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!

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

by Michelle Brock on April 13th, 2015

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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. 

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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.

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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

 

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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!

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When Your Exploitation Has No Start Date

by Michelle Brock on March 16th, 2015

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A couple years ago in Budapest, I met with Balint Dora from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Hungary office.  By this point, Jay and I had already been to several Western European countries and had learned that Hungarian men, women, and girls represented a significant portion of trafficking victims across the continent.  Poverty was a huge push factor, especially in the Northeastern part of Hungary, and traffickers had developed a system to exploit this vulnerability with great efficiency.

As we discussed these patterns with Dora, he mentioned something I’d never considered before:

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While some of the trafficking survivors we’ve met have been able to identify a specific point in time when they were trafficked (as would be the case in kidnapping situations, for example), for many others the timeline was not so defined.  For example, one of the women we met in the U.S. was sexually abused as a child, raped as a teenager, fell in love with a man who became her pimp, and then started stripping and giving him her money.  Exploitation, for her, was a way of life from the time she was a child, so being pimped out was not so different from what she had already come to see as normal.

For others, sex trafficking is just one experience within the cage of systemic poverty.  Perhaps they came from a family in debt bondage, and as a result had to work in a brick factory or a mine to help pay off the family debt.  While doing so, they may have been sexually abused, or sold to a trafficker who brought them to their next destination of exploitation – a brothel.  Eventually they may have been able to leave the brothel and work for themselves in the sex industry, feeling relatively empowered despite having post traumatic stress disorder and the inability to do anything else.

In these situations, it’s hard to pinpoint when the exploitation started or ended.  And that makes seeking help even more complex.  If a person thinks exploitation is a normal way of life, how do they know to reach out?  If someone asks them how long they were trafficked, would they understand the question?  If an individual has never tasted freedom, do they know it exists?

The complexity of people’s realities is precisely the reason why the fight against human trafficking cannot be successful if our sole focus is human trafficking itself.  We must address belief systems, cultural values, economic structures and political capacity.  These are often the building blocks of systemic injustice, but we have the opportunity to turn them into cornerstones of hope.

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Scrubbing Up for Justice – How One Woman’s Soap Making Workshop is Fighting Human Trafficking

by Michelle Brock on March 9th, 2015

I’m a sucker for crafty things, especially when the final product is something practical that I can actually use.  A few weeks ago, I was delighted to receive an invite to a soap making workshop and jumped at the chance to learn how to make soap from scratch!  I received the invitation from Sandy, who has been honing her skills for several years and wanted to offer workshops so others could learn too.  But Sandy’s passion goes far beyond soap making.  She wants to use her skills to contribute to anti-trafficking efforts, so she’s decided to run workshops as a fundraiser for Hope for the Sold.

Sandy kindly agreed to answer some questions about her workshops and her desire for social justice.

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When and how did you first learn to make soap?

I learned to make soap about 6 years ago after being invited by a friend to a soap making workshop.  I immediately loved creating a handmade craft that once you started you had to finish!

What part of the soap making process do you like the most?

I think cutting and stamping the final bars and seeing them all lined up is very satisfying, however the best part is choosing the ingredients at the beginning to create a unique bar.

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What’s your favourite scent?

Clove essential oil is the best; warm, comforting and somehow reminiscent of bubble gum.

How are some ways you trying to be intentional about teaching your kids and others about social justice?

I think as a family we have always tried to be aware of the needs of people in our community both locally and globally. When my daughter was quite young she did a project on children in slavery and that really opened our eyes to the connection between the goods we buy and the lives of people in other countries. We do a lot of volunteering and have always encouraged our kids to be engaged in meeting needs and helping others around us.

Why do you care about the issue of human trafficking?

The idea that any person could be bought and sold or treated like an object is abhorrent. I think the issue of human trafficking is often invisible in our culture, yet so very present if we open our eyes and become aware. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about this issue and it is easy to think there is not much we can do about it. Psalm 9:18 says that “the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish.” God promises to be a refuge for the oppressed, to save those who are crushed in spirit and be close to the brokenhearted. I think it is so important to draw alongside those who are suffering and reach out to help as a reflection of God’s heart and His love for the weak and vulnerable.

What can someone expect if they attend a workshop? 

Soap for Hope workshops work best for small groups of between 2-10 people. The workshops take about 3-4 hours and participants receive about 20 bars of their own unique handcrafted soap. I am asking for a $50 donation per person to Hope for the Sold in exchange for the workshop.

