"Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named ‘cut-throat,’” read a block of text above an image of a young girl in an orange jumpsuit.
"After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex,” the text continued. “You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him [and are] convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison."
This is the story of Cyntoia Brown, the girl in the orange jumpsuit. The text above was shared by Kim Kardashian West, one of the many celebrities who has stepped up to become a part of the movement summarized by one hashtag: #FreeCyntoiaBrown.
While Rihanna and West have garnered attention for raising the hashtag's profile, they've also raised renewed awareness about the harsh realities victims of sex trafficking face in this country.
It's no secret that the United States justice system isn't altogether just. As it is, it repeatedly fails the most marginalized in this country — those who, arguably, most need the law on their side.
As the text touched upon, Cyntoia Brown was just 16 in 2004, the year she shot and killed Johnny Allen after a frightened Brown thought Allen was reaching for a gun.
For many of us, the knowledge that Brown was a victim of sex trafficking and sexual violence is enough to put us on her side, but the court saw it differently.
Nashville prosecutors decided that Brown had killed Allen in order to rob him, and at her 2006 trial, the jury agreed and Brown was convicted of first-degree murder.
However, one of the most appalling aspects of this trial was not just that Brown was found guilty — though that, in itself, is disheartening and utterly terrifying for many women — but that Brown, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison despite having committed this act at the age of just 16.
It is a known fact that brown and black girls are seen as ‘less innocent’ than their white counterparts. Just how much of an impact this bias had on this decision is difficult to quantify, but regardless, this is part of a concerning trend that victimizes women of color when it’s conceivable that their white counterparts might have been absolved.
And, though this applies to many different realms of the criminal justice sector, it can be especially precarious when it comes to sexual violence and human trafficking.
Women and girls of color are disproportionately affected by human trafficking in the United States. This problem is embedded into the fabric of this society and is upheld and perpetuated by our faulty criminal justice system. Brown’s story is another example of these systemic shortcomings.
Brown was featured in the 2011 PBS documentary, Me Facing Life, a spotlight that temporarily garnered attention to her case. But in recent months, celebrities, including Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West, have spoken out — Kardashian West also hired a lawyer to work on the case — prompting Brown's case to go viral once more.
In light of the recent attention, the prosecutor on Brown's case has denied her accounts of victimization while defenders continue rallying for the now 29-year-old's parole eligibility. But this isn't just about one case—it's about the countless underage victims of trafficking worldwide.
In Texas alone, an estimated 79,000 minors were believed to be victims of sex slavery and forced prostitution in 2017, with hundreds of thousands more believed at risk around the country.
As the Atlantic reported last year, the systems we have in place may fail to protect many minors, and in some cited instances, prosecute them as criminals. As the child trafficking prevention organization Thorn notes, young people of color in this country are particularly vulnerable. (FBI statistics show that 52 percent of juvenile prostitution arrests in 2012 involved African American children.)
Hopefully, Brown’s story will aid in bringing the discussion of sexual violence and human trafficking into more conversations around the country, but we cannot let the important racial undertones and systemic failings that are at the heart of this issue fall on deaf ears. So let Brown's virality be a rallying call to get educated.
There are ways to help, and it starts with all of us.
(Image via PBS)