Kidnapped on Your Wedding Day – Forced Marriage, Sex Trafficking & Broken Dreams

by Michelle Brock on June 4th, 2015


weddingThe day was hot and muggy, but I was on cloud nine.  I was about to get married to my grade school sweetheart, and the thought of celebrating the big day with friends and family from all over the world had me bursting with excitement. Since then I’ve been loved, challenged, and cherished by my husband.  Our wedding day kicked off a fantastic new chapter in our lives and holds only good memories.

But, as I’ve discovered in recent weeks, this is far from the reality of many women.  I’ve been following the stories coming out of a small town in Mexico called Tenancingo.  This town, with a population of 10,000, is the single largest source of sex slaves sent to the US, and the business of sex trafficking employs more than half of its residents.  Girls from impoverished villages are the primary target while gaudy pimp mansions are sprouting up all over town.  Only 17 of the 3,000-5,000 pimps in Tenancingo were convicted between 2010-2013.


Pimp Mansion. Photo Source: Corey Sipkin,


I began to wonder how it got this way.  How does a rural Mexican town of 10,000 develop into a hotspot for human trafficking?  What circumstances and traditions have paved the way for such rampant exploitation?  While there are many variables that contribute to this, there are two that stand out above the rest:

Economy: When agricultural work became scarce and factories closed down, men began looking for other ways to make money.  Sex trafficking turned out to be extremely lucrative – a pimp with three women working for him could make up to half a million dollars per year by sending them to the US.

Robo de novia:  The practice of “stealing a bride” has been a long tradition in the state of Tlaxcala (where Tenancingo is located).  Men simply abduct the woman they wish to marry, and once she has spent a night with him, she is considered “damaged goods,” keeping her from returning to her family or pursuing a marriage on her own terms.  The commercialization of this tradition has taken the form of sex trafficking.

Shockingly, Mexico is not the only place where bride kidnapping is practiced.  It goes by different names in various regions of the world, but the basic premise is the same.


Name: Ala Cachuu (translated as “take and flee”)

An estimated 40% of women in Kyrgyzstan experience marriage by kidnapping.  Typically, a man will get together a group of friends and drive around town in search of the woman he wishes to marry. Sometimes she will know him, but that is not always the case.  She is dragged off the street, shoved into a car, and driven to his family’s home, where the marriage ceremony begins.  The women in the family spend time calming the bride, convincing her to wear the veil, and the couple is married.  The moment she enters his home, it is culturally frowned upon for her to reject the marriage.


Photo Source: Marie Claire


This practice began with the tribal tradition of stealing horses and women.  But the Soviets eventually made it unlawful to marry young girls, urging both girls and boys to go to school.  When girls started to attend university, it was common for them to meet and fall in love with a man their family disapproved of, as it violated their tradition of arranged marriage.  In light of this, a new trend developed where the girl’s boyfriend would “kidnap” her and they would spend the night together – thus making her “unfit” for an arranged marriage and allowing the couple to marry each other instead of the person their families had selected.

blog5 bride kidnapping final1But this tradition of bride kidnapping has developed into a lack of choice for many Kyrgyz women. Suicide rates, spousal abuse and divorce are significantly higher among kidnapped brides.  Those who go through the process of divorce are rejected by the community, leaving prostitution as one of the only viable options for income.

Despite being illegal, ala cachuu is widely practiced and often ignored by the authorities.  For more on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, you can watch this VICE documentary.

South Africa

Name: Ukuthwala (means “pursue and carry off in marriage”)

South Africa copy

Photo Source: World Bank


Practiced mainly by Khosa speakers in areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, Ukuthwala is the kidnapping of a girl or young woman by a man and his friends to persuade her family to participate in marriage negotiations.  It has similar origins to Kyrgyzstan – girls whose parents did not approve of their boyfriends arranged to be “abducted” so that the families would be forced to allow their marriage. According to the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organization, it was never done without the girl’s consent.

Today Ukuthwala often involves the rape and forced marriage of girls as young as 9 years old by men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers.  A few days after the abduction, the the kidnapper sends a delegation to the girl’s home to offer compensation to her family.  Some families accept the compensation and proceed with the marriage, while others press charges for rape and abduction.

Having volunteered in this region of South Africa a few years back, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many teenagers who walked long distances to attend school.  I didn’t know about ukuthwala back then, but now realize that those same girls I met lived in fear of being abducted and forced into marriage on the way to school.  Ukuthwala is illegal under South African law, but enforcement is a challenge.


Name: Qiangqin (translated as “seizing the bride”)

This form of marriage was prevalent in many areas of China until the 1940s.  Some scholars say it was a way for the groom to avoid paying a bride price, while others say it was orchestrated by the bride’s parents and the groom to override her consent.  One form of qiangqin involves the groom arriving at the woman’s house with more than a dozen men, at which point he would attempt to cut her pants.  She would then be taken to his house where the marriage would be consummated.

Yunnan China Farmer in his grainfield 01

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons


Today, forced marriages flourish as a result of the one child policy.  There is a strong preference for male babies, meaning that couples will have sex selective abortions or abandon female babies in an attempt to have a boy.  About 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, leading to a significant gender gap in the nation and giving traffickers the opportunity to kidnap girls to sell as brides.