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Sandy is based out of the Guelph area, so if you live nearby and are interested in joining a workshop or signing up your own group, contact me with (1) how many people are in your group and (2) what month you’d like to do the workshop, and I will get you connected.

Happy soap making!

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Why Would a Parent Sell Their Own Child?

by Michelle Brock on February 18th, 2015

A few weeks ago, I came across a photo I assumed was staged.  It couldn’t be real.  In it, a mother had set her four children to sit on the front stairs of the house with a FOR SALE sign.

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Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

 

I decided to look into it further and discovered that the children were indeed sold by their own mother. As this article highlights, the photo was taken in 1948.  Poverty and other issues plagued the family, and an eviction notice was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Two of the children ended up in an abusive foster home where they were tied up in the barn and used as field hands, one passed away in 1998 before more of her story was discovered, and the fourth was adopted by a family near Chicago.

Their attitude toward their birth mother is varied, ranging from forgiveness and understanding for a woman who was trying to survive, to anger and bitterness for her lack of remorse or care.

Sadly, parents selling their children is not a phenomenon limited to the 1940s.  It is still happening today, and children around the world find themselves in the precarious position of having their parents negotiate a suitable price tag with traffickers, paedophiles, landlords, brothel owners, and corrupt adoption agencies.

So why do parents do it?  For so many of us, even the possibility of selling a child, let alone our own child, is incomprehensible and entirely outside our frame of reference.  We respond with horror, judgment and disdain, and on some level our response seems completely warranted.  A child should never be sold by the very people that have the responsibility of caring for them.  But let’s dig a little deeper and look at the underlying push and pull factors, motivations, and cultural aspects of this trend. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.

DEBT BONDAGE.  A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a high-interest loan.  Often the loan is given for something as simple as an urgent medical expense for a child, but repaying the loan can prove impossible.  Though entire families end up working for little or no wages in an effort to pay off the debt, and though the value of their work ends up being greater than the original sum of money borrowed, the debt can last for generations.  Marginalized, low caste, and impoverished groups are specifically targeted for bonded labour.

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LIMITED ASSETS.  Virginity is sometimes seen by a family as the only asset they have.  In Cambodia, entire communities of undocumented families live on the Tonle Sap River, trying to survive by fishing in its polluted waters.  With sex tourism booming in places like Svay Pak, a family can earn $500 for selling their daughter’s virginity.

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DECEPTION.  Sometimes traffickers go into villages with the false promise of a job or an education in the city.  Parents who are unaware of the risks will send their children, with the hopes that they can either send back money to help the family or get an education so they’ll have more opportunities.  Tragically, some of the kids end up in brothels, others are used for domestic or manual labour, and some end up being adopted for big money through corrupt adoption agencies.  By the time parents realize their child has gone missing, it’s too late.

CONSUMERISM:  One of the most difficult trends to understand is when parents sell their children to buy things that are not necessary at all, like TVs, video games, iphones, and lottery tickets.  There are clearly some deeper issues that transcend beyond poverty in these situations.

Excluding the last scenario, all of the reasons above have one thing in common: poverty.  Parents who can afford their family’s medical expenses are less likely to fall prey to high-interest loans and debt bondage.  Parents that have citizenship and a job are less likely to see their daughter’s virginity as a marketable asset.  Parents who are educated and able to feed their families are less likely to send their children to the city with a stranger.

So instead of asking what kind of a parent would sell their child, we should be asking what kind of support would empower a parent.

 

Here are some folks doing work in this area:

    • LUMOS:  Founded by J.K. Rowling, the author of harry Potter, Lumos is an organization that supports struggling parents on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of equipping them to keep their children.  They operate in Eastern Europe, where many children end up in institutions simply because parents are too poor to look after them.  Learn more about Lumos’ innovative work here.
    • KIVA:  Through KIVA you can make an interest-free loan to an individual or group of individuals that do not have access to traditional banking systems.  You can select who you want to support by looking at their profile, and once you make the loan, you’ll see these dollars gradually return to your Kiva account.  When the loan has been repaid, you can either withdraw your money or re-lend to someone else.  Make your first loan!
    • WORLD VISION:  By sponsoring a child, you are actually sponsoring their community too. Sponsorship helps provide education, food, clean water, child protection, community leadership, economic development, and health, which can break the cycle of poverty – and as a result – the cycle of vulnerability.  Sponsor a child today!
    • IJM:  International Justice Mission rescues victims of sex trafficking, bonded labour, and slavery around the world by working with local law enforcement and building legal cases against perpetrators.  Learn more about their work here, and sign up to get updates - which often include stories of people who celebrate their newfound freedom!

