Being a Woman in El Salvador (Part III)

“Violence is an obstacle that prevents women from developing their own initiatives, and economic activities.”                       

-Ana Elena Badilla, UN Women representative


This is a guest post from our wonderful partner program in El Salvador. You can see the original post along with Spanish translation over at Mission To El Salvador's blog

You can also read Part I here and Part II here

"In El Salvador, violence is a significant risk factor for women and a very real obstacle to their personal and economic development. The gangs which control so much of the country, plus the deeply entrenched machismo, create an environment where women are not safe in their own neighborhoods.

Gang control is so pervasive in neighborhoods around El Salvador, that many girls are forced into sexual slavery as girlfriends of local gang leaders. The girls have no choice in the matter…they must join the gang or be killed. The problem has become so grave that young girls are fleeing El Salvador, and other countries in the region, with the hopes of finding safety in Mexico or the United States. According to this article, 32,142 females fled the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) in the first 9 months of 2016. One out of every 3 of those females were girls under the age of 18. Since 2014, 15,000 girls under 18 have been detained by immigration officials. Violence is a major factor in their decision to leave. There is truly a refugee crisis fueled by the real threat of sexual slavery facing underage girls in Central America.

Forced sexual exploitation by criminal gangs is nothing more than modern day slavery. Urmela Bhoola works with the U.N. to combat human trafficking and she had this to say about the issue, “The forced recruitment of girls and young women into gang-related activities, and especially being forced into prostitution through providing ‘conjugal visits’ to gang members in prison, are extreme forms of sexual exploitation and human degradation that involve exercising powers akin to the right of ownership over these individuals.”

Is there a future for these women that have suffered such violence? Is there healing to be found for families and communities? We dare to hope that the answer is yes.

Some women who have been exploited by gangs eventually find their way out, and begin to walk a path toward freedom. These women are now our clients and we are honored to serve them. In our partnership with Free The Girls, we work to provide economic stability for women who are survivors of exploitation.

Every woman has a different story…maybe she aged out of the gangs, went to jail, or was able to get away from the situation. We have also found that every woman has a different dream.

Ingrid* got pregnant at a young age at the hands of her “boyfriends” and after a few kids found herself aging out of the gang. She also found herself with no job, and no economic security at all. She started selling bras, and gained enough confidence and sales experience to eventually find full-time work.

Carmen* was recruited as a young girl into her neighborhood gang. Saying “no” was not an option and before she knew it, she was in jail because of the gang lifestyle. That eventually proved to be her ticket out. She started selling bras, and she was really good at it. Today she has her own place, supports her children, and does it all completely on her own.

The road to freedom is a complex one.

Economic stability for these women is absolutely key as they are at a high risk of being re-trafficked. But they also need a supportive environment, access to counseling, and opportunities to learn how to manage finances and care for their children in a healthy way. We are working to provide these things and give these girls the best possible chance of success.

Being enslaved and exploited is not the dream that girls have in El Salvador. Too often, it has become their brutal reality. But we know that even out of the darkest ashes beauty can rise, and we have been privileged to see these women take on the difficult task of working toward their own freedom in every sense of the word.

As we wrap up this blog series, we thank you for supporting these women through our work. We ask you to pray for these women as they fight so strongly and bravely for their freedom. Watching them heal and grow is truly a beautiful thing to see."

*Name has been changed.   

Your Incredible Ability....

No one can ever take away your ability to give.

Circumstance may lead us to believe it, but the stories we've experienced and heard tell us otherwise.

Some of my most cherished items are gifts from people who hadn’t much to give.  A ring from a young girl living in a slum in Brazil.  A necklace from a women’s co-op in a rural village in Uganda who were struggling with drought and lack of crops.  A handmade card from my husband for my birthday when we were financially struggling.  The $3 slipped into my hand from a 5 year old boy for “the ladies” in Free The Girls. 

Our staff gets the unique privilege of seeing stories like this frequently, especially in relation to bras.  Cards enclosed in packages containing bras that recount the story of a widower who hadn’t been able to clean out his wife’s dresser but just knew that she would have wanted her bras to help others.  The single bra from a young woman who isn’t old enough to get a job but wants to contribute on a global scale.  The women who donate their bras after mastectomies.  The mother who donated her daughter’s bras after her daughter tragically passed away.  And financial donations made in honor of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, best friends, and daughters.

