A Survivor and a Beacon for Others
Shanifa Bennett went from sex trafficking victim to survivor to advocate for other young women caught in trafficking’s web. Last November, the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recognized the former Covenant House resident for her extraordinary efforts to help other survivors escape this modern form of slavery.
The framed certificate she received from the governor’s office commemorates the approval of a bill to provide shelter and services to trafficking survivors in New York State. It has special meaning for Shanifa because, knowing firsthand what survivors are up against, she worked so hard for its passage.
“Exploiters can pinpoint need—your hunger, your need for a safe place to stay—in order to get you under their control,” Shanifa says. “I didn’t feel well cared for. For me to stay in school and meet basic needs, I got into the life,”
It didn’t turn out well. “A lot of times I didn’t eat. And they withheld my documents.”
After two years of exploitation, Shanifa wanted out. When a friend passed her Covenant House New York’s phone number, she saw her opportunity. She made the call and then fled, arriving at our door at about 3:00 one early morning.
As much as she wanted to get out of “the life,” Shanifa struggled at CHNY at first. “The experience was amazing and scary,” she recalls. “You don’t know people and you don’t want to open up.”
But the staff at Covenant House persisted in showing Shanifa absolute respect and unconditional love. CHNY’s Anti-Trafficking team includes mental health professionals, case workers, and survivor advocates. They convinced Shanifa that she was valued and that they would help her to break free of the trauma that was holding her back.
And break free she did. Shanifa earned her high school diploma, was awarded a community board internship, became a peer mentor for other young women, and became a fellow with the prestigious Conrad Hilton Prize Coalition. In 2018, she was a speaker at a United Nations conference, for high school students, on trafficking.
Breaking free of the chains and trauma of human trafficking isn’t easy, and re-entry into “the life” is common, Shanifa says. “It’s important for young people who have been trafficked to have support and choice,” she notes.
Thanks to the support she found at CHNY, Shanifa is transforming her experience, building a solid future for herself, and helping other young women to advance along a path of healing and independence. She has just joined the team of Legal Momentum, an organization that assists and advocates on behalf of trafficked women and girls.