'Precious' Character Is Reality For Some Girls

Host Michel Martin talks with Malika Saadar Saar, executive director and founder of the Rebecca Project about the real life of girls like Precious, and what can be done to help them to overcome difficult situations.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Just how real is Precious? Part of the buzz around the film is the sense that it is unblinking in it's gaze at the life of its central character - an abused black girl living in Harlem that nobody seems to care about until a social worker and caring teacher link arms to give her the tools she needs to pull herself out of her sad life.

But some people say that's just as big a fantasy as Star Wars. I'm joined by Malika Saadar Saar. She's the executive director and founder of the Rebecca Project, which works with vulnerable women and children. She recently wrote an Op-ed in the Washington Post on the real life Preciouses live in many of our communities and she joins us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. MALIKA SAADAR SAAR: (Founder, Rebecca Project): Thank you.

MARTIN: You write that one in three American girls will experience sexual violence by age 18, regardless of race or class. And you said that even though the film was powerful in bringing the life of these girls to public attention, what actually happens to them in real life, there's no relation to what happens in the movie. So tell us more about that. What does happen to most of these girls?

Ms. SAAR: Most of these girls lined up behind bars. When you look at our girls who are in the criminal justice system, they are there because they have been hurt by incest or by other forms of sexual violence. And that is a shared narrative of these girls who are detained. They get detained because they are running away from home or they're running away from home because they are running away from the abuse at home.

It's interesting we tell our women who are in situations of violence that they ought to run away from their batterer. When girls run away from those who are hurting them at home. They're arrested and put behind bars. And then the other reason why we have so many girls behind bars, more girls behind bars than at any other point in our history is because of trafficking. You know, we often think about trafficking in terms of girls abroad in India or Costa Rica or Thailand, but within the U.S., girls are being trafficked, and I'm talking about American girls, girls who are born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, in Harlem, New York, in Compton, California. These girls are being trafficked. And when they are caught by the police, they are put behind bars.

MARTIN: Why is that? I mean, one of the reasons that I think many people have a hard time understanding how trafficking could exist in this country is that presumably, if you are born in Harlem or Dayton, Ohio, you speak the national language. And we associate trafficking with girls who are brought across borders deliberately so that they will not know where they are or how to get help. So how is it possible that this continues in this country when presumably, girls can figure everybody knows to call 911. Why doesn't that work?

Because many of the girls get kidnapped by the pimps, because many of the girls are runaways. The same girls who are running away from the abusive homes are being preyed upon by the pimps. There's a powerful story done in the New York Times, showing how the pimps know to prey on and identify the runaway girls by how they look, by how they dress, by the runaway shelters they go to. And so these girls become vulnerable to the pimps, and the pimps become the only individual showing love, care, concern for the girl, and that's the pimp's way of entrapping, of ensnaring girls into lives of prostitution.

MARTIN: As we see in the film "Precious," which I know you saw, that many of the performances have been lauded, but one of the central characters, of course, is that of the teacher, Ms. Rain. What about the character of the teacher? I just want to play a short clip for those who have not seen the film of just how pivotal this teacher is to the character of Precious kind of coming out of her despair.

(Soundbite of film, "Precious")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. Paula Patton (Actor): (As Ms. Rain) My favorite color is purple. I sing well, and I'm here because I love to teach. (Unintelligible), is there something you do well?

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Nothing.

Ms. PATTON: (As Ms. Rain) Everybody's good at something.

MARTIN: The point being that this teacher becomes her lifeline because she's the first person to show Precious the kind of affection and regard and to see her as a person. And so Malika, what are you - are you saying to me that there is no such Ms. Rain, that Ms. Rain doesn't exist?

Ms. SAAR: Oh, no, I think there are many Ms. Rains. Whether or not the educational system keeps those Ms. Rains, whether or not those Ms. Rains are able to really impact the lives of girls as shown in the movie is another question.

Look, I was probably not as good as Ms. Rain, but I was a Ms. Rain in the high school system in California back in 1993. I went from Stanford Ed School and went into the educational system believing that I could save the lives of girls like Precious by being a teacher. And I worked so hard with so many girls like Precious to make that difference. And at the end of the year, I recognized that unless we change the policies on a national and state level, girls like Precious don't have a chance.