Over half a million infant girls are missing.  Farmers in rural areas who are trying to find a wife pay up to $18,500 for an imported wife, “complete with a money-back guarantee in case she flees.”  North Korean defectors in China often end up in forced marriages.

What’s interesting is that in all these places, those who participate in bride kidnapping often hide behind “tradition.”  When generation after generation of women are forced into a marriage, it almost becomes a right of passage. In communities where the practice is prevalent, the women women typically say they don’t like it, but see it as “the way things are.”  There are various levels of coercion, but one thing pans across all of these cultures – men are always the ones with choice.

When abduction of women is a cultural norm, it’s not a far stretch to commercialize their bodies for profit. The strongest force behind human trafficking is ideology – how women and men view each other and the world – and there needs to be a major paradigm shift if we are to ensure the dignity, safety, and opportunity of our sisters.

MB Signature 300x54





Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

When the Red Light District Inspires a Book on Prayer: Interview with Author Jared Brock

by Michelle Brock on May 26th, 2015


JMAmsterdam11 1024x1022When my husband Jay and I were on tour with our documentary, we’d sometimes encounter curious individuals who wondered if we had kids.  Jay would joke and say, “oh shoot, we forgot them in the trunk” (usually people figured out he was joking, but there was the occasional person who seemed concerned). The road life is not exactly kid-friendly, so we’ve opted to give birth to some projects before we start a family.

Humans love to create, and I have the privilege of being married to one of the most creative, hard-working, throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-until-something-sticks people on the planet.  Over the course of the last two years, sandwiched between pieces of our North American documentary tour, Jay has been giving birth to another dream – writing his first book.

jaybThis last year, Jay (or Jared, as he is known in the literary world) embarked on a wild journey around the world in an attempt to revive his prayer life.  As you can imagine, anti-trafficking work can get pretty dark and depressing, and our faith has sustained us through some difficult seasons.

On this 37,000-mile global pilgrimage, Jay got to meet Pope Francis (who has made the fight against trafficking a huge priority for the Catholic church), spend New Year’s in North Korea, visit a bunch of monks on Mount Athos, dance with Jewish rabbis in Brooklyn, and even found himself walking across a bed of hot coals.

It’s essentially a humorous – yet earnest – memoir about Jay’s journey examining various Judeo-Christian prayer traditions, with the hope of re-igniting his own prayer life.  So, while the book itself is not about human trafficking (meaning this is a departure from what I usually write about here on the HFTS blog), I wanted to do an interview with Jay so you can learn more about his book and his passion for story-telling.

What was the moment that inspired you to write your new book?

I was in the red light district in Amsterdam. There was a soccer game going on, and there were hundreds of drunk guys outside of this one bar. When the game was over – depending on which team won – the men would either celebrate with the women in the windows or take out their aggression on them.  Either way, the girls lose. In the middle of the district is the oldest building in Amsterdam – an 800 year old church. The church bells were ringing, and it messed me up – I decided I needed to go on a pilgrimage to re-spark my prayer life.

As a guy, what was it like to visit the red light district for the first time? 

Honestly, I was surprised by how young the girls were. Obviously I tried to stick to eye contact with the women, and it was very interesting to watch the men. You couldn’t make eye contact if you stood on your head – they were either staring at women, or their eyes were zeroed on the pavement. It seemed almost… predatory, and somehow shameful.

It was interesting to see the women in the windows react to Michelle and her friend when they were chatting with them. The girls dropped the sexy act, and the guys cleared a wide berth around them. There was a look of disgust on many of the guys’ faces when they saw these women drop the act – if you believe the hype and stereotype, it’s uncomfortable to see real displays of humanity.

What interview has affected you most personally? 

We interviewed a 17-year-old girl in Amsterdam who had been out of the trade for less than a year. Her first client was in the back of a car in a parking garage when she was 12 years old. Forget shaking hands, she wouldn’t even make eye contact with me at first, and I certainly didn’t expect her to after what she’d been through. That was a tough interview, and at one point I apologized – on behalf of males – for the abuse she had endured.  I was so honoured when she smiled and shook my hand at the end.

JayFilming11 1024x702

What are a few things you have learned about sex trafficking that you want people to know?

First: “Choice” is complicated. If a girl was trafficked at 14, but now she’s 18 and working out of free will, is it still a choice? If a woman has a drug addiction or is in debt, is it a choice?

Second: This is a male issue. Supply-and-demand economics make it pretty obvious: if men don’t pay for sex, women aren’t trafficked for sex. We need to stop looking at porn, paying for sex, and treating women like objects. Because they’re actually kinda great.

Third: This is a massive money business, and often organized crime controls it. It’s massively profitable, and we need all hands on deck to fight it.

Why are you passionate about telling stories?

Books and movies have changed my life. Beautiful Mind was the first time I ever thought about mental illness. Braveheart taught me about having conviction under pressure. Walden helped me simplify my life. Stories can make the world a better place, because they can make us better people. Thus, why my book is just a bunch of crazy stories about prayer.

coverThe book is called A Year of Living Prayerfully, and you can purchase it anywhere books are sold (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Christian bookstores etc).  Visit to download the first two chapters for free.

Between May 26 and 29, the e-book is on sale at Amazon for $2.99.

