image Courtesy of King Khalid Foundation
Image Courtesy of King Khalid Foundation

Crimes against Indian women have increased across most categories in recent years. A look at the Crime in India 2012 Report shows that assaults on women by husbands or family members had the second largest increase since 2008, close on the heels of kidnapping and abduction which had the greatest increase. Domestic violence is a large and growing problem in India. According to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report, in-country sex trafficking of women and girls is a huge problem in India. Increasingly, young girls are at risk of being trafficked for the child sex tourism market and many women and girls who run away to escape abusive husbands are particularly vulnerable to traffickers. Although exact statistics on the trafficking of and domestic violence against women and girls remains impossible to fully capture due to the amount of under reported data, the approximated figures still provide us with a picture of the prevalence of these problems.

In 2005, India passed the progressive Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA), a rights-based piece of legislation that was stricter on punishing offenders and expanded the definition of domestic violence to include non-physical and sexual violence. An evaluation of the Act by UN WOMEN, the Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative and the National Mission for Empowerment of Women found that although the law is working in some instances, entrenched gender biases and patriarchal beliefs persist.

Image Courtesy of
Image Courtesy of

The new Abused Goddesses campaign is genius in a number of ways:

1)      It points out the irony of the oppression of Indian women juxtaposed against female deities in Hinduism, the largest religion in the country.

2)      Using bold religious imagery forces people to pay attention to the message. Whether people agree with it or not, this campaign forces a conversation around domestic violence and the trafficking of women and girls.

3)      The images combine art with reality. The images are beautiful and realistic looking. They’re not abstract images open to interpretation and subjective points of view. They are direct and explicit: this is what domestic abuse looks like on Indian women, important Indian women.

So, will this campaign create enough stir to bring about better implementation of the domestic violence laws India already has in place? Time will tell. But for now, we can be sure that this campaign has been effective in opening up the dialogue about domestic violence in India and setting the bar when it comes evocative and haunting awareness-raising campaigns.

For more information on domestic violence and trafficking of women and girls in India, check out these resources:

Part 2: The link between trafficking and prostitution in Sweden

The national organization for women’s and girls’ aid in Sweden (ROKS) criticizes today’s politicians for not seeing the connection between trafficking and prostitution. Some Swedish politicians claim the following: that women in trafficking are victims, whilst women who are commercial sex workers do so voluntarily.

I believe that it is impossible to ignore the reality, that there is a connection between trafficking and prostitution. After the Schengen Agreement was put in place, allowing free movement of persons within a specific European territory, a change on the street has been noticeable according to a woman who works to empower women at Malmskillnadsgatan (the area of street prostitution in Stockholm). Most of the women and girls in commercial sex work today are foreigners. The amount of Swedish girls in commercial sex work have gradually decreased. The majority of women at Rosenlund (the area of street prostitution in Gothenburg) and at Malmskillnadsgatan are from Nigeria and Romania, not Swedish and the majority cannot speak the Swedish language.

How is it possible not to see the connection between prostitution and trafficking?

Women are trafficked by large criminal organizations.  Sex trafficking is a sex phenomenon, where women and young girls are sold to men. In Germany alone, the prostitution industry contains 1.2 million male purchasers of sex daily from approximately 400 000 women. We are talking about an industry with an estimated annual value of six billion Euro! 

Based on my studies and interviews with organizations working with vulnerable women in Sweden, this is a simplified version of the recurring story that is told:

Panders fool vulnerable families who struggle financially, and suggest a job for their daughters. Through manipulation the family sees a rescue in the offer. Once arrived to Sweden the girl or woman gets stripped of all identification and any money that she has. Since the pimp paid for the ticket and accommodation some woman ends up with a dept of around 500 000 SEK (according to a staff at Rosenlundstödet, a team which go out at Rosenlund in Gothenburg to support, help and deliver condoms to women in prostitution every Friday night). Every night after leaving the street the pimps empty the girl’s pockets. She keeps less than 10 % of what she earned.

Many girls in commercial sex work become exposed to various health hazards.

With any attempt to opposition, refusal or disobedience, the pimp responds with threats of harming herself or her family. Violence and beatings becomes a strategy to ensure that she follows orders. To cope with the maltreatment, threat, violence and trauma, many women resort to the use of painkillers and drugs to endure, and it is not unusual that this results in an addiction, which places the woman in a more vulnerable position.

Condoms are something the majority of women cannot afford due to the fact that the pimp collects and keeps the money. Condoms are not as prioritized in such a situation. If a woman owns condoms herself, she has a greater influence over the man to actually use it. In general, women in prostitution are offered more money to conduct sexual services without condom. In a conversation with Rosenlundstödet (a team that delivers condoms on Friday night at Rosenlund, Gothenburg) they stated that 70-80 percent of buyers do not want to use a condom, and in case a sex worker does not own a condom she is usually forced to have sex without one. Thus, she becomes exposed to contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Important to add is that a majority of these women avoid HIV or other STD’s tests at midwifery clinics due to the fear of being stigmatized.

The picture of a “happy whore” is no longer an image that prevails. What remains, in a wider extent, is a woman or girl who has been cheated and forced into prostitution by someone else, someone who claims to have the right and the power to own and decide over her, in order to enable personal material wealth and power.

It is time for us all to understand that women who are exploited through prostitution have had their rights violated. There needs to be an end to this dehumanization of women. We must stand up for their rights, because women’s rights are human rights.

Featured Image courtesy of Activate CFPL.