Fighting Sex Trafficking from California to Costa Rica

Posted on June 06, 2014, by Liriel Higa, Half the Sky Movement

Three summers ago, on a church trip to Costa Rica, Jessica Bird witnessed firsthand the repercussions of sex trafficking when she volunteered at a safe house. There, she befriended a 17-year-old American citizen from Florida who was trafficked by her own father when she was 12, and forced into prostitution as a result. She managed to escape at 16, but with no education, prostitution was the only way she knew to make a living until she discovered the safe house.

Jessica Bird

Determined to help her new friend, Jessica invited her to come to California, and was able to raise $29,000 for the safe house after organizing a cocktail fundraiser. But just two weeks after returning to Costa Rica, her friend called her high on drugs, and revealed she was back in prostitution. "I felt like she was my friend and I had failed her... Writing a check for $29,000 doesn't teach these girls the skills they need to avoid prostitution,” Jessica said. "That was the moment I realized money can't fix human trafficking. You have to do things like act for justice and long-term impact."

Last summer, she returned to Costa Rica to build a chicken coop, install a watering system and help out in the garden to instill responsibility and leadership for the girls at the safe house. This summer, she plans to return and help the girls sell goods at the farmer’s market. “Even though they won't make a huge amount of money, the idea of being able to make money besides prostitution is empowering.”

Building the chicken coop in Costa Rica. 

Jessica also worked to educate her friends and Girl Scout troop about sex trafficking, and was able to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2013, where she was part of the first ever all youth tribunal run for and by girls. For her efforts to help the safe house and educate others, she was a national honoree of the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, which recognizes youth making a difference in their communities.

But Jessica’s efforts also covered more local territory. After returning from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, she met a woman who opened her eyes to the fact that sex trafficking was happening in the United States. "I traveled all the way across the world to find out what was happening in my own back yard," Jessica said.

She took an internship with the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition, researching and analyzing the trafficking at the America’s Cup sailing races, and presented her findings to one of the event sponsors, Charles Schwab. Jessica is also working to prevent an increase in sex trafficking during the 2016 Super Bowl in nearby Santa Clara, California.

“We're trying to train transportation staff, hotel employees and airport staff to recognize a case of trafficking” and treat prostitutes as victims first. “It's hard for me to believe that anyone has done this willingly,” Jessica says.

Providing more opportunities to women is something that Jessica plans to focus on in the long term. She’s heading to Scripps College in a year, where she plans to study religion, gender studies and international relations. But before then, inspired by articles Nicholas Kristof wrote about gap years, she plans to to live in Southeast Asia and Africa and volunteer in empowerment centers for women.

Connect with Jessica on Twitter (@birdie96).