Lastly, new Audible customers get the audiobook for free with this link (complete with singing and a dozen accents!).

You can also connect with Jared on facebook and follow him on twitter.  And to top it all off, check out the book trailer below!


My hope is that whether you are a person of faith or not, this book with resonate with you in a fun and meaningful way.  May everything we do be full of mission and purpose, so that we can elevate human worth and love each other better.

MB Signature 300x54





Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

The Truth Behind Our Clothing – Interview with Andrew Morgan, Director of The True Cost Documentary

by Michelle Brock on May 20th, 2015


Two years ago, after reading a newspaper story about the tragic factory collapse in Dhaka that killed 1,134 people, Andrew Morgan found himself on a plane bound for Bangladesh.  He was embarking on a long, daunting journey around the world to document the global fashion industry, and he was terrified. The unknowns before him loomed large.

But today, all of those unknowns have become the names and faces of a documentary.  After pushing through various obstacles and sifting through a countless assortment of sobering facts and compelling stories, Morgan and his team have a final product ready for the world to see.  The True Cost reveals where our clothes come from, the social and environmental impacts of the fashion industry, and hopeful stories that we can all learn from.  The film had its debut at Cannes last week, and is sparking conversation about ethical fashion both on and off the red carpet.

I’m excited to introduce you to Andrew Morgan, the director of The True Cost, who kindly agreed to an interview with Hope for the Sold.

Andrew Morgan Director 223x300What is the most surprising thing you discovered while making The True Cost?

For me the most surprising thing was just the scope and scale of the impact this one industry is having. As the largest employer of people in the world, it is built on supply chains that have led to the continued exploitation of the world’s poorest workers.

As the number two most polluting industry on earth, it is causing devastating harm to our planet and leading to very direct impact on people’s lives today. All of this while generating almost three trillion dollars a year in profit and creating some of the world’s richest people and most powerful companies. The further into it I went the more shocking it all became.

What kinds of logistical challenges did you run into while making the film?

There were the expected challenges associated with making a film that took us to more than 25 cities in 13 countries. There was also the challenge of building relationships and earning trust in these countries. We had an extended team of fixers and journalists all over the world.  Sharing my heart for the film in a way that motivated them to open doors for us was a key aspect for it all working. Once we built the relationships with these incredible people, the rest of the pieces just began to come together.

TrueCost FilmStill 08 1024x576

Photo Courtesy of The True Cost


Is there is particular person or story that really sticks with you?

In the film we meet a 23 year old garment worker named Shima and her daughter Nadia. Shima became the president of the very first labor union in her factory. Despite being beaten unconscious she continues to this day to lead the struggle for the voices of her fellow workers to be heard. Her bravery and the personal story of her life that represents millions of other garment workers around the world is both horrifying and incredibly hopeful.

What is fast fashion and why is it a problem?

Essentially, it is a process of producing mass amounts of clothing at a rapid pace and low price point. This has lead to a huge increase in the amount of clothes we consume (more than 400% more in the last two decades alone). We now consume over 80 billion new pieces of clothing each year and because so much of it is cheap, we also throw out a lot more than we ever have. Considering the natural resources that go into making clothing, the waste now being generated and the increased strain on supply chain price points – this has led us to a fundamentally unsustainable point in time where we can and must make a real change.

truescost2 1024x372

Photo Courtesy of The True Cost


Has anything changed in Bangladesh since the Rana Plaza collapse?

There have been some improvements but not merely as much as many of us hoped there would be. There has still been no real change made in the need for a living wage and workers voices are continually ignored. This has to become something we as people care about before the brands that sell to us begin to really invest in meaningful change.

How has this experience changed your family’s personal shopping habits?

It has added so much meaning to my life. Before I started work on this film, I never thought twice about anything beyond the style or price of a piece of clothing I bought. Now I have so much to think about when I am purchasing something and it has really changed the whole process of consumption for me. I am buying mostly second hand clothing and looking for companies that align with my values when I do invest in something new. It’s not always easy, especially with four kids who are constantly growing but it has become a really important conversation for us as a family to constantly be having in regards to anything we buy.

truecost 1024x1024

Photo Courtesy of The True Cost


The True Cost is available worldwide on May 29.  You can attend a screening or pre-order a digital or DVD copy of the film (which you can watch on May 29).  For more information, check out The True Cost website, follow them on Twitter and like them on facebook.

You can read more about the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse and how these issues are connected to sex trafficking here.  For a tragic, more recent story about the working conditions of the people who make the things we consume, read about the May 14 shoe factory fire in the Philippines.  Let’s educate ourselves so we can effectively reduce vulnerability and promote equality around the world.

Thank you, Andrew, for making this excellent and timely documentary – we wish you all the best as you enter an exciting season of film screenings and important conversations, and hope that it is a meaningful and effective time for you and the team.

MB Signature 300x54




Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

When Paying for Sex is a Quest for Intimacy

by Michelle Brock on May 12th, 2015


What drives someone to pay for sex?  Is it lust? Loneliness? Sexual addiction? A need for control? A search for power?  Here is one man’s explanation:

Listening to this man fills me with sadness.  I am sad for the single moms and students who, according to him, constitute the majority of those he buys sex from.  It’s likely that most of them see prostitution as the only viable option to make ends meet.  Some, unbeknownst to him, may be trafficking victims, as they can be difficult to identify even by the most well-meaning customer.

