BMCC Liberal Arts major Sumaiya Sarwar will graduate with honors this June and go on to pursue a Bachelors’ degree in Women’s Studies. Along the way, she has been elected to the Phi Theta Kappa honorary society and served as president of BMCC’s Sisterhood Society.
But the road Sarwar has traveled has been anything but smooth. She shared her story on March 4 at a kickoff luncheon for Women’s Herstory Month at BMCC.
Sarwar was just a teenager when she became engaged to a man who dragged her into a long nightmare of physical, sexual and psychological abuse.
“I would have left, but I was economically dependent on my fiancé, she says. “Little by little, I became isolated from my family and friends and dropped out of high school. Meanwhile, I had no job and nowhere to go.”
Finally, Sarwar reached a breaking point.
“I thought, my life has to be better than this—I deserve better than this,” she says. She left her fiancé, came to New York, and enrolled in BMCC. She’s never looked back. But neither has she forgotten.
“It’s important for me to share my story with others, which is why taking part in Women’s Herstory Month is so meaningful to me,” she says. “I was a victim—but now I’m a survivor.”
Celebrating women’s physical and inner strength
Indeed, the theme of this year’s Women’s Herstory month is “Woman as Survivors.”
The program, which runs through March 27, is co-chaired by Christa Baiada, Assistant Professor in the English Department, and Melissa Brown, Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Science and Human Servicers. Deborah Parker, of BMCC’s Women's Resource Center, also played a key role as a member of the Women’s Herstory Month executive committee.
“This is a theme that we believe celebrates both the physical and inner strength that women possess and employ throughout their lives,” says Baiada.
Adds Brown, “It’s a strength called upon in various situations and circumstances, from human trafficking, slavery, war, and political oppression to discrimination and daily incivilities.”
Among those who spoke at the kickoff luncheon were Jenia Brown and Ali Wolf, representing Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), the nation’s largest organization serving girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.
“People often assume incorrectly that trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation are exclusively international issues,” says Brown. “It’s difficult for them to grasp that these are also domestic problems.”
“Domestic,” she is quick to note, isn’t simply another word for “within U.S. borders.”
“These problems exist in our communities and in our backyards,” Brown says. “They’re about violence, force, coercion, vulnerability—issues that are not normally addressed. At GEMS, we want to identify the causes and risk factors—where is the demand coming from that’s actually propelling this industry?”
Trafficking’s underlying causes
While GEMS’ key agenda is the battle against commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, these aren’t its only concerns, says Wolf.
“They don’t happen in a vacuum but as a direct outgrowth of sexism, racism, classism, and gender-based violence—things that people are often uncomfortable talking about.”
GEMS was founded in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a young woman who had been sexually exploited as a teenager and later did missionary to work with adult women exiting prostitution.
“But at the Rikers Island correctional facility she saw that many of the women who’d been arrested for crimes related to prostitution were as young as 14,” says Wolf.
In time, GEMS played a lead role in the passage of the nation’s first Safe Harbor Laws, which protect, rather than criminalize, young victims of trafficking.
“GEMS’ focus is on empowering these young women to access the resources available to them to rebuild their lives,” says Brown. “Our motto, is ‘Victim, survivor, leader’.”
It’s a motto that resonates with special meaning for Sumaiya Sarwar.
“If you’re a woman who has been in an abusive relationship, no one should be able to tell you that because you’ve been a victim you must stay a victim,” she says.
“You can become a survivor—and, in so doing, inspire others.”