Even the women in our program choose the joy of giving.  When I was visiting our ladies in Uganda last year, there was a day when one of the women brought a bag of bras to a safe-house for teenage girls because she wanted to “tithe” part of her inventory.  In the fall of 2015, we wrote a blog post about the women lining up outside of a blood bank to donate blood for a woman who needed a complete blood transfusion.  They literally gave their life-blood for their friend.  And women in all of our locations have given space in their homes for family to come live.

Sacrificial giving is such a beautiful gesture – whether that is a meal scraped together with the last ingredients you have in your home or whether that is a four-, five-, or six-figure check written and given with a joyful heart.

The world feels a bit crazy these days.  It’s tempting to look around and cling to our comforts or to focus all our energy in our own immediate sphere rather than on the “forgotten” or “vulnerable” not directly in our path.  It’s tempting to look at our own problems, but I don’t believe that problems excuse us from using whatever we have to bless and empower others. 

This is how the darkness is fought.  This is how justice moves forward.  When we give - of our time, our finances, our voice, and, yes, our bras – we help bring light and hope and freedom into the world.  And nothing can take away our ability and our calling to do this.  Nothing can steal away the cultivation of generosity, can keep us from choosing generosity.

So how can you be generous today? How can you sacrificially give today?

Choose generosity.  Choose the light.  Choose to participate in a quiet act of rebellion by not allowing the noise to make you think you no longer have the ability to empower others and make the world a better place.  And when you do this, you also choose joy.

Our First National Bra Drive!

If you follow us on social media, you've probably seen a lot recently about #MyFreedomDay and our National Bra Driving coming up! We're pretty excited about it and very honored to have so many advocates around the globe taking a stand against human trafficking.

Taking a stand FOR FREEDOM.

We want to say thanks to all of the amazing organizations, groups, churches, and individuals who have decided to join the National Bra Drive on March 14th and all those who have been sharing what freedom means to you for My Freedom Day. 

We love this community of Everyday Abolitionists and wanted to highlight a few posts from the last couple of weeks: 

Lace + Day

Lace and Day is hosting a bra drive starting on March 14th and they're generously offering 20% off swimwear and 10% off every other full priced item in the store! Plus, you get entered to win $100 to spend in store! 

Mountain Midwifery Center in Englewood, Colorado

MMC recently collected and boxed up 157 bras in honor of International Women's Day! They're hoping to collect another 150 for #MyFreedomDay starting on March 14th! 

Whisper Intimates is generously giving away a new bra! Each person who donates for Free The Girls on March 14th will be entered to win! 

The Bar Method Denver-Stapleton is celebrating #MyFreedomDay by collecting bras on March 14th! Bring in two bras and you get one free class!! How awesome is that!!? 


Proud to have this guy as a volunteer for Free The Girls and advocate for freedom! 

Pam Gumns, one of our FTG Staff share about what freedom means to her! 

We also wanted to give a big THANK YOU to some advocates who have decided to host their own Facebook Fundraiser for Free The Girls! It makes such a difference for our organization and especially for the women in our program to have supporters all over the world. To learn more about creating your own fundraising page for FTG, check it out here! 


Share a video or photo of yourself and hashtag #MyFreedomDay and #FreeTheGirls - CNN Freedom Project will be highlighting people from all around the world tomorrow!

Please share and find a drop-off near you and join in the fun! 

My Freedom Day

We're always grateful when we get to partner with CNN FREEDOM PROJECT, and this time is no different. Celebrating freedom is essential when we realize that so many around the world experience oppression and slavery. We want to use our voice to change that.

With 20.9 million victims and a world population of 7 billion, that's                                                                                   1 in every 335 people on the planet living in slavery. 

That's why we do the work we do, and that's why we're calling on you to join. Spreading awareness is one simple act we can do to make a difference and fight for freedom.

When we choose to be grateful for our freedoms, that can, in turn, inspire us to work towards freedom for others.  

