WASHINGTON, D.C. – She goes by the nickname “T.” Lawmakers call her one of the most courageous congressional witnesses they have ever met.
“I became vulnerable for a man to basically sexually exploit me. He lured me first on the streets, then the Internet, anywhere he could,” said Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, a college student and sex trafficking survivor.
Ortiz Walker Pettigrew is using her story to help lawmakers better understand the issue of sex trafficking in our nation.
In her testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, she said she spent her life on the streets from when she was 10 years old to 17 years of age. She was beaten, tortured, manipulated, and sold for sex.
“I am coming with the knowledge of not only my own experience but plenty of other young people who have been sexually exploited,” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew said.
She told lawmakers that she thinks people who purchase children for sex should be prosecuted as child rapists. And, she is advocating for better services for victims, saying that the child welfare system is partly to blame.
She understands this all too well because she was raised in the system.
“I don’t think that there is enough supervision upon the funding that’s given to serve and provide for the young people, and so it’s often manipulated or taken advantage of by caregivers,” she said.
Right now, members of Congress say human trafficking in the United States is a $9.8 billion industry.
To combat this, one lawmakers on the House committee is working on legislation to increase penalties for trafficking offenses, strengthen reporting of the crime, and set up a domestic trafficking victims fund inside the Department of Treasury.
“They prosecute the trafficker, let’s go after the customer. It’s all about money. Let’s make sure they treat those individuals like criminals and make sure they go to prison, and make sure the days of boys being boys is over,” said Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX).
Congressman Poe is doing more than just writing legislation; he’s encouraging Ortiz Walker Pettigrew to share her story, saying he believes it will help convince other lawmakers that something needs to be done.
“I definitely wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t feel that it was possible to make a difference in the lives of women like me or other young people,” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew said.