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Edith Okupa: Helping Survivors of a Dark Reality to Dream Again

Edith Okupa, founder of Restoration Project International, LLC, conducted research to help legislators while working on her master's degree.When she escaped to the U.S. from a domestic violence situation in Nigeria more than 15 years ago, little did she know that she would one day stand with legislators at the state capitol to watch the governor of Colorado sign a bill into law to protect women and children. It was a bill that she helped to research, and a milestone in her personal mission to make a difference. 
Early in her career Edith Okupa set her sights on being a lawyer, helping women who were in similar situations as hers, but the first college she attended in the Maryland area only offered criminal justice classes. She took those classes and continued on that path, eventually moving to Colorado where she completed a master’s at the University of Colorado-Denver in public administration with an emphasis in domestic violence, project management and policy development.

She worked as a non-paid, public policy intern for the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence for her master's capstone project, which required her to identify an information problem in a real-world setting and develop the means to address it. This is when she connected with Sen. Morgan Carroll (D-29), lending her academic research to support legislation, namely the passage of SB 13-227, which protects children conceived in rape from contact with the father and which protects women from their rapist. 

"My ultimate goal was to research laws. Most states had laws to protect women and children, but Colorado didn’t have comprehensive laws," says Okupa, who explains that when these women go to ask for public assistance they must provide proof of a crime, ideally a conviction of the rapist. This can be difficult as many of the rapists are family members or known acquaintances.
She adds, “The women are reluctant to tell."

The bill, Termination of Parental Rights of the Rapist, was co-sponsored by Sen. Carroll, Sen. Evie Hudak (D-19), and State Rep. Lois Landgraf (D-21). In 2014, Sen. Carroll confirmed the bill was taken a step further with HB 1162, which protects rape victims when a child is conceived.Sen. Morgan Carroll and Edith Okupa in 2014 at a Restoration Project International, LLC event. Photo. Canady's Corner.

The subject of co-parenting with your rapist was addressed November 20, 2016 on This is Life with Lisa Ling on CNN.

Venture into Another Dark Reality
Through her studies she also began to learn about the sex and human trafficking industry, eventually creating Restoration Project International, LLC in 2013 to empower survivors to aspire for better life through education and to also raise awareness of the impacts of sexual exploitation. It’s a dark reality that many won't let seep into their minds. But it is a reality.

The International Labour Organization reports that human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry and is tied with drugs for the most profitable criminal endeavor, having passed illegal weapons. According to the U.S. State Department, 300,000 to 600,000 children and women are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Ninety eight percent of commercial sex slaves worldwide are females. The average age of entry into the industry is 12-14.

The numbers speak volumes, but the RPI founder and executive director says if it can happen to one girl, it can happen to any girl. Though programs exist to help those under 18, little exist for those over that age. That's where this nonprofit picks up. In collaboration with other organizations and agencies, and with the help of contributions from donors, RPI provides scholarship opportunities for survivors who aspire for college education. 

The organization works with women in transitional homes, namely those leaving the sex-trade industry, addictions and other destructive lifestyles. It's a tense environment as it is also a recruitment ground for traffickers. It’s one of the reasons the non-profit is working to establish Restoration Housing Project where survivors can have the opportunity for healing over a 12-24 month period. The goal is for the housing to be a place for survivors to move past traumatic experiences to dream again, pursue education, and gradually integrate into society for sustainable restoration. Those interested in supporting can visit the Global Giving Foundation for more information, and also make a donation on Giving Tuesday, November 29, 2016. 

Seeing the Signs of Trafficking
According to Okupa, a lot of women don't believe they are being trafficked because their pimps make them believe they are in a girlfriend-boyfriend relationship. Yet, they are being alienated from family and friends. They don't have control over the money they make or their time. 

From the outside, she says the visual signs can be witnessed in a woman’s provocative attire, possession of multiple cell phones and hotel keychain/key cards, as well as expensive purses, which stands out if they are from low-income households. She adds that many will have scars or their pimp's name tattooed on their body.

Restoration Project International focuses on women who want to come out of that lifestyle, but don't know how. The perception that they are prostitutes does not help, according to Okupa. "They are not prostitutes,” she says. “They're trafficking victims. They need our help."

Perception is something the RPI representatives face when delivering public presentations. A lot of people downplay the industry's relevance to them, believing it's happening somewhere else or only when major conventions, such as the Democratic National Convention or the Republican National Convention, come to the city. For example, she says that religious institutions can sometimes be skeptical of the warning signs. This is interesting to note because a lot of trafficking survivors don't go to these institutions because they are ridiculed or may run into a client.   

Making the public aware of the impact of this industry on individuals, families and society as a whole is a full-time job for Okupa, who also attends monthly and bi-monthly taskforce meetings with various organizations, including the Front Range Anti-Trafficking Coalition (FRAC), Jefferson County Human Trafficking Sub-Committee, and Colorado-Based Human Traffic Council, a nonprofit that facilitates multidisciplinary collaborations, including law enforcement, child welfare, victim advocates, exist through the Colorado Human Trafficking Council.

“When I came to this country, I came for better opportunities and because I saw better human rights protections in place,” says Okupa, whose daughter is a lawyer. “Choosing to work against trafficking— an area that a lot of people choose to sweep under the rug— is a calling that I respect every day."

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is an online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.