My Freedom Day is on March 14, 2017, and on that day, CNN Freedom Project will follow the sun across the globe, sharing about what freedom means to people of all nations. By sharing on social media with the hashtag #MyFreedomDay, you'll have a chance to be highlighting in the CNN Freedom Project's video! 

We'd love for you to take a simple video of photo of yourself with this sign and share: 

1) What "freedom" means to you


2) What you plan to do on March 14th for My Freedom Day. 

Be sure to tag #MyFreedomDay and #FreeTheGirls .

One easy way to partner with Free The Girls on that day is to take part in our first ever National Bra Drive!  We have over 140 official drop-off locations around North America that are participating!  Kicking off March 14th and running through March 31st, we'd love for you to clean out your drawers and drop off your gently-used bras at one of our amazing Drop-off partners.  When you write down your name and email address on the sign-up sheet, you'll be automatically put into a drawing for a nice FTG special surprise!  Make sure you snap a photo at the Drop-off to tag on social media. And if you ask the representative at the Drop-off, they'll be able to show you photos of the tangible difference you're making in the lives of women around the world!

We can't wait to see your smiling faces and hear from you! We'd love to share some of your stories on Facebook and Instagram




She said, "I'm ready..."

Have you ever had to let someone you love step out on their own?  Maybe it was your child on their first day of preschool or your best friend moving to the big city after college.  With these meaningful moments, there's often that tension between hope and fear, optimism and wanting to protect.

We had 13 women graduate from our program in Mozambique last month.  We are so thrilled for them, and yet we already miss them.  I've had people ask, "What does it feel like to have the people you worked with so closely graduate and leave?"  And I smile, a bit shamefacedly, and tell them about my friend M.

M was the first internationally trafficked survivor I worked with.  She's a Ugandan woman who had been tricked into believing she had a job in China.  Thankfully, through the coordinated efforts of organizations in China and Uganda as well as their respective embassies, M was repatriated.  She had a beautiful daughter, and I had watched her journey of walking towards restoration and wholeness for about two years at that point.  I had watched her try and fail at various business opportunities, witnessed her struggle with substance abuse, and fight her way to believing that her past experiences did not define her future.

But then, seemingly out of the blue, she said she was leaving.  She said she was moving a couple hours away to open a business there - she said that she was ready to move on.

Honestly, I was dreading her leaving.  I was afraid she was going to fail.  I was worried she was going to fall back into patterns of depression and substance abuse.  I was concerned that she wouldn't have us ready to pick her up and lift her when she fell.  Even though she was only a few years younger than me, I was feeling very mama-bear about the whole thing - protective and not wanting the world to get the chance to hurt her again.

M asked me to go out for tea with her the day before she left.  I showed up, not sure what to expect.  After we had sat down with our African tea, I asked her if she was sure she was ready to do this.  She looked at me straight in the face and said, "I'm ready to be who I once was, and I can't do it here with all of you as my safety.  I'm ready to be independent again.  I want to be myself again."

And I was ashamed.  We had spoken at length about freedom and independence and her having control over her life again - and here she was ready for just that, and I was hindering it by my own love for her and by my own ideas of what I thought was best for her.  I was kicked off my high-horse in that moment, and I gained even more respect for M and for all the other survivors I have the opportunity to meet.  

This is part of the reason we have graduation in our program.  We don't want to create dependency upon us, a safety-net for the women so they never have to reclaim their full independence.  It is scary, but it is also beautiful watching this transformation.

So, yes, we had 13 women graduate last month.  And guess what?  We now have space to welcome new women into the program.  New women to watch as they transform their own lives, one step at a time, until they too are one day ready to graduate.  

And we welcome you to be a part of this journey.  With Export Freedom Mozambique, you can sponsor a box and get to know one of these new women in our program as she receives some of the first inventory for her new job as an entrepreneur selling bras.  These boxes of bras are the key to economic empowerment which is a crucial tool as they walk towards true freedom. Next month, we are also launching a fundraiser for a Graduation Party and matching grant program for our graduates as they are entering into this new season.  But if you want to start the ball rolling, just click here and note that this is for Graduation.

Thank you all so much for being an advocate for true freedom!  And for helping us both celebrate letting go and welcoming new women in with open arms!

With gratitude,