A Teenager’s Quest to Eradicate Child Sex Trafficking

As a girl living in the Bay Area, where 40% of all of America’s sex trafficking takes place, 19-year-old Rebecca Dharmapalan is working to make her community of Oakland, California the first place child sex trafficking is eradicated. Rebecca won second place documentary in the 2014 Adobe Youth Voices awards for “International Boulevard”, a film meant to raise awareness about this issue. She was recently profiled in Mashable and Huffington Post, and launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund her first feature film as a follow up to her documentary. This week, she will about speak about her mission at the Ashoka Future Forum in Washington DC and TEDxTeen in New York.


“When I started this project, it was hard for me to accept that the exploitation of children would be tolerated in our day and age. We, as a community, cannot ignore it anymore. Child exploitation has to end.”

— Rebecca Dharmapalan, high school senior at Oakland School for the Arts ’14 (currently a first year at UC Berkeley)

Q: What’s your vision? What is the impact you want to make?

A: I want to change how most people think that child sex trafficking is only happening in Asia, and in countries like India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The reality is that hundreds and thousands of children are at risk every single day for being trafficked into sex slavery. Ultimately, the impact I want to make is to end child sex trafficking throughout the world.

Q: When do you first remember you wanted to tackle this issue?

A: My specific engagement in this topic came about over a year ago, driven by the fate of a schoolmate who had recently left school without an explanation. Soon thereafter, I discovered that she was being exploited and forced to work on the streets of Oakland.

Q: Tell us about your journey since then. How did you get to where you are today?

A: Learning this compelled me to want to produce a documentary. Before long, I found myself in an under-cover Oakland Police car, behind a camera, riding down one of our city’s most dangerous streets. The documentary we produced on sex trafficking, International Boulevard, won second place documentary in the 2014 Adobe Youth Voices Awards and grand prize at the Girls Impact the World Film Festival (GITW). The festival opened my eyes to the world of filmmaking and social change through the arts. I was empowered with the ability of becoming a cinematographer, and was provided an open stage to present a problem to a global platform.

Q: Who has helped you on your journey and to continue mitigation of child sex trafficking in your community?

A: My film partner, Zoë Simone Yi and I acted as co-directors and also as the shadowy figures applying lipstick and managing our bodies in International Boulevard.


After being presented with the GITW award, I have continued to work on the issue of child trafficking with the help of civic organizations.

As an Oakland Youth Commissioner, and with the help of the Oakland School District, I am implementing ways to prevent exploitation through education. Our outreach includes educating parents on the facts of child trafficking in our city and holding assemblies to educate seventh graders about the issue. International Boulevard was included in our School District’s curriculum in the fall of 2014.

I have also worked alongside Dr. Barbara Staggers, Director of Adolescent Medicine at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. With the help of other medical professionals, we gathered data and implemented better screening protocols to identify victims of such exploitation when they enter the medical system.

I have also collaborated with local organizations and city officials to create Oakland’s first Commercially Sexually Exploited Minors (CSEC) prevention task force. Results of our work culminated in a major billboard campaign in Oakland and Berkeley. The CSEC taskforce aims to eventually end all trafficking of children and minors in our city, and inspire other cities in the United States to do the same.

Q: What are your future goals?

A: My short-term goal is to launch an Indiegogo campaign to fund a feature-length documentary about the child sex trafficking epidemic. After graduating from UC Berkeley, I want to open community-based restorative justice centers for at-risk youth. Long-term, I envision running for mayor of Oakland and for governor of California. These positions will empower me with the ability to eradicate human trafficking, making it the top priority for the state of California.

Q: What help do you need to achieve them?

A: Our 5-minute documentary, International Boulevard ignited collaboration to address sex trafficking between our local police force, medical institutions, social services, schools, the public, and especially young girls. I believe that a feature length narrative documentary will broaden our impact throughout the state, the country and potentially, the world by exposing the industry of sex trafficking through complex, multi-dimensional characters, hard facts and evidence.


I have launched a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to fund this project.

With your help we can extend the efforts to end sex trafficking, ultimately resulting in girls being rescued from their pimps, taken off the streets and offered the opportunity to live a life with promise and dignity. Please make a donation of any size to enable us to expand our vital work. (Indiegogo) Together we can make a difference!

Q: How will the world be different because of what you’re doing?

A: If I could express one thing with my art, I would really like to display the fact that social change can take place within art. And that is the sole purpose of everything that I do artistically; it is to create change in my community and create change in the world. I am not a filmmaker, I am a changemaker and I want to finish what I’ve started, which is eradicating child sex trafficking in Oakland and on a global scale.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is afraid to pursue their ideas for solving an important social issue? What do they need to be successful?

A: I would tell them “Don’t be afraid to break boundaries and fight for what you believe in. Many social issues come with some sort of backlash. Arm yourself with knowledge and allies to fight a war against all odds.”