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USF grad student, UN delegate advocates for women


USF anthropology graduate student Brianna O’Steen has taught English in Bali, completed an independent study in the Dominican Republic, interned at the Smithsonian and worked with a nongovernmental organization in the Philippines, in addition to holding a recent position as one of 13 temporary delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). 

In March, O’Steen was recognized for her work in women’s rights as she marched for the cause in New York City. According to O’Steen, about 10,000 people were present.

“That’s more the sort of activism, taking to the streets that I don’t normally do,” she said. “I normally work as an advocate or more as an organizer, so it was a different approach.”

O’Steen also said she was impressed by the number of men and boys present, as she said this represents a “growing HeForShe movement,” which is sponsored by the U.N. and other organizations.   

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was one of the speakers at the event advocating for women’s equality.

“When you hold back half of our population, how can we can get 100 percent potential?” he said. “We cannot realize (it) … we have to fully respect and use (the) potential of all our women.”

Even though O’Steen has shared her voice on the world stage, some of her most important work happens in Tampa. 

O’Steen currently works at Redefining Refuge, a safe house for female teenagers recovering from sex trafficking. She said her position as a senior education liaison did not exist until she saw a need for it. 

“These are kids who have been truant for so long, or living on the streets, or in and out of various foster placements, and they’ve really fallen behind in school,” she said. “We have a 16-year-old right now who’s reading on a second- and third-grade level. There’s a lot of work to be done just within that small component.”

She said her passion for education is what led her to help those at Redefining Refuge expand their knowledge.

“As a woman, I am privileged in many ways. I am a white, middle-class woman. I feel that I owe it in many ways to others who have not had the opportunities I’ve been afforded,” she said. “Education has always been a passion of mine, and I would like to create those opportunities for others.”

O’Steen’s graduate thesis work surrounds resources for sex trafficking, with a chapter of the thesis focused on the effect of the Safe Harbor Act on sex trafficking in Tampa Bay. 

The act is theoretically meant to remove trafficked children from courtrooms and into safe houses, but according to O’Steen, there are serious flaws in the bill, which was passed in January 2013. 

“If you ask me, I think Florida really jumped the gun with their Safe Harbor Act,” she said.

“Other states already had them, so it was kind of like let’s just pass this and get on board, but they didn’t really prepare the state. There was no funding behind it, there weren’t enough service providers, people weren’t trained adequately,” she said. “The state is playing catch-up, because now we’re doing excellent at raising awareness and identifying these kids, but unfortunately we don’t have places for them to go.”

Steps toward better awareness surrounding the realities of sex trafficking, she said, lie in better public education on the issue as well as a better understanding of the realities of sex trafficking and forced labor.

“We need to be very careful, in thinking about adults, not to conflate sex trafficking to all forms of trafficking,” she said. “There are more people who are in labor trafficking than who are in sex trafficking.

“We also need to be careful not to conflate all forms of sex work with sex trafficking. Believe it or not, there are women out there who do choose to be in prostitution and there is agency to be found in that.”

O’Steen also said educating the public should not involve only shocking images, such as women chained to a bed or people trapped in cages. She said these images are not what people will generally be able to recognize in their own lives. 

Instead, O’Steen said “branding” is a common way to identify women involved in true forced sexual labor. She said this often involves tattoos, usually of the pimp’s name or initials, dollar signs or sometimes bar codes in order to make the woman feel like an owned object.

Other markers can be physical signs of abuse, a “quite older boyfriend” or girls appearing with expensive items they probably would not be able to afford otherwise. 

O’Steen said spoken word, rather than images, may be the best way to advocate on behalf of the reality of sex trafficking victims.

“I think testimonials is a really good way, even if it’s just short little audio clips of stuff, I think that’s probably more powerful than an image,” she said. “Survivors, depending on where they are in their stage of recovery, do like to share, they do like to share their stories.”

Although more men are taking the role of activists for women’s rights, boys are sometimes ignored as victims of sex trafficking and sexual crimes.

“There’s no specific location for minor boys to go if they’re victims of sex trafficking,” O’Steen said.

Despite all this, O’Steen said the Safe Harbor Act is still worth saving.

“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “It did something, it made people aware and now we just need to amend it.”