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.

Soap

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Ensuring the Success Canada’s New Prostitution Law Part 1: Addressing Poverty

by Michelle Brock on December 16th, 2014

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As we’ve toured with our film Red Light Green Light this past year, we’ve met many people who are passionate about justice.  Prostitution has been framed primarily as an issue of injustice, and rightly so. It preys on vulnerability and disproportionately targets those on the margins.  The new prostitution law, which prohibits the purchase of sex while decriminalizing those who sell it (as they are usually victims of force or circumstance), seeks to address the demand side of the equation, recognizing that most often, prostitution is an unequal transaction in which the person paying has more power than the person providing a sexual service.

If we are serious about addressing systemic injustice, reducing demand for paid sex is key.  For this reason, I support the new prostitution law.  However, to bring about the intended goal of the law – which is protecting the vulnerable and promoting equality – our passion for justice must extend beyond the new law and filter down to the issues within our society that many would prefer to ignore, issues that are uncomfortable because they are difficult and would require some sacrifice to address.

Somewhere on our journey across the U.S. this past month, I heard someone use the word “takers.”  I marvelled at how one little word could carry with it such a host of assumptions, opinions, and political loyalties.  Like the belief that people on welfare are draining the system, that the poor are manipulating legal loopholes for their own benefit, that minimum wage workers should worship at the feet of “job creators” (another linguistic marvel that carries notable weight).

Calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue.  Of course there are people who take advantage of the system.  The irony is that those who point the finger assume that they themselves are not.

Herein lies the paradox.  The rich (not all of them, but many) often complain that the poor are lazy, while they themselves try to find ways to ‘put their money and other people to work for them’ so they can avoid being wage slaves.  The rich often complain that the poor are taking advantage of loopholes for their own benefit, while they themselves do the same except with massive repercussions (U.S. banking crisis, anyone?). The rich often pat themselves on the back for creating jobs, but grind out their workers with minimum wage pay and manipulate schedules so that workers who should receive the perks of full time miss the mark by a day or two – allowing their labour to be used with as little cost to the employer as possible.  The rich accuse the poor for not contributing to society, while they themselves lobby to pay little or no taxes in a community, threatening to take their business elsewhere.

So while calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue, calling the rich “takers” is not entirely untrue either.  At the end of the day, we are all takers, we are all greedy, and broken, and selfish.  The difference is that the poor cannot afford to pay top-notch lawyers to advocate on their behalf.  The difference is that between taking public transit and working three jobs, the poor don’t have time to lobby the government.  The difference is that while the rich get richer, the poor are stuck in a cycle of poverty.

According to StatsCan, wealth inequality is growing in Canada.  The top 10 per cent of Canadians have seen their median net worth grow by 42 per cent since 2005 to $2.1 million in 2012, while the bottom 10 per cent of Canadians saw their median net worth shrink by 150 per cent.  The Broadbent Institute points out that when we look at this broad picture of wealth using new Statistics Canada data, the report shows “deep and persistent inequality.”  Rick Smith, the executive director of the institute says in this article:

“Contrary to rosy reports of rising net worth and a post-recession recovery, these new numbers sound the alarm on Canada’s wealth inequality problem.”

 

Blog post quote 12When I was in my early teens, I played an interesting game in class one day. There was a huge bin of jelly beans in the middle of the room.  We were separated into groups of 4 or 5, and each group received a set of tools.   Group members had to go up one by one and use these tools to scoop as many jelly beans as possible, then bring them back to the the group’s empty bucket.  The group with the most jelly beans in their bucket when the whistle blew won the game and received a prize.

But before the game even started, people started to revolt.  Some groups had been given many useful tools, consisting of shovels and bowls and scoops.  Other groups had only been given a couple teaspoons or a small glass.  One group was given only a straw, and they had to suck on one end of the straw to grab each jelly bean one at a time, gingerly walking it back to the group’s bucket before they ran out of breath.

Though all the groups worked equally hard, the first group – who had the best tools – won the game. When the rest of us started complaining, the teacher pointed out that this game was not actually about jelly beans at all, but a demonstration of the distribution of wealth.  While some would like to think that we are all given the same tools in life, all you have to do is listen to people’s life stories to realize that is not the case.

Poverty in Canada infographic LRG

So what does this have to so with the issue of prostitution?  Poverty is a key push factor for many of those who end up in the sex industry, and the majority (not all, but the majority) of those in prostitution are in it purely for reasons of economic necessity.  Our goal should not be to make prostitution as easy as possible so that impoverished people have an “option” for work.  This is an insult to the poor.  Our goal should be to level the economic playing field so that people can break out of the cycle of poverty and not depend on the goodwill of “non-violent clients” to put food on the table.