But I am also sad for this man.  While I fully support criminalizing the buying of sexual services due to the system of exploitation it fosters, and while I firmly believe that sex customers should be held accountable for the vulnerability they knowingly (or unknowingly) exploit, I also see a need to have a much bigger conversation about love, intimacy, and human worth.  Here is a quote from the video that highlights the importance of this:

blog 4 intimacy 12

If intimacy is what some of these men are seeking, we need to examine what real intimacy actually looks like.

Intimacy is about being known, being vulnerable, being wanted. It’s finding a place of belonging and peeling off the masks we wear for the rest of the world. It’s about companionship, acceptance, unconditional love.  For these reasons, it is possible to have intimacy without sex. The physical component is like the candle on a birthday cake – it’s the spark that is part of a much bigger celebration.  These are things money can’t buy.

The sex purchaser in this video explains that for him it’s not actually about the sexual release as much as it is about lying in bed with someone.  But fake intimacy runs the risk of decreased self-esteem and self-worth.  Cognitively the person is aware of the exchange (money paid) and that the intimacy is not mutual.  It increases dissatisfaction, requiring an increased level of involvement.

Not only is fake intimacy harmful to the person buying sex, but I’ve also heard women who have left the sex industry say how much it drained them to have customers dump their emotional baggage on them. Can you imagine being a single mom, prostituting yourself to feed your kids and wondering how you are going to make ends meet, having to then spend your emotional energy comforting some guy who paid money have sex with you?  Or being a trafficking victim who doesn’t even see that money, having to pretend you adore being this guy’s “girlfriend”?

A few years ago I met with a researcher who had studied the habits and and motivations of sex buyers. She had asked the men to describe how they felt when they sought out a person for sex, and most of them used words like thrilling, excited, on the hunt.  When she then asked them how they felt after they’d bought sex, they used words like sad, disappointed, lonely, 4 intimacy 2

While making our documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking, Jay and I interviewed Nate, an ex-john who had spent over $300,000 on porn and prostitution.  Since dealing with his sexual addiction, he has developed a community of real relationships that has brought joy, intimacy, and love into his life.  But, as he told us, it required sacrificing his pride and being vulnerable with people.

Prostitution is anchored in anonymity and strips people of their humanity. Those who sell sex are seen as objects and those who buy it are seen as animals who can’t control their sexual urges.  If we are to foster real intimacy, we must help each other to see our humanity, dignity, and worth.  For this reason, we must stop calling sex purchasers “sick perverts” and dismissing them as “disgusting pigs” (terms I’ve heard quote often). It’s not helpful or beneficial to anyone.  So what should our approach be instead?

We should invite those who are lonely and starving for intimacy into vibrant, healthy relationships that they don’t need to pay for.  We must strive to become “safe” people who are open and vulnerable with each other so that others feel they have the “permission” to be open and vulnerable with us.

While from a legal perspective it is important we criminalize the purchase of sex, relying on the law alone to decrease demand is too simplistic.  Preventing people from seeking out false intimacy is more likely to happen from fostering healthy community and authentic relationships than from demonizing and isolating them.  Let’s invite people into our lives and take care of each other.  Intimacy is so much more than instant sexual gratification.






Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

Interview with Canadian Anti-Trafficking Champion, MP Joy Smith

by Michelle Brock on May 4th, 2015


mpjoysmith1After a decade-long career as a Member of Parliament representing Kildonan-St. Paul, MP Joy Smith recently announced she will not be seeking re-election in 2015.  For those of you who haven’t had a chance to meet Mrs. Smith or follow her work, she has become known as a champion on the Hill regarding the issue of human trafficking.

But before she stepped foot into politics, she was a math and science teacher and the mother of six children.  Her passion for kids and youth, coupled with her experience in education, is no doubt part of the reason she is able to bring such passion, patience, and persistence to her work in Parliament.

While many of us are sad to see her leave Parliament, Mrs. Smith’s fight against sex trafficking is far from over.

How has awareness on the issue of human trafficking changed during the time you have been in Parliament?

There has been a huge change in the awareness of human trafficking over the past 11 years. When I started, Parliamentarians weren’t aware of it, the public wasn’t aware of it and the media wasn’t aware. That’s why I had to bring in victims to tell their story. I started this with the study that I spearheaded in the Status of Women Committee in 2006 on sex trafficking. This study allowed me to bring in victims and stakeholders to officially tell Parliamentarians about human trafficking.

What are some success stories of bipartisan partnership and action on this issue of human trafficking?

On the Private Members Bills and Motions that I tabled over the years, I always sought to have bipartisan support. Motion M-153 received unanimous support. Bill C-268 was seconded by a Liberal and NDP MP and received largely bipartisan support (the Bloc Party and 3 NDP MPs voted against it). And Bill C-310 received unanimous support among MPs. Some of the MPs that I have had the pleasure of working with across the aisle include MP Cotler, MP Comartin, MP Stoffer and MP Mourani.

Winnipeg Walk Against HT 2010

You husband was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2007.  What has it been like to fight the battle against trafficking in Parliament while simultaneously fighting the battle against cancer on the home front?

