By Marissa Cardwell

San Diego is a large and diverse county. It’s known for its beauty, near-perfect weather, military bases, craft beer scene, and zoo, among other attractions. But within this great city, there’s also an ugly problem silently happening in plain sight. Human trafficking.

According to the FBI, San Diego is among the top 13 high-intensity child prostitution cities in America. The southern region is a very vulnerable area for sex trafficking as it sits along the busiest border crossing in the world. The area surrounding the Marine Corps Base in the northern part of the county is also a target for domestic minor/adult sexual trafficking.

While great strides have been made to combat human trafficking in San Diego County, the problem remains pervasive and complex as there are many gaps that enable traffickers to stay one step ahead. One of these gaps includes the lack of preventative programs in San Diego and gender specific programs that are relative to the community in which they are serving.

We’re an organization dedicated to improving community health, promoting women’s empowerment and integrating gender equity throughout our programs. To stay true to that, we’re addressing the problem of human trafficking, more specifically sex trafficking, at local, national and international levels. Our roots and headquarters are in San Diego, so we’re focusing most of our anti-trafficking efforts in the San Diego/Tijuana border region with a particular emphasis on prevention, community awareness and collaboration efforts.

Girls Only is a prevention education program designed to promote self-esteem, develop life skills, and inspire positive motivation in young girls. Through interactive lesson plans, volunteer community mentors, peer support and lots of fun, the Girls Only program aims to build the resiliency of girls in San Diego by raising awareness of the vulnerabilities and issues specific to the community.

Girls grow up in a world today where one out of every six women in America will be a victim of sexual assault sometime in her life, where women earn approximately 78 cents for each dollar a man makes, and where women make up just 17% of government representation. Girls Only was created to empower girls by teaching them to be healthy, safe, to have positive self-esteem, motivation and resiliency against the dangers of sex trafficking, drugs, teenage pregnancy, unhealthy relationships and gang influence.

The activities in Girls Only are hands-on, engaging, and relevant to participants’ own life experiences. Girls Only uses reputably effective approaches to prevention, including: consistent mentorship, positive role models, supportive peer groups, interactive teaching methods, culturally specific programming, gender specific programming, and experiential education.

As another strategy to prevent sex trafficking, but from the demand or purchaser side, PCI is co-coordinating the Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Network of San Diego County, whose goal is reducing the demand for illegal commercial sex by 20 percent in two years. The CEASE Network is an action-oriented learning network that is dedicated to innovating, testing and sharing strategies with a proven impact on deterring people from buying sex.

In addition to our prevention and demand efforts, we also provide informational trainings and presentations about human trafficking. These human trafficking trainings teach listeners about human trafficking concepts, awareness, recognizing signs of a victims and best practices for identification and response. Furthermore, these trainings can be modified and presented to any community, business or interested parties and includes materials resources for further information and research.

It’s through hands-on prevention programs with young girls, deterring the demand, and educating the community at large about what trafficking is and how they can stop it that we hope to create a safer world for girls everywhere.

Marissa Cardwell is a Program Coordinator for PCI’s Human Trafficking Initiative.