 

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Photo source: IJM

 

Let’s break the shackles of desperation and empower parents to take care of their children.  And let’s see our own kids as a precious, precious gift and stewardship.

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Because Everyone Loves Pyjamas

by Michelle Brock on February 3rd, 2015

Meg1 770x1024Sometimes, one simple sentence can spark action. That’s what happened to Meaghan Coneybeare a couple months ago, when she heard a presentation by the victim aftercare organization Walk With Me. One moment she was sitting in a room, listening and learning, and the next she was delivering hundreds of pyjamas to trafficking survivors and local organizations. Here’s what Meaghan had to say about the experience.

What gave you the idea of pyjamas?  Why did that resonate with you?

While at a screening of Red Light Green Light back in November, a speaker from the organization Walk With Me talked about their safe house and the needs they had. One of the items she listed off was pyjamas. Right away I could not stop thinking about these pyjamas. Being close to Christmas I knew that pyjamas would be an easily accessible and affordable purchase for donors.

I also knew what it felt like to have a pair of warm pyjamas after leaving an unstable & unsafe environment with just the clothes on my back. When I was 15 I went into foster care. I had just run from my home after a very bad altercation with my alcoholic mother. I grew up in a very unstable and at many times unsafe environment. My mother took a lot of her anger and frustration out on me physically, emotionally and verbally. That night, a couple days before my 15th birthday, was the last straw for me. I ran out of the house on a cold February night knowing in that moment I was going to be free of that life. I soon entered into foster care.

On the first night, still with the same clothes on my back that I had left with, my foster parents got me some new, warm items to wear, one of these being a pair of pyjamas. I still remember the feeling of putting it on and feeling that comfort, safety and even a glimmer of hope. I wanted to be able to give those same feelings to these women who were being rescued from human trafficking.

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How many have you collected?

To date, I have collected over 450 pyjamas!  When I put the post onto social media, I really just thought a couple people might get into it and I’d end up with 5 or 6. Then within a couple hours so many people shared my message and wanted to give. I then thought 100 pairs would be a lofty goal but reachable. To have over 4x that is just so inspiring and shows just how generous our community is.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve come across as a result of this initiative?

There have been so many surprising moments – how so many people came together to support this, how people showed up at the pyjama party to donate and learn more, how many people didn’t know [human trafficking] was happening in our own region.  And the fact I could even pull this off!  I myself have learned so much more about human trafficking by doing this.

There’s so much more involved than just getting these victims away from traffickers.  We also need to ensure there are supports in place for them to feel safe, to start a new life and to feel confident and hope again within themselves.  That they can feel safe in coming forward because that will help lead to more convictions.  I’ve also learned that I can’t stop talking about it.  I’ve been given an opportunity where people have listened to my story and are interested in learning more, and I want to continue to use my voice for this cause.

IMG 1305 300x300Is there a story that sticks out from the past couple weeks? 

At the pyjama party back in December, I was told by a Waterloo Regional Police Services officer that a group of students from KCI (Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School) wanted to come by and drop off some pyjamas they had collected. They showed up with 45 pairs!  I soon learned that the officer who is hired by the school volunteered some of his hours so that they could use that money to purchase pyjamas.  It was such a wonderful way to see them all come together on this project.

IMG 1414 225x300I also went to a woman’s surprise birthday party that her daughters put together. Their mom was very touched by the articles she had read about my initiative and her daughters thought that instead of gifts for their mom, they’d ask guests to bring pj’s. I also attended the party and surprised her as well. They generously donated 25 pairs of pjs. It’s these amazing stories of hearing how groups of people have been touched by this campaign and work together to make a difference that just inspires me!

What would you tell someone who is wanting to fight trafficking but has no idea where to start?

Many people come up to me asking how they can help, they’ve given pj’s now what more can they do.  I love that attitude!  I tell them to keep talking about it.  I want the buzz around this issue to continue.  I want it to get louder, so loud that you can’t ignore it.  The more we all become aware the more we can come together to end it.  And the more those still being trafficked will feel that there is support for them & people are listening.

Meg2 225x300What do you do when you’re not collecting pyjamas?  

