Helping local sex trafficking victims heal

photo+courtesy+of+Cierra+Hypolite
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Helping local sex trafficking victims heal

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

Olivia Barfield

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Sex trafficking does exist in Monroe, but it doesn’t always look like sex trafficking.

According to junior psychology student Cierra Hypolite, the sex-trafficking we see in movies does happen. Though, in the Monroe-West Monroe area, sex-trafficking often appears to be an abusive relationship.

“It happens everywhere. It happens all the time,” Hypolite said.

Hypolite has interned at Project 41, a local Christian non-profit organization dedicated to helping sex-trafficking victims, for about a year. The New Iberia native first got

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

photo courtesy of Cierra Hypolite

involved after meeting Project 41’s co-founder at a bible study.

“I really wanted to be a part of the women’s transformations and to get to know them,” Hypolite said.

Project 41’s mission is to “rescue, value and transform women in the sex industry and victims of sex trafficking” in Northeast Louisiana. The ministry, which is only about three years old, takes in women from the Ouachita Correctional Center and also assists with rescues arranged by the police.

According to Hypolite, the ministry takes in new victims regularly.

There have been 3,646 reported cases of sex trafficking in Louisiana this year, according to The National Human Trafficking Resource Center. This summer alone, Project 41 helped rescue seven women, two of whom were minors.

The victims are of all ages and backgrounds.

“They really don’t look like anything. It’s crazy. Anyone can be a sex trafficking victim,” Hypolite said.

Most often, the ministry sees low-confidence women being taken advantage of through abusive relationships. The man convinces the woman that he feels for her, sometimes even going as far as marrying her, before he threatens her with sex work.

“Then they’ll say things like ‘oh, if you want this marriage to last, we’ve got to pay the bills. You’ve got to sell yourself’,” Hypolite said.

In most situations, if the woman doesn’t make a certain amount a week, her trafficker will beat her, or he and his friends will gang rape her.

What’s worse, Hypolite said, is that some victims don’t even know they’re victims.

“They’ll think it’s a normal relationship. He’ll make her think she’s his girlfriend. And it can be a house-full of women that all think that…They’re just so brainwashed.”

It isn’t until after they are rescued and someone explains what sex trafficking looks like that many women realize what they’ve been through.

At Project 41, the women are taken away from this lifestyle and shown that there is a better life.

Workers at the ministry take women and girls in and provide them with food, clothes and sometimes even basic identification. According to Hypolite, sometimes “pimps” will take the victims’ drivers licenses or social security cards, leaving them without any proof identity.

Most of the women rescued go on to participate in Esther’s Academy, a 12-18 month rehabilitation program where they attend classes and receive all the care and therapy they need to transition out of their sex trafficking lifestyle.

“A focus on the Bible helps heal the women too,” Hypolite said.

“We want them to feel spiritually healed. A lot of them have anxiety, they’re paranoid, they’re nervous. They think that their trafficking may find them and hurt them. And we just want them to feel safe,” Hypolite said.

So far, the program seems to be working. Most women who start rehabilitation in Esther’s Academy finish.

While the ministry has changed several lives of victims, it’s also changing the lives of interns like Hypolite.

She can’t even imagine herself in some of the situations of women she comes into contact with. But through all the shock, Hypolite said it’s important that she keeps a steady face.

“We’ve trained to control our emotion. We try not to feel sorry for them so we can encourage them to be better.”

One of the most important things Hypolite has learned is the importance of confidence. She now wants to continue in the field of victim rehabilitation after graduating so that she can spread this message, along with all the other thing she’s learned.

Although Project 41 focuses on saving women, men can be trafficked too. The ministry hasn’t encountered any men so far, but Hypolite said if they do encounter a man, they will help him.

Project 41 offers many other programs aimed at taking down sex trafficking. Aside from the trauma care and other services offered through Esther’s Academy, Project 41 offers a prison ministry and training for anyone who wants to know how to help save victims.

Groups can contact the ministry at p41ministry.com to schedule a training session. They train first responders, nurses, teachers and more on what to look out for when dealing with women who could potentially be victims. The ministry has even partnered with local police to train them on how to handle sex trafficking victims.

Students looking to get involved can intern, donate money and items or volunteer to work at any of the ministry’s many outreaches.