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Elizabeth Smart speaks at human trafficking forum, emphasizes teaching children that they matter

Elizabeth Smart
Elizabeth Smart
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

BALTIMORE — During a human trafficking forum held at John Hopkins University, Salt Lake City native Elizabeth Smart spoke candidly about her nine months in captivity after being kidnapped in 2002 and the importance of educating children at a young age about how to stay safe and remember their self-worth.

Since her rescue in March of 2003, Smart has been asked on numerous occasions why she didn't run or why she didn't scream. While Smart expressed her frustration with such questions, she reminded the audience what many children who have been trafficked feel.

One answer speaks to the core of the power in human trafficking. Smart, like many others who have been kidnapped and raped, felt worthless.

"I felt so dirty and so filthy," she said.

Human trafficking goes beyond fear, according to Smart, and reaches the feelings of self-worth. Victims think to themselves, "Who would ever want me now? I'm worthless. That's what it was for me the first time I was raped," she said.

Smart said education needs to happen early and go beyond avoiding situations or people — parents and teachers need to teach children that they have value, no matter what.

"If I had been taught more, I think perhaps I would have been more prepared, and I think the younger we can educate children the better it is,” Smart said. She recalled a school object lesson about abstinence, sex and chewed gum that she remembered during her captivity, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.' And that's how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value," Smart said. "Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value."

Along with crushed feelings of self-worth and value, there is fear. Why didn't Smart run?

"The answer is simple: I was scared, I was petrified," Smart said.

The young girl was told daily that if she didn't do what her captors told her, or if she did anything they didn't like they would kill her. And if they didn't kill her they would kill her family, Smart said.

"I couldn't stand to think that because of something that I did or something I didn't do, that my family had to suffer for it," she said.

Smart's fear and concern for her family, and particularly her younger sister Mary Katherine, began the night Brian David Mitchell snuck into her room and took her at knife point.

"I felt like I didn't have a choice in that moment, the only thing I knew was that my younger sister Mary Katherine was alive and still asleep in the bed next to me, and I didn't know what would happen to her if I didn't go with him. So remember I got up immediately and I went with him," Smart said.

Mitchell, who took her to the mountains behind her home told the 14-year-old Smart that she was his wife now and that God had commanded this. And then he raped her.

"I felt my soul had been crushed," she said. "I felt like I wasn't even human anymore. How could anyone love me, or want me or care about me? I felt like life had no meaning to it. And that was only the beginning."

Smart went on to explain how soon after that first night she came to the realization that her parents would still love her despite all the horror she had experienced, and nothing would change their love for her.

"It was because of that realization that I was able to make the decision that no matter what I had to do, no matter how many personal goals or standards I had to break, I would do it, if it meant that I would survive," Smart said.

And it was Smart's decision that saw her through those nine months. As she described her rescue she detailed the moment her father came into the police station and Smart finally felt safe once again. She knew that no one would ever hurt her like that again and she knew that her parents did still love her.

Editor's note: This story has been updated and expanded since it was originally published.