I do work with youth at risk where I co-facilitate a group that meets twice a month to go out and volunteer in our community.  I’m also doing more work in the area of raising awareness of human trafficking and have partnered up with Timea Nagy of Timea’s Cause to do more in this area. In my down time I catch up on all the books I started reading, until the next project comes along that takes me away for awhile.

By the end of January, Meaghan had collected 500 sets of pyjamas, and joyfully delivered them to various victim service organizations.  All because one sentence, spoken at an awareness event, sparked an idea that will now bring comfort to hundreds.

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Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law Part 3: Investing in Gender Equality

by Michelle Brock on January 22nd, 2015

When I was growing up in Finland, my dad would often travel for work and return with gifts from abroad. It’s no surprise that one of my favourite words early on became “tuliainen,” or, as I later learned in English - souvenir.  Often these souvenirs included new Disney movies, and I quickly fell in love with Beauty and the Beast.

I recently watched it again with a friend, and memories came flying back as I found myself reciting many of the words and songs that had been stored for years somewhere in the back of my brain.  There’s a part in the film where Belle, the new girl in the little village, is reading a book when she is rudely interrupted by Gaston:

Belle And Gaston beauty and the beast 18557767 600 429 300x214Gaston:  “How can you read this?  There’s no pictures!”

Belle: “Well some people use their imaginations.”

Gaston:  “Belle, it’s about time you got your head out of those books and paid attention to more important things, like me.  The whole town’s talking about it, it’s not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas…and thinking…”

Finland being consistently rated in the top 5 for gender equality in the world, the thought of women having less value or less opportunities was a foreign concept to me as a child.  Watching Belle and Gaston was my first exposure to the idea that women had not always had the same rights as men.  As a kid I remember thinking, “why would Gaston say that?  What does he mean women shouldn’t think?”

Little did I know how closely the issue of gender inequality was tied to my future work – the fight against sexual exploitation.  Prostitution is a manifestation of gender inequality, as the large majority of those selling sex are female (who are often in an economically or socially vulnerable position) and most sex buyers are men (who have relative power due to their ability to pay).  While sex buyers always have the option to not engage in prostitution, many of those selling sex do not have that luxury.

Canada’s new prostitution law draws significantly on Sweden’s approach, which recognizes this power imbalance and criminalizes only the purchasers of sex, not those who sell it.  The preamble to Canada’s legislation acknowledges the importance of protecting the human dignity and equality of all Canadians, discouraging prostitution “because it has a disproportionate impact on women and children.”  Clearly gender equality is somewhat of a value in our country, but are we willing to put our money where our mouth is?

As the 2014 Report of the National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada points out, Sweden places so much value on gender equality that it has a Ministry of Integration and Gender Equality.  This is the governmental body that oversees the sex purchase law.  When they first implemented the new legislation, they committed $34.8 million (CAD) over 3 years to fund social programs and awareness campaigns that would help ensure the success of the law.  Comparatively, Canada has allotted $30 million (CAD) in a similar attempt.

However, it is worthy to note that the $34.8 million invested by Sweden was only one small piece of a much bigger gender equality policy.  Here’s a list of investments the Swedish government has made to bolster gender equality, as highlighted in the Task Force NO MORE Report:

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Photo: Lena Granefelt/imagebank.sweden.se

  • Over $144M CAD invested between 2007-2010 to educate against violence against women
  • $17.6M CAD to promote gender equality in schools, $20M for local and regional gender equality initiatives and $4.48M for grants to promote women’s organizations
  • A strategy for gender equality in the labour market, including a three year program to boost women’s entrepreneurship
  • Tax policies, including a gender equality bonus to encourage parents to share parental leaves as evenly as possible and tax deductions for household-related services 

It’s quite clear that Sweden’s prostitution law was not framed as lone star criminal legislation, but as a piece of a much larger set of robust gender equality policies and practices that reflected national values.  These surrounding policies created a healthy environment in which the law could be enforced, lending heavily to its success.

According to the The World Economic Forum 2014 Gender Gap Report, Canada ranks #19 in the world for gender equality.  It’s behind Sweden at #5, Switzerland at #11, and South Africa at #18, but ahead of the U.S. at #20 and the U.K. at #26.  These rankings are based on the relative gaps between women and men across four key areas: health, education, economy and politics.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives points out in their 2014 Striking a Better Balance Report that at the current rate of progress, Canada will not close the gender gap until the year 2240.  While the gap between women’s and men’s participation in higher education has closed, the gaps between their earnings and their representation in senior management ranks hasn’t shifted, nor have levels of violence against women decreased.

