The movie sensation Precious ends with the line "for precious girls everywhere." Director Lee Daniels's story of Precious, a poor, abused, illiterate and overweight African-American teenager, is indeed a tribute to the forgotten girls living at the edges of U.S. society. When was the last time that a teen mother in Harlem, raped and impregnated by her father, brutally abused and exploited by her mother, and left behind by a dysfunctional educational system, emerged as the hero of any movie — especially a movie with a high-profile cast that is generating Oscar buzz?
I cannot recall another opportunity raised by popular culture that invited us to thoughtfully address the largely hidden issues of incest, violence and girls at the margins. As the executive director of a national organization that works to raise awareness about and to reduce violence against vulnerable women and girls, I am moved and grateful that attention is finally being paid to our forgotten girls.
But this movie is in many ways a fairy tale. The character Precious gets to be saved by a caring caseworker and a loving teacher. In real life, poor, undereducated and sexually victimized girls are most likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
I see it all the time. There is the 13-year-old who became pregnant to stop her uncle from raping her — a girl whom I met not at an incest survivors group but in a girls' detention facility. Or the girl raped so many times by age 13 that she feels worthy of being prostituted and cannot see a life for herself beyond jail. Or the girl who was kidnapped by a pimp, repeatedly raped by him, prostituted by him — only to be arrested and placed behind bars for prostitution.
Girls in the United States are subject to violence with horrifying frequency. One in three American girls will experience sexual violence by age 18, regardless of race or class. Girls ages 16 to 19 across the ethnic and economic spectrum are four times more likely than others to be victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. No girl is safe from being raped, exploited or abused.
Yet when girls in economically stable families are hurt by sexual violence, the protective layers of functional schools, safe neighborhoods and access to mental health services tend to buffer them from further exploitation. For girls at the margins, sexual violence often funnels them into the criminal justice system.
Sex trafficking or running away from abusive homes and foster-care placements are the primary reasons for girls' incarceration. These girls are not being detained for violent offenses or because they are becoming gang-bangers or murderers. Girls are ending up behind bars after the damage they endure from rape and sexual abuse. A recent Oregon Social Learning Center study of chronically delinquent girls found that the median age of the first sexual encounter among detained girls was 7.
The judges sentencing these girls to detention aren't necessarily another bad guy in their stories. Often, judges don't want to return girls to abusive homes or to a ruthless pimp, so they detain the girls as a way to keep them safe.
Unfortunately, detained girls often endure sexual violence and exploitation behind bars. Many girls are placed in solitary confinement, where self-mutilation often occurs. Some facilities require girls to shower in front of male guards or subject them to cross-gender strip searches. Girls in detention facilities are also routinely sexually coerced or abused by staff. While girls make up only 11 percent of the population of state-operated juvenile facilities, they account for 34 percent of the victims of sexual violence in these facilities.
There are few model programs for vulnerable and abused girls. So the vast majority of abused girls don't have access to trauma-recovery residential programs, comprehensive mental health services or safe alternatives to detention. They are expected to simply "deal with it" — as if there is something inevitable about being poor, female and abused.
I hope that Lee Daniels' movie will change how girls at the margins are treated. Maybe, at long last, they will be considered precious girls — who deserve love, safety and healing. I hope this because right now, these precious girls everywhere are denied the happy endings of Hollywood movies.
Malika Saada Saar founded and is executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a national policy and advocacy organization for vulnerable families.