MARTIN: What would make a difference for girls like Precious?

Ms. SAAR: Well, first of all, we have to stop incarcerating girls like Precious. So we cannot have one girl behind bars because of sexual victimization. When girls are trafficked, they deserve a place to go to to heal, to recover and to be whole. And girls like Precious deserve schools that can teach them.

We don't have real programs for teenage mothers or girls dealing with issues of trauma and violence to go to. We don't have those kinds of gender-specific girl programs. I met a 13-year-old girl who was a survivor of incest. Her uncle was raping her, and she had a baby from another man as a way of stopping him from raping her. I didn't meet her at a special incest survivor's group. I met her in the juvenile justice system of Delaware. That ought not to be. We ought to be very thoughtful about the kinds of programs that we establish for our girls at the margins, and right now, we don't have those programs.

MARTIN: Why was she in a juvenile justice - why was she in juvenile detention?

Ms. SAAR: Because she was truant from school, and she was truant from school because she was taking care of her baby.

MARTIN: What role do you think that sexual abuse of the kind depicted in the film "Precious" plays in the presence of girls in the criminal justice system?

Ms. SAAR: Well, I think they're in the criminal justice system because of the sexual victimization. So the sexual victimization has cut them down because it has pushed them out of the interior of the community and our families and our structures of learning.

These girls feel less than, they feel other, they feel unworthy, and there is the expectation of: just deal with it. So when these girls are hurt, there are no places for them to go to to deal with the issue of the violence and trauma. They are expected to simply endure it and move on.

MARTIN: There are many people, I think, who have the view that girls today are much more sexually aggressive than girls in the past. So they, I think, may have a hard time seeing girls as victims in that way. They see girls who seem to be very provocative, very forward in their dealings with men and boys.

Ms. SAAR: I think that's a narrative that we push intentionally so that we don't look at what's underneath. And what's underneath are some very, very upsetting statistics: one in three girls being subject to sexual abuse by the time she's 18. There's also the statistic that girls between the ages of 16 to 19 are four times more likely to be raped than the general population.

So I think that we can tell ourselves this narrative of girls being comfortable with more sexualization and that there's a power from sexualization, and it allows us to ignore the very bitter truth of what girls go through around sexual victimization.

MARTIN: You say that we still are not, as a society, being real about the degree of sexual violence directed at girls. I mean, we talk about it a lot in the context of war zones and conflict zones in other parts of the world, but you're saying, you know, this, right here, there's trafficking. Right here, there's a lot of sexual violence directed at girls.

I think a lot of people have the idea that this is a society that talks about everything. Everything's out there. Everything's on the table. Why do you think that this still is not discussed?

Ms. SAAR: It's a question I ask myself every day. It is unbelievable to me that we can have celebrities talk about the most important cause being trafficking in India or the Congo or what's happening to girls in Thailand.

There's an unbelievable international movement around protecting and defending girls traffic, and there's an eagerness to be part of that movement. And yet I don't understand why we can't bring that commitment to girls to those daughters right here in the U.S. who are struggling. Perhaps it feels too close. Perhaps these are issues that feel too visceral when we talk about them within our homes and our communities, but we have to do this. And I think this is my hope for the movie "Precious." Can it be used as an opportunity to be brutally honest about what our girls are enduring in the U.S.? Can we really have a very honest conversation about the unacceptable levels of violence against our girls, not just our girls at the margins, not just the girls in Harlem because it's not just the girls in Harlem. It's about every girl in every family in every community in every state, and we have to get prepared and honest and brave enough to have that conversation.

MARTIN: Malika Saadar Saar is the executive director and founder of the Rebecca Project. If you want to read more about what she has to say, especially a piece that she wrote for the Washington Post, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on Programs, and then go to TELL ME MORE. Malika joined us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Malika, thank you again.

Ms. SAAR: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, soul singer Mayer Hawthorne doesn't fit the profile of a soul singer, but audiences are loving him anyway.

Mr. MAYER HAWTHORNE (Singer): The only thing that I can really boil it down to is that it's the fun factor. You know, I'm having so much fun with this music, and you know, everyone just wants to have a little fun.

MARTIN: Mayer Hawthorne drops by to perform some songs from his new albums, "A Strange Arrangement." That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.