If you are a business owner, consider giving your employees benefits and better wages, even if it means slightly less profit.  Be open to hiring someone with no previous experience who needs help building up their resume.  If you are a landlord, charge less rent (no one says you have to charge the market average).  If you have a well-paying job, consider donating one, ten or fifty per cent to social programs and charities (Jay and I are personally working toward giving away 90% of our income).  These things are all possible, but it requires sacrifice.  It requires having less stuff.  It requires being less greedy.

Our government of course is not off the hook on this one, as the laws they make and enforce shape the system in which we all work, live, and do business.  I find it somewhat ironic that many of those who want to end prostitution simultaneously support the current government’s pro-big business initiatives which end up increasing wealth inequality…and creates an environment where the most vulnerable have to turn to prostitution because of lack of other opportunities.

Reducing demand for paid sex is key when dealing with the issue of sexual exploitation, and Canada’s new prostitution law is a strong step forward if we are serious about prevention.  Those who refuse to acknowledge this as a critical piece are woefully misguided.  But let’s remember to look at the issue of prostitution in its wholeness, and take steps to reduce the economic vulnerability that pushes people to do desperate things.  Demand reduction, coupled with real opportunities for those who would otherwise consider prostitution, gets at the root and makes sustainable prevention possible.

But it will take sacrifice, so let’s conspire together and figure out ways to all do our part.

**This is part one of my series, Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law. Read part two here More posts coming soon.

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Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law

by Michelle Brock on December 8th, 2014

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On December 6, Canada’s new prostitution law took effect.  I’ve written several posts highlighting the different components of the new law, as well as addressed some of the criticisms arising from the pro-sex work camp.  I’ve included links to these posts at the bottom of this one, but today I’d like to shift my focus to a question I’ve been pondering all week:

What steps are required in order for this law to be successful?

 

Passing a law is no easy task.  It involves research, committee hearings and consensus-building.  It includes a certain degree of public support.  It requires votes from both the House and the Senate.  Over the course of the last year, many Canadians have also done their part – signing petitions, writing letters, meeting with their MPs.

When a law finally gets passed, there can be a tendency to assume that nothing more is needed, that we can let down our guard and allow the issue to take care of itself.  But this is precisely the time to act, to use the momentum of the new law to make real progress.

tall ships 71 768x1024To assume that the passage of the law alone can end sexual exploitation is like hoisting up the sails and forgetting to steer the ship.  The crew on a boat understand that sails are critical, but also know that getting anywhere requires wind, a compass, knowledge of the seas, good leadership, teamwork, and diligent boat maintenance. Otherwise the ship will simply drift from one current to the other, never reaching its destination.  If the objective of the new prostitution bill – to prevent sexual exploitation and protect the vulnerable – is to be realized, we must look at the issue holistically and take action that is intentional, wise, and long-term.

Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts on how we can help the new law reach its objectives.  

They might make some people uncomfortable and I might step on some toes.  But the reality is that ending sexual exploitation is difficult and requires sacrifice.  The good news is that the passage of this law has put this issue in the limelight, so let’s not waste our opportunity to make change happen.

For more of my writing on the new law:

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A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

by Michelle Brock on December 2nd, 2014

bottoms up 1024x768This past weekend, Jay and I screened our documentary in the city of Modesto, California.  As we drove around town, I spotted what looked like a drive-thru coffee shop with an unusual sign – a silhouette of a woman in a bikini.  At first I thought it was just a tacky logo, but all of a sudden I realized that the employees inside weren’t wearing regular uniforms.  The girls were wearing nothing but skimpy bikinis.

Immediately I thought of the area of town we were in.  Massage parlours and adult stores lined the street.  I feared for the girls for when they got off their shifts at night – they’d be an easy target for an ogling customer who could easily wait around.  I was also concerned what a job like this could do to their psyche.  I know way too many stories of girls who started off as servers at Hooters or doing wet T-shirt contests at bars that ended up falling prey to a world of pimps, violence, and prostitution.  Selling your body can start off innocently enough, and for many young women who are either desperate for money or desperate for love, getting extra tips or attention by wearing next to nothing can be an addiction that leads them way further than they had intended.

origin2 820x1024Less than 24 hours later, Jay and I stopped in Rocklin, California at a coffee shop called Origin Coffee & Tea. All their profits go to helping victims of human trafficking (you can read my interview with the founder here).  I couldn’t help but compare the two coffee shops in my mind.

One exploits bodies for profit, the other uses profit to restore dignity.  

One takes advantage of vulnerability, the other offers empowerment for the vulnerable.  

One is a race to the bottom, the other is a pursuit of justice.

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As we continued on our way with delicious drinks in hand, Jay and I were so grateful for places like Origin Coffee & Tea.  Let’s make this the trend!

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Slavery Wasn’t THAT Bad…

by Michelle Brock on November 18th, 2014

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Our map of Savannah

Last week Jay and I spent a morning in Savannah, Georgia.  There is a well-known supper club in town called Mrs. Wilkes, where the food is set out family style and everyone is seated randomly, encouraging people to get to know the strangers at their table during the course of the meal.  Due to the popularity of the restaurant, we had to wait outside in line and decided to take a detailed look at our city map.