It was extremely difficult. I felt like I had no options because I knew victims were depending on me.  So I knew I had to press on. It was my faith that kept me balanced and propelled me through it.

You’ve had tremendous success in passing legislation. Can you briefly highlight the importance of each?

Motion 153 – This motion set the stage for Parliament. Under this motion Parliament unanimously agreed to take action to fight human trafficking and develop a national strategy.

Bill C-268 – This bill was important because it ensured child traffickers received a sentence that reflected the gravity of their crime. It provided victims with the certainty that their traffickers would go to prison for significant amount of time, giving them courage to come forward and testify.

Bill C-310 – This Bill enhanced and clarified the definition of exploitation in the human trafficking offence. Police and prosecutors were having challenges proving exploitation and securing convictions.  The Bill also made all human trafficking offences extraterritorial, reflecting the international scope of the crime.

Bill C-36 – This Bill changed Canada’s approach to prostitution from viewing it as nuisance crime to instead see prostitution as a crime of gender inequality and commodification, reflecting the Nordic Model. Under the new laws, the demand for sexual commodification is criminalized but not the prostituted individual. The law also prevent the advertising of another’s sexual services.


In your opinion, what is the next step our government can take to end sexual exploitation?

Our government needs to focus more on two areas: we need more awareness and we need more programs and services for victims.

What will you miss about working on the Hill?

I will miss my staff, who have become like family to me. I will miss my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who I have built strong relationships with over the years.

What won’t you miss about working on the Hill?

I am not good at politics. I don’t like the partisan way good initiatives are blocked due to politics. That will not be missed.

What is one of the most significant things you’ve learned about your time as a Member of Parliament?

That you can make a difference.

What’s next? What are you excited about?

I am excited about leaving politics to focus on the Joy Smith Foundation full time. Through my Foundation we are saving lives. The Foundation has to main objectives: first to increase awareness to Canadian about human trafficking and second to raise funds to support NGOs who rehabilitate victims of trafficking. We have done great things over the past two years and I am looking forward to seeing it continue to grow and impact people.

Joy Smith Foundation smThank you, Mrs. Smith, for all your hard work on behalf of trafficking victims in our country, and for setting such a great example of what it looks like to truly care.  As you wrap up your time in office, I hope it is a rewarding and celebratory time.


For those of you who want to learn more about Mrs. Smith’s anti-trafficking work, check out the Joy Smith Foundation.  You can also take the Up All Night challenge, Canada’s no-sleep-a-thon on May 29. Register today and you can raise funds for the Joy Smith Foundation!






Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

Smuggling vs. Trafficking in the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis

by Michelle Brock on April 27th, 2015


What is the difference between human trafficking and smuggling?  In light of the current migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, this has become a relevant and important question.  In case you haven’t been reading up on what is happening off the shores of Italy, Greece, and Libya, here are some things you need to know.

LIBYA BOUND.  Thousands of migrants – mainly from Eritrea, Syria, and Somalia – are making the long trek to Libya, where they hope to board a boat that will take them to Europe.  They are fleeing their countries due to political oppression, violence, or poverty, meaning that by definition they are not simply migrants but refugees.  By the time they reach Libya, many have already made a perilous journey through the desert, but Libya’s political situation does not allow for any opportunities.  Europe has become their only hope, their dream for a future.


PAYING FOR A PROMISE.  Smugglers promise to take these refugees across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy.  They charge large sums between $500 – $1000 per person to transport them on boats, most of which are not seaworthy.  For many refugees, this payment constitutes their entire life savings, and they desperately hope the smuggler can be trusted to follow through on their promise.

blog 3 smuggling 1

CLEAR SKIES.  When the weather looks clear, the boats set out from Libya.  They are filled to overcapacity – some are rubber dinghies, others are old fishing boats.  The passengers are often treated poorly, and some are locked below the decks.


THE NUMBERS.  35,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 alone, many from Libya. More than 1,700 people are believed to have died this year so far.  On April 19, about 800 drowned when their boat capsized in Libyan waters near Lampedusa.  Many of these were children, who had reportedly been locked in the lower levels of the boat.  The IOM believes the number of migrants dying in Mediterranean Sea crossings could hit 30,000 this year if the current rate continues.


I’d like to pause for a moment and ask you to let this all in.  Imagine being so desperate that you would be willing to leave everything you know behind and risk a dangerous voyage across the sea.  First, you are worried that the smuggler you paid might take your money and run.  If he does follow through on his promise, you fear that you might hit a storm on the water.  And what if you manage to reach Europe, only to get deported?

blog 3 smuggling 21blog 3 smuggling 31








Media reports on this crisis have been using the terms “traffickers” and “smugglers” interchangeably. The captain of the boat that capsized last week was charged with being a human trafficker,  but there is a significant distinction between trafficking and smuggling.

Human smuggling is when someone facilitates the transportation or illegal entry of a person across and international border, in violation of one or more countries’ laws. The person being smuggled consents to this, and usually has to pay the smuggler a large sum of money for their services. Once the person reaches their destination, the smuggler’s work is done and they typically part ways.


