Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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.

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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.  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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Big News – Prostitution Bill C-36 Passes Senate!

by Michelle Brock on November 5th, 2014

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There’s some exciting news coming out of Ottawa this week – Bill C-36 has passed Senate and is on track to receive Royal Assent before the end of the year, meeting the deadline set by the Supreme Court.  So what exactly does this mean?  It means that in the next few weeks, Canada will have a new prostitution law on the books.

I thought it would be helpful to give an overview of the bill and what’s happened in the last year.

December 20, 2013 – Supreme Court Ruling

The Supreme Court struck down Canada’s existing prostitution laws, meaning that living off the avails of prostitution, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and operating within a brothel would no longer be illegal.  In essence, both the buying and selling of sex would be decriminalized.  Pro-prostitution groups hailed this as a step forward for the rights of sex workers, who asserted this would make their work safer.  The Supreme Court gave Parliament exactly one year to respond to the ruling, giving them the opportunity to rewrite the laws on prostitution if they wished to do so.  If Parliament chose not to act, the Supreme Court ruling would carry through on December 20 of 2014, decriminalizing prostitution across the country.

June 4, 2014 – Bill Introduced

Parliament decided to respond to the Court decision, and on June 4, Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-36 (The Protection of Communities and Exploited Person Act). The proposed legislation recognized people in prostitution primarily as victims of either force or circumstance, and focused on demand reduction.  Under the new law:

  • The purchase of sex would be criminalized.  This is the critical piece, as it seeks to reduce demand for paid sex.  Demand is the economic engine that fuels sexual exploitation and makes sex trafficking extremely lucrative.  While there will always be some people who go out of their way to pay for sex, adding barriers will deter the majority from engaging.  According to a study that asked men (including some who admitted they had paid for sex) which initiatives would deter them from purchasing sex, 80-83% said jail time and 66-79% mentioned monetary fines.  Targeting demand is a big step forward if we are to deal with the issue of sexual exploitation on a long-term scale.
  • The selling of sex would be decriminalized.  This recognizes that those in prostitution are primarily in a position of inequality, and should not be criminalized.  The proposed law would only charge those selling sex if they do so in an area where minors could be present.
  • Receiving a material benefit from the exploitation of another person would be illegal.  This means pimping.  Other non-exploitative arrangements would not be criminalized, meaning that spouses, roommates, and dependents of those in prostitution would be exempt from a criminal offence.  However, trafficking (exploiting someone for profit), would not be legal.  While traffickers could potentially masquerade as “bodyguards” and “drivers,” the exemptions made in the bill align with the Charter and allow for those who wish to hire security services for their own protection to do so.
  • Advertising the sexual services of another person would be illegal.
  • The government would pledge $20M in new funding for exit programs and aftercare.

July 2014 – Response & Amendments

After passing second reading, the bill headed to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.  The Committee heard testimonies from dozens of representatives on both ends of the spectrum, including trafficking victims, pro-prostitution sex workers, lawyers, professors, NGOs, and others (watch our testimony here, starts at minute 12:30).

Two camps emerged during the hearings, which was no surprise.  The first group consisted of sex workers and others who claimed that decriminalizing the industry (both buying and selling) was the best way forward, any other option would make sex work dangerous (which I address here).  The second group consisted of former sex industry individuals, trafficking survivors, and NGOs who believed that decriminalizing the purchase of sex would have the long-term effect of increased demand and result in more harm for the majority of those in prostitution, citing the experiences of other countries.

One component of the proposed legislation was unanimously challenged by every group that testified in committee – the piece that made it illegal to sell sex in an area “where persons under the age of 18 could reasonably be expected to be present.”  Many pointed out that people in prostitution usually do it because they are in a position of inequality and vulnerability, and should never be criminalized regardless of their location.  The proposed legislation was also too vague about what constituted as an area where “minors could reasonably be expected to be present.”

The Committee passed ended up passing Bill C-36, with the following amendments:

  • Amendment # 1: The location “where minors could be present” was narrowed down to “next to a school, playground, or daycare centre.”  Though it would be better to strike the provision down altogether, at least this amendment makes it less vague.
  • Amendment #2: Within 5 years of the bill becoming law, a comprehensive review of its impact will be undertaken, to see if anything needs to be fine-tuned or changed.

 

October 6, 2014 – Bill C-36 Passes Third Reading

The bill passed with a 156-124 vote.  All Conservatives voted in favour, while Liberals, NDP & the Green Party voted against.

November 4, 2014 – Bill C-36 Passes Senate 

Bill C-36 passes the Senate and is set to receive Royal Assent before the December 19 deadline.  This means that prostitution will not be decriminalized, and that by early 2015 Canada will have a new prostitution law.

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After engaging with thousands of Canadians across the country on this issue during our film tour, the passing of Bill C-36 is fantastic, exciting news!  To all of you who contacted your member of Parliament, hosted a screening of Red Light Green Light, or signed a petition, thank you!  We also congratulate MP Joy Smith for all her hard work over the last several years on this issue.  Here’s a snippet from her statement today:

“I am delighted to share with you that yesterday evening, the Senate of Canada passed Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. With the passage of Bill C-36, Canada has established a new approach to addressing prostitution that recognizes the harm prostitution causes to women and youth.

This is a historic moment for equality and women’s rights in Canada. For the first time in Canada’s history, the buying and advertising of sexual services will be illegal, and the government will provide robust funding to help women and youth escape prostitution.”

My Thoughts:

  • I believe that Bill C-36 is a step in the right direction.  It would be naive to think that one law will solve the complex problems surrounding this issue, but the legislation is a critical component that has great potential to prevent sexual exploitation.
  • The foundations have been set, but we must build well from here.  While the law has gender equality and protection of vulnerable groups at its core, we must be careful that its implementation does not slip into a “tough on crime” paradigm.  Law enforcement needs to understand the spirit of the law and be educated in depth about how to respond in various situations.  Compassion and humility are key.
  • We must identify the factors that contribute to sexual exploitation, and recognize that issues melt into each other.  Things like poverty and child sexual abuse