Helping women escape 'the life'

CNN Hero: Vednita Carter

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Story highlights

  • Vednita Carter founded Breaking Free to support women who wish to escape prostitution
  • She believes the women her nonprofit helps are victims of sex trafficking and not criminals
  • Breaking Free provides food, clothing, housing, counseling, job skills training and more
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

As darkness falls, Joy Friedman hits the streets -- the same ones she used to troll for customers while working as a prostitute.

"My last trick was turned behind that storefront," she said, gesturing to a nearby building.

Now the survivor of sex trafficking cruises these neighborhoods with a different purpose. She's looking for women and girls who are caught up in this lifestyle so she can offer them free condoms and hygiene products.

She is also delivering a message: There is help for them if they want it.

Friedman works for Breaking Free, a nonprofit that helps women escape prostitution. It's where she got help 13 years ago.

"(Prostitution) has been happening forever. And forever, women have just been the victims of it," said Vednita Carter, the organization's founder. "They deserve better."

Since 1996, Carter says she has helped more than 6,000 women get the support they need. In the process, she's built an army of survivors who have joined her crusade to end sex trafficking.

Most of the women Vednita Carter helps struggle with addiction, abuse, trauma, financial instability and shame.

Lured into 'the life'

Carter personally knows about this world. At 18, she was hoping to make money for college when she responded to an advertisement for "dancers." At first, she danced fully clothed, but her bosses and then-boyfriend soon pressured her into stripping and, eventually, prostitution.

It was more than a year before Carter called a friend who helped her get back on her feet. Later, she realized how lucky she had been.

"The majority of women don't have anyone to call. There is nowhere for them to turn," said Carter, now 60. "That's why I do this work."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

For many of the women Carter helps, "the life" is all they've known. Studies show that the average age of entry into child prostitution is 12 to 14, and many of the girls have been sexually abused or were runaways.

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Carter works to educate the public and law enforcement to see these women as victims of sex trafficking rather than as criminals.

"Prostitution and sex trafficking really are the same thing. It's about buying and selling a human being," she said.

Leaving 'the life' behind

Carter says 95% of the women she helps struggle with addiction as well as physical abuse, mental trauma, financial instability and shame.

"It's a process. If (they've) been in it forever, it's all they know," she said. "They think it's their destiny."

Carter's drop-in center provides food, clothing and emotional support to any woman coming off the street, no strings attached.

For many women, the first significant step is to participate in a 14-week class called Sisters of Survival. Graduates are honored in a ceremony, marking the start of their new lives.

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"They learn that they do have other choices that (they) can make," Carter said.

The group also provides permanent and temporary housing, addiction counseling, job skills training and legal assistance.

Most of the staffers who work at Breaking Free are survivors of prostitution, making it one of just a few organizations like it in the United States.

"I have a purpose now," Friedman said. "I'm a fighter, and I'm going to fight 'til I die for each and every person involved in sexual exploitation."

Fighting the demand

Carter believes that sex trafficking won't end until men stop purchasing sexual favors. She established one of the country's first "John Schools" that educates men arrested for solicitation about the impact of their actions.

"I'm not here to make you feel like a piece of sh*t, but you've got to feel something," Doris Johnson, a survivor, told a group back in 2012. "That's somebody's daughter."

According to Carter's group, only 2% of the men who complete the course reoffend.

Carter is considered by many to be a pioneer in the anti-sex trafficking movement, and she is determined to keep fighting as long as she can.

"We are really raising an army here. And this is a battle," she said. "It's not OK to buy and sell us. We are not for sale."

Want to get involved? Check out the Breaking Free website at www.breakingfree.net and see how to help.