Human trafficking, unlike smuggling, does not involve consent of the person being trafficked.  It involves force, fraud, or coercion, and is done with the purpose of exploitation.  Usually when a trafficked person reaches their destination, they are sold and exploited for profit.  Human trafficking does not require movement across an international border.

71H 1024x682

Most of the refugees crossing the Mediterranean are being smuggled, not trafficked.  However, because the underlying factors that push people into seeking asylum are often similar to the factors that make people vulnerable to traffickers, sometimes what starts out as smuggling can turn into a trafficking situation.  Here are some potential scenarios:

Manuel, a Mexican teenager who wants to escape gang violence, plans to pay a coyote (smuggler) to get him across the U.S. border.  It takes him two years to save enough for the fee, and he finds a coyote with a good reputation. He makes it across the river, walks through the desert, and finds work as a farm hand in California.  But his new employer often withholds the money he’s earned, forces him to work with dangerous chemicals without adequate protection, and limits his movement with the threat of deportation.  While Manuel’s initial journey across the border was a classic case of smuggling, his vulnerability resulted in him being trafficked for labour.

Lucy has fled Nigeria and has paid smugglers to take her across the desert to the coast, where she will make an attempt to reach Europe.  At one point during the trek across the desert, the smugglers bribe two border guards by letting them rape Lucy.  Lucy finally makes it to the coast, but the journey took longer than expected and she still owes the smugglers some money.  They withhold her documents until she pays, and encourage her to sell her body to make money fast.  While Lucy’s situation began as smuggling, it turned exploitative quickly and can now be categorized as human trafficking.

Refugees are some of the world’s most vulnerable people, because they often have no choice but to entrust their lives into the hands of complete strangers.  For this reason, it is imperative that we demonstrate compassion and take action on their behalf.  Because if I was fleeing my home with only the clothes on my back, I would desperately hope to encounter kindness – not exploitation – on my road to safety.

Here are some ways you can get involved:


1. Get plugged in with UNHCRSince 1950, the UN Refugee Agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives. Today, a staff of more than 9,300 people in 123 countries continues to help and protect millions of refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless people.  Donate or sign up to volunteer today.

2. My friend Sarah has made it her goal to raise $30,000 before her 31st birthday for the Preemptive Love Coalition.  The money will provide clothing, housing, education, and legal help for families suffering from persecution and displacement.  Every $250 will find a family for an entire year, leading to the sponsorship of 120 families if Sarah reaches her goal of $30,000.  Support her today!

3. Sponsor a refugee.  As a sponsor, you provide financial and emotional support for the refugees for the duration of the sponsorship. This includes help for housing, clothing and food. Most sponsorships last for one year, but some refugees may be eligible for assistance from their sponsors for up to three years.  

4. Run a refugee workshop in your church or community.  The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue just launched a fantastic workshop you can use to educate yourself and others about refugees, and what role you can play as a community.

The very least we can do is be aware of what is happening to our brothers and sisters around the world, so do some research this week and consider taking action.






Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

Up All Night – Stay Up Way Past Your Bedtime to Support Victims of Sex Trafficking

by Michelle Brock on April 20th, 2015

icon 16Do you like to sleep?  Do you care about victims of sex trafficking and abuse?  Next month, you can take part in an awesome new event called Up All Night, a no-sleep-a-thon fundraiser that supports charities serving victims and survivors of slavery, trafficking and abuse.

On May 29th, groups and individuals across the country will be giving up the one thing we all need every single night – SLEEP.  It is a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those who are often up all night themselves, working against their will in very dark circumstances.

icon 7Each participant can register for either an 18 hour or 24 hour commitment.  You can also select which charity to support through your efforts:

It’s not too late – so whether you are signing up alone, with a group, or with your family, register today!

ps. and check out all the great tools you’ll have access to!






Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

If There Was a Thunderstorm & You Didn’t Have a Home, Where Would You Sleep?

by Michelle Brock on April 13th, 2015



Imagine yourself as a teenager or young adult, alone in a big city with no place to stay.  You’re running away from abuse at home, or recently ‘aged out’ of foster care (meaning you are no longer anyone’s responsibility), or lost your job and missed rent.  For whatever reason, family support is not an option. You walk around the city during the day with the clothes on your back and maybe a few more in a bag. As evening approaches, you start looking for a place to spend the night.  Then it begins to rain.

The options you’d previously considered are no longer possible.  Getting wet in the cold is dangerous. Stairwells become a viable alternative.  But you’re scared – they seem so isolated.  You have a little bit of money in your pocket and decide to buy a transit pass so you can ride the trains and buses all night instead, at least that will keep you dry.  But you worry about tomorrow.  What if it rains again?  As the subway rocks you to sleep, you clutch tightly to your belongings.

In the morning you dig through your pockets and find enough money for two meals.  Maybe three.  As you calculate the options, a stranger approaches you with a request that makes you uncomfortable.  You resist, but can’t get it out of your mind.  You consider the benefits.  Trading sex for food or shelter might not be so bad, if you really get desperate.  But not today.  Today you still have enough to get by.

You meet someone who tells you about a place you can go for help. “Like a shelter?” you ask.  That doesn’t interest you, you’d rather try to make it on your own.  After a couple more nights on the street, you get desperate enough to check it out.

