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Spotlight on abuse

The girls, a dozen of them 15 to 18 years old, file into a conference room in a downtown Brooklyn office building, taking seats in chairs carefully arranged in a circle. On the floor in front of them is a makeshift altar of comforting objects: A string of Christmas lights, plastic toys and dolls, oils and 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 allies and supporters.

There's a high school senior who describes being raped at 14, by a family friend she considered a big brother. She endured years of anger and isolation before seeking help. 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 was assaulted by someone she knew, just days after her 18th birthday, but says she 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?' And all those things," says this survivor. She found refuge in two trusted teachers, who sent her to "Sisters in Strength," run by a non-profit called Girls for Gender Equity.

"I'm still in my way of healing," she says, "and I think it's better for me to focus on myself and move on."

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, especially girls of colour. 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, who originated the phrase "me too" with her own work 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 colour. One government survey found that some 43 per cent of rapes and attempted rapes against women happened before they'd turned 18. That means that for millions of women in the U.S., their first sexual victimization occurs when they are 17 or younger, sometimes even younger than 10.

Groups like Girls for Gender Equity and Girls Inc., a non-profit with 81 chapters in 30 states, are working to help young women discuss sexual harassment, dating violence and other types of 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.

Girls Inc. helps young people push school officials to do more to teach sex education and address sexual harassment and abuse. The group also has online resources about how to report abuse or help friends who come forward.



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