Some industry experts speculate that women don’t work in these sectors because they don’t want to. Yet a recent survey finds no lack of interest. Rather, women seeking work in the extractive industry identify the same barriers as women in every other industry: a lack of child care, a lack of flexible work practices, and the low levels of women in management positions.  (CCAP)

So where does this leave us?  Canada’s ranking at #19 demonstrates that on some level, we do value gender equality.  This means that pushing our government to make gender equality initiatives more of a priority is not out of the question.  But it requires a groundswell of support from everyday, Canadian citizens.

The new prostitution legislation provides a perfect opportunity to have these discussions in a bipartisan context.  While the Conservatives were the ones to introduce prostitution bill C-36 in the spirit of equality for all Canadians, they would benefit greatly from working with Liberal, NDP and Green Party representatives toward a broader set of gender equality initiatives, like affordable childcare, pay equity, and affordable housing to name a few.  Investing in gender equality, like Sweden has done, will strengthen the prostitution law and help prevent sexual exploitation on a systemic level through providing women with better opportunities.

The government wants to prevent prostitution because it has a disproportionate impact on women. Following this line of thought it can also be said that the government should work to prevent homelessness, poverty, sexual violence and lack of living wage job opportunities, because these also have a disproportionate impact on women.  Acknowledging that these issues are connected to prostitution is vital if we are to bring and end to commercial sexual exploitation.

Gender Equality benefits us all

But this is not just the government’s responsibility.  It is ours too.  Here’s just a few ways we can all contribute to gender equality:

  • Ask your MP what their vision is for gender equality, and what they are currently doing to get there
  • If you are an employer, provide employees who have children with extra sick days (since they usually use their own when their kids are ill), and pursue pay equity between male and female employees
  • Support your local women’s shelter, either financially or by volunteering
  • When your kids see movies or commercials that are disrespectful to women, talk it through with them
  • Sponsor a single mom: if you know of someone who is struggling to find full time work because they can’t afford child care, offer to help babysit or get friends to pitch in and cover child care for a year

Can you come up with more?  My hope is that if we all do our part, we can boost our gender equality ranking up a few notches and traffic-proof our communities!

To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:

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Ensuring the Success of Canada’s New Prostitution Law Part 2: National Inquiry into Missing Women and Girls

by Michelle Brock on January 2nd, 2015

A tragic phenomenon is unfolding across Canada – women and girls, the majority of whom have light coloured hair and blue or green eyes – are going missing at an alarming rate in provinces across the country.  It appears that females of Dutch, English and Scottish descent are specifically being targeted, and the numbers in recent years have been staggering.  Up to 33 per year are reported missing – some of them suspected of being sold by traffickers, others turning up dead by rivers or in forests, and some never found at all.  Sadly, despite pleas from distraught parents and community leaders, the federal government is hesitant to take a deeper look at what is happening.

Aboriginal Blog Post

I may have just lied. But just a little.  Women and girls across Canada are going missing at an alarming rate.  They are being profiled and targeted.  They are being found dead or trafficked.  And the government is unwilling to address it.  But these women and girls are not of Dutch, English, or Scottish decent.  They are Aboriginal.  But since racism still prevails in our country, writing an article about missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls does not grab our attention as it should.

If you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to read about something that hits close to home, something that could potentially affect you personally.  It’s a default mindset for most people, but we don’t have to stay there – humans have a great capacity for compassion and relationships, and it’s time we begin to listen to what Native communities are saying.  If white Canadians were disappearing at the same rate as Aboriginal women and girls, the government would no doubt be taking more action.

A recent RCMP report put the total of missing and murdered Native women at 1,181.  Over the course of the last three and a half decades, that averages out to about 33 per year.  Aboriginal women make up 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population, but they account for 16 per cent of female homicides.  Just earlier this month, Rinelle Harper, a Winnipeg teen who was sexually assaulted, violently beaten, and left for dead, spoke out about her experience and added her voice to a growing push for a national inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.

the latest advocate for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women is a victim of violence herself 342 body image 1418233934 1024x576

Photo Source: VICE.com

 

What exactly is a public inquiry?  It is an official review, ordered by government, of important public events or issues. Its purpose is to establish the facts and causes of an event or issue, and then to make recommendations to the government.  In the case of missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women, a public inquiry:

  • Would seek to identify the factors causing these deaths and disappearances
  • Could identify instances in which indigenous women were treated differently by the authorities
  • Provide legal clout to gain access to files, to “essentially force people to come forward if they are subpoenaed and testify, and discuss what happened in a number of these cases where it was obvious that [Aboriginal] women were being treated differently.” (CBC News)

So what is the response of the federal government?  Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said that the issue “should not be viewed as a sociological phenomenon,” but rather as crime.  In essence, the official stance of the national government is to treat these cases individually, without examining the common elements that make this issue a systemic one.  It is no surprise, then, that the federal government is not willing to call a national inquiry.