You walk through the doors and the people seem kind.  You have your guard up but instead of demanding to know your life story, they ask you what you need.  The previous day someone on the street said you smelled bad and you were embarrassed,  so you ask if you can have a shower.

And slowly, as you build relationships in this place, your life begins to change.  You actually want to tell them your story, but only because they care to hear it.  There are rules, which you find annoying at first, but soon settle into a rhythm that feels surprisingly good.  For the first time in your life, someone wants to help you make a plan and gives you tools to start taking steps toward it.  In light of the love you feel in this place, the thought that you even considered trading sex for a shelter begins to feel foreign, absurd.

CH 1024x886This place is called Covenant House, and it is so much more than a youth shelter.  It provides wrap-around services for homeless youth aged 16 to 24 – meaning that they take a holistic approach to the wellbeing, safety, and livelihoods of those who walk through their doors.  Convenant House operates in multiple countries, but the Toronto location alone serves about 3,000 youth per year.

Last week I took part in Sleep Out, a fundraiser for Covenant House.  Along with a bunch of business leaders and young professionals, I slept on the streets of Toronto so that – as the tagline for the event highlights – “homeless youth don’t have to.”  We were each equipped with a piece of cardboard and a sleeping bag, and experienced just a small piece of what homeless youth have to deal with on a regular basis.

PicMonkey Collage

I drove to Toronto in the rain and turned on the radio.  Rainfall warning and risk of thunderstorms for the GTA overnight, the weather report stated.  I had dressed in layers but hadn’t even considered the possibility of rain.  I’d need a cover of some kind.  I was reassured by the fact that I’d be with many others, that I didn’t have to figure it out on my own.  Loneliness is often the reality of homelessness, I realized.

Upon arrival, I was seated at a table with other participants, a couple Covenant House staff, and an alumni who had gone through the program.  The meal was prepared by the youth in the Covenant House culinary arts training program, which is led by a professional chef instructor who trains young people for entry-level jobs in the hospitality industry through hands-on experience.  I was seriously impressed and definitely over-ate.

Covenant House 2015 1024x1024

Through the course of the night, the staff and alumni spoke and gave us a tour of the building.

Here are a few things I learned about homelessness:

  • 30% of homeless youth trade sex for food or shelter
  • 70% of homeless youth leave home because of an abusive situation
  • 50% of homeless youth come from upper and middle class homes
  • 40% of homeless youth have come from foster care
  • 2/3 of the youth at Covenant House are male, 1/3 are female – this, they think is because girls tend to be more resourceful in asking friends for a place to stay  (sadly, girls are also more often lured into the sex industry, before they find their way to a safe place like Covenant House)

Here are some things I learned about Covenant House Toronto:

  • Covenant House serves 3,000 youth a year, with a budget of $22 million (80% of which comes from private donors)
  • They have an in-house employment centre, where they help youth work on resumes and bring in people to do mock interviews – 420 youth found employment in 2014
  • They have an in-house high school where youth can finish up a credit or two, so they can graduate
  • The culinary arts training program has a 70% success rate for finding employment afterwards
  • They have an in-house clinic and lab, which got 5,400 visits in 2014 (reducing the number of emergency room visits)
  • Every youth in the crisis centre is partnered up with a mentor/case worker, who helps them create an action plan

Sleepout2015 768x1024By the time we finished the tour and headed outside, I was convinced.  This was an organization doing their work with such excellence that I was confident the $2000 I had raised would be well spent.

I was grateful the temperature had warmed up a bit outside, but as I set down my sleeping bag and cardboard, I heard the first rumble of thunder.  The rain started to come down in sheets, with parts of the tarp that covered us sagging and groaning.  Streams began to form under us, and people shimmied toward the dry patches as best they could in the dim light.

I ended up sleeping beside Cherrine, a lawyer who is providing pro bono legal representation and advice to victims of human trafficking through a collaboration between Baker & McKenzie and Covenant House.

As I tried to get to sleep, so many questions whirled through my head.  Where could a homeless person go to the bathroom in the middle of the night?  How do they keep their belonging safe?  Ours were secure in a room inside, but people on the street did not have that option.  Do they have a knack for dealing with the back ache I was feeling, an inevitable side effect of lying on concrete?  How does a homeless girl get feminine hygiene products?  How does she fall asleep knowing she could be attacked? I was in a big group, with little worry about security, but being alone on the street would be a whole other experience.

Early in the morning at around 5AM, we all started to get up.  Some wrung out their sleeping bags, but Cherrine and I were surprisingly dry.  The girl on my right was not.  Most of us were headed to work, knowing we could sleep in the comfort of our own homes that night.  For a homeless person it would simply mark the beginning of another cold day on the street.  And for a homeless youth it could mark the beginning of their life in the sex industry.

For this reason, I am thrilled that in 2016, Covenant House will be launching a transitional housing program specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking.  After seeing how comprehensive and effective the youth shelter was, the thought of a program specifically for sex trafficking victims was an exciting prospect.

Katharine Blake, who coordinates Covenant House initiatives on human trafficking, filled me in on what the program will look like.  It involves 5 levels – prevention, crisis intervention, stabilization, transition, and independence.  Beds for trafficking victims are critical, she said, because often police have no where to bring a victim once they’ve been found.