Historically Savannah served as one of the hubs for the slave market, and thousands of men, women and children were sold to the highest bidder in Savannah’s harbour 250 years ago.  Jay mentioned out loud how sad it was that so much of the city was built on the backs of slaves, who would pick cotton on plantations all over the Southern U.S. while their masters reaped the profits.

We noticed that as he said this, two middle-aged, white women in front of us bristled.  They gave each other a look, somewhere between a “oh here we go” and a “isn’t that cute.”  Jay wasted no time.  “Hi, I’m Jay, it’s nice to meet you.”  We all introduced ourselves and started talking about Savannah.  We told them about our anti-trafficking work and eventually circled back to the topic of slavery.

“Well, someone had to pick the fields,” one of the women said.

“But don’t you think it’s wrong to enslave another person?” Jay asked.

“You know, you gotta do what you gotta do.  You needed to hire help, so that’s that.”

“But it was slavery…they didn’t hire help, they bought human beings,” he countered.

“Well, that’s just how things were.”

Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’d encountered such a flippant attitude toward slavery.  Last year we found ourselves in a conversation with another woman from the South (who still owned a piece of a former plantation she’d inherited from her ancestors), and she adamantly insisted:

“Slavery wasn’t that bad…it’s not like everyone got whipped or raped.”

Later, she referred to herself and her husband as “prime people.”  The words of Abraham Lincoln came to mind:

“Whenever I hear any one arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

 

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Roadside cotton fields

 

On the way down to Savannah the day before, we’d passed by dozens of cotton fields.  It was the first time I’d actually seen one for myself.  The white clusters of fluff were glowing lazily in the sun, and as I bent down to take a closer look, I was struck by their soft texture and simply beauty.  But knowing that generations of slaves had to perform back-breaking work in the heat of the day (and women additionally often had to serve their masters sexually at night), the moment seemed tainted, haunted by the cries of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.

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This is where our clothes come from

At the root of any exploitation is entitlement. It’s the belief that I am a “prime person,” a superior class of citizen, and others are not. It is the assumption that my comfort, financial security, and ambition can come at the cost of another human life.  While the entitlement of these women we’ve met in the South was painfully evident, the truth is that all of us harbour these attitudes to some degree in different areas of our lives.

I myself am guilty of having an entitled attitude. I’ve judged people before knowing them, put myself first at the expense of others, and made decisions based on what is best for me and my loved ones instead of considering the common good.  I’ve put others down while puffing myself up, allowed fear to hold me back from standing up for what is right, and sometimes assumed that people in difficult circumstances “had it coming.”  My hope is that these thoughts would gradually become rare moments instead of default attitudes.

While these thoughts may seem inconsequential, I believe that they can quickly morph into actions that hurt others.  In fact, sex trafficking and labour trafficking still thrive in our own communities, and around the world mothers, fathers, and children work in sweatshops, coffee fields or cocoa plantations for little to no pay so that we can buy cheap clothing and tasty treats.  It would appear we are not as immune to slavery as we think.

Perhaps it’s time we reel in our entitlement.  Here’s some steps we can take:

1.  Listen to people’s stories.  Instead of making an assumption about someone, learn to ask good questions.  Put away your cell phone and other distractions, and let their story in.  What is one question you could ask someone this week to get to know their story better?

2.  Walk a mile in another’s shoes.  I know of a young couple that intentionally moved into a run-down apartment building so they could actively love the people of that community.  The wife made it her goal to visit and get to know each family, specifically with the purpose of building connections with kids and their parents so they could come to her if they needed help.  Listening to loud fights through the walls and dealing with bed bugs were just part of their reality, allowing them to truly understand some of the difficulties their neighbours faced.  What is one way you could put yourself in someone else’s shoes?

3.  Watch a movie or read a book.  I personally love historical fiction because it allows me to learn about people’s experiences through story.  12 Years a Slave is a must-watch if you want to witness the horror of Antebellum slavery. Whether you want to learn more about homelessness, sex trafficking, poverty, the orphan crisis, war, domestic abuse, or any other issue, I would encourage you to find some books and movies.  What is one issue that you want to learn about, and what book or film will you pick up this week to do that?

4.  Travel with your eyes open.  This could mean going to another country or merely venturing to a different part of your own town.  If you go to another country, make sure you get away from all inclusives and cushy, Westernized hotels.  Have a meal with a local.  Spend the night in a small village.  Take local transport.  Volunteer.  On the home front, sometimes Jay and I will park our car and walk through areas of the city that people usually avoid, just so we can learn a bit more about what life is like outside our bubble.  Where is one place you can go this year to experience how others live?

5.  Ask yourself the hard questions.  In what areas could you be harbouring entitlement?

My hope is that the spirit of slavery, rooted in entitlement, would cease to exist.  It starts with us, so let’s take up the challenge!

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