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Photo Source: mediaindigena.com

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said that Harper is “refusing to hold a national inquiry because the results could bring to light the societal issues plaguing Canada’s Aboriginal people and the federal government’s responsibility to fix them.”  

On a more positive note, there is potential for a roundtable discussion with federal, provincial and Aboriginal leaders.  But if the federal government is not willing to consider this trend as a sociological, systemic issue, proper action will be a challenge.  Ignoring systemic root causes will only lead to band-aid solutions instead of preventative surgery.

This article is part two in my series on ensuring the success of Canada’s new prostitution law.  As I’ve said before, in order for us to tackle the issue of sexual exploitation, we have to look at it holistically.  The preamble to the new prostitution law says:

Whereas it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution, which has a disproportionate impact on women and children…

The human dignity and equality of Aboriginal people, and even more specifically Aboriginal women and girls, are being violated.  If we are unwilling to look at the systemic injustice they face, many of them will continue falling into prostitution – whether it be through force or desperation.  According to this article, of the prostituted women interviewed in a survey, 52 percent were First Nation and 90 percent of sex-trafficked teens were Aboriginal.  If we are to align ourselves with the new law’s preamble, we must acknowledge that gender inequality, race, incest and histories of oppression are the pillars of the sex trade, including prostitution.  If we fail to address these, we fail to deal with sexual exploitation.

Aboriginal Poverty infographic1

Some critics of the new prostitution law say that instead of trying to decrease demand for paid sex, the government should decriminalize the entire industry so that marginalized, Aboriginal women can continue to sell sex without fear that their customers will get arrested.  In essence, this is saying that we should keep prostitution as a viable option for the most vulnerable people in our society – despite the fact that even in fully legal regimes, they do not have the relative bargaining power to negotiate safety in an industry that is inherently violent.

As Bridget Perrier from the Ojibwe First Nation puts it,

“We have endured genocide and now if they legalize prostitution, they will rubber-stamp commercial rape and continued desecration.  As Aboriginal women and as women of colour, the time is now to take our lives back from those who exploit us and colonize our bodies.” (Huffington Post)

It seems that the federal government wants to tackle sexual exploitation by focusing primarily on demand, but is not willing to look at sociological causes on the supply end.  On the flip side, other groups don’t want to reduce demand at all, but focus solely on harm reduction.  Neither of these in isolation form a comprehensive response to the issue of sexual exploitation.

Reducing demand for paid sex is absolutely vital if we are to tackle sex trafficking, which is why I have been an advocate of demand reduction strategies for a long time.  We must reduce demand if we are serious about preventing sexual exploitation because there simply are not enough ‘empowered’ people to provide supply, leaving vulnerable groups to fill the void.  The government’s new prostitution law takes this into account by criminalizing the purchase of sex.    But in order for the new law to have more clout and to follow the spirit of its preamble, we must take into consideration the plight of marginalized groups in our society that are most likely to fall into the sex trade.

Our plea to Prime Minister Stephen Harper is to call a National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Aboriginal Women and Girls.  

Not only will it honour the request of thousands in Canada’s First Nation communities, but will also serve as a tool to bolster the effectiveness of the new prostitution law by identifying the underlying, systemic factors that push so many women and girls into the sex industry.  

This, in partnership with demand reduction, has great potential to decrease sexual exploitation in our country.

As we head into an election year, these issues should be on the forefront of our minds.  At the very least, I hope to see the federal government represented at a roundtable with provincial and Aboriginal leaders in the next few months, and that they are willing to see the requests of the Aboriginal community through a lens of systemic social justice.

And as we encourage our government to take action, let’s also look at our own hearts.  Are we harbouring prejudices?  Do we need to take some time and listen to the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins?  Do we understand what First Nations communities are asking for?

For more reading:

 

To learn more about Canada’s prostitution law through my current series:

 

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