Blog graphic 1

I will be writing up an in-depth post about the Covenant House transitional housing program for trafficking victims closer to its launch in 2016, but wanted to use Sleep Out as an opportunity to highlight the plight of homeless youth, mention the connection between homelessness and sexual exploitation, and introduce you to an organization that is doing incredible things to prevent vulnerable people from falling through the cracks.

A huge piece of fighting sex trafficking is doing the hard work of reducing vulnerability, and that means we should care about issues like homelessness.  As Kevin Ryan, president and CEO of Covenant House International, said during his speech on Thursday night, “someone loved us into being here.”  Let’s use our privilege, position, and compassion to lift someone else up.

For those of you who helped me reach my goal of $2,000, thank you for your support!  As promised, I will be matching the last few donations that came in, so that will bring my total amount raised to $2,300!

Please consider spending a night on the street in the next sleep out.  I promise you it’s worth it, even if it rains.





Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

Free Online Course for Healthcare Providers – How to Identify a Human Trafficking Victim

by Michelle Brock on March 31st, 2015


Without knowing it, healthcare providers often come into contact with human trafficking victims.  In fact, according to research published in the Annals of Health Law, some estimates suggest that 87 percent of trafficking victims have had contact with a healthcare provider while being trafficked.  In some cases, a nurse or doctor is the only person outside of the sex industry that comes into contact with a victim.

emergquote 1024x731

This means that it is extremely important for healthcare providers to know how to spot red flags and warning signs, so they can act quickly if need be.

The Fraser Health Forensic Nurse Service has created a free online learning module for doctors, nurses, and others working in healthcare.  It takes about an hour to complete.  The 3 minute introduction video at the beginning isn’t the best quality, but don’t let that discourage you from going through the whole session.  Here are some questions that are addressed:

  • What are red flags that someone could be a victim?

  • How does a victim interact with their trafficker?

  • If someone shows up without medical insurance and no health card, what should you do?

  • How do you build trust with a patient, even in a hectic environment?

It will give you several scenarios and you will be asked to spot warning signs on your own.  You’ll also be given some sample questions that can use to screen patients.

If you do not work for a Health Authority within B.C., please access the online module by clicking below. While the course is geared toward healthcare professionals, the general public can also complete the module.

Human Trafficking Module for Healthcare Professionals

A more specialized course is available to Fraser Health staff and other B.C. health care providers here (requires login).

If you have a friend who works at a hospital or deals with patients, send this their way!  It could save a life.

***Thanks Dana Martin for sending this module my way!





Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

Mean Tweets (Homeless Edition) – Or, Why I’m Sleeping Outside on April 9

by Michelle Brock on March 24th, 2015

While researching the connections between homelessness and sex trafficking, I came across a video that caught my attention.  In it, the homeless read mean tweets about homelessness.

While I’ve never intentionally been cruel to the homeless, I am most certainly guilty of indifference.  I’m guilty of making quick assumptions, priding in self-righteousness, and shying away from uncomfortable encounters.  I grieve the selfish condition of my heart.

Here’s the interesting thing.  My passion to fight sex trafficking has led me to confront other issues that I’ve previously been complacent about.  I’ve learned that if I really want sexual exploitation to end, I must be willing to address and understand the factors that are connected to it.  Like homelessness.

As this article points out, it is estimated that 30 percent of homeless youth in Canada have been involved in some part of the sex industry, often as a strategy for survival.  Almost a third of the kids interviewed at a New Orleans shelter said strangers had approached them to trade sex, or to participate in other illegal or informal work, most often in the sex trade. 

homelessness text

Home is a gift.  Safety is a gift.  Shelter is a gift.  And these are things everyone should have.  While there are no quick fixes to the issue of homelessness, there are steps we can take and things we can do to move in that direction.  And who better to lead us than organizations and people who have been working on this for a long time.  Like Covenant House.

In an effort to gain understanding, I’ve decided to take the Covenant House challenge to sleep on the street for a night.  On April 9, I am joining together with a bunch of other community leaders in Toronto with a sleeping bag and a piece of cardboard, experiencing just a small piece of what homeless youth deal with on a regular basis.

Sleep Out horizontal logo

I realize that sleeping in the cold for a night doesn’t even begin to cover the harsh realities of those on the streets, and that there are many other compounding factors that make life extremely difficult, like:

  • Having to run away from an abusive family situation
  • Inability to find/keep a job
  • Raising a child alone
  • Not having safe relationships
  • Mental illness
  • Poor nutrition
  • Hopelessness
  • Post traumatic stress disorder & fear



These are real needs that must be addressed.  This is why Sleep Out is not simply about the experience of spending a night on the street, but also requires participants to raise money for Covenant House programs.  Covenant House Toronto initiatives include prevention, crisis care, support, independence building, and aftercare.   Their recent announcement is very exciting – they are opening a transitional housing program designed especially for sex trafficking survivors in Toronto early next year.

My goal is to raise over $2000, which will go a long way to support homeless youth in Toronto.

Will you support me as I take part in the Sleep Out Challenge?

click here to sponsor michelle

You can read the Covenant House 2013 report on homelessness and trafficking here, as well as a recent CNBC article that also highlights the connections.  Have a question you wish you could ask?  On this website, the homeless address common questions like why they have pets and how they became homeless.

Thanks for your support!