When Rebecca Pober ’18 was a junior in high school, she read an article in the New York Times about sex trafficking in Iraq. “It was a fascinating subject, so I jumped on the Internet to learn more about it,” she says.
Pober was stunned by what she learned: According to the U.S. State Department, there are more than 27 million sex slaves in the world, including up to 300,000 in the United States who are living in virtually every community in the country. Nearly half are under the age of 18. “I was vaguely aware of sex trafficking as something that happened far away and certainly never to people like me,” she says. “When I found out that wasn’t true, I said to myself, ‘More people should know about this.’”
Pober decided to produce a video on the subject as a project for her Girl Scout Gold Award (the equivalent of an Eagle Scout project in Boy Scouts). During her senior year in high school, she interviewed government officials near her hometown of Daphne, AL, including Alabama State Sen. Jack Williams, who authored a tough new sex-trafficking law for the state in 2009.
A survivor who now runs a safe house near Daphne for other victims also agreed to speak on camera. An interview with an FBI agent in Alabama led to an introduction to agents based in Nebraska who specialize in combating sex trafficking, so Pober traveled to Omaha with her video camera and interviewed several agents, a federal prosecutor and other law enforcement officers.
“I ended up with nine hours of video and edited it down to 32 minutes,” Pober says. “I’d never done anything like this before, but a friend of my mother’s who was a film and video editor helped me, and I raised about $3,000 from local businesses and family members to cover my expenses.”
Pober received her Gold Award in 2014, and this year, the video earned her an even more prestigious honor: On Oct. 7, she was one of 10 Girl Scouts in the country to receive a Young Woman of Distinction award in ceremonies at Girl Scouts of the USA headquarters in Briarcliff Manor, NY.
FBI Special Agent Kevin Hytrek, who supervises the anti-sex trafficking unit in Omaha, says Pober’s video is being used by his agents to help them explain the scope of the issue to some of the victims. “One of the hardest parts of our job is convincing prostitutes and others in the sex trade to testify against their pimps,” Hytrek says. “Some of us in the task force use it to demonstrate how this type of activity starts and how prevalent it is.”
A political science major and a member of the rowing team at Vassar, Pober says making the video has “definitely changed me. I had to learn how to talk to victims and experts in the field about a sensitive topic, how to be professional in dealing with them on and off-camera.”
Some of the interviews were tougher than others, Pober says. “Talking to the survivors was the hardest – the effects of what they’ve been through still linger. I met women who have been out of the trade for a long time who are still traumatized.”
Pober says the feedback she’s received about the video has been gratifying. “My friends have been mostly shocked. Like me, they had no idea of the scope of the problem,” she says. “A friend who now lives in the Philippines was inspired to make his own video about the issue there.”
Pober has shown excerpts of her video during presentations to community groups in Alabama and plans to show it at Vassar soon. “When I started the project, I told myself that if I could prevent one girl from being victimized, it would all be worth it,” she says. “I still feel that way.”
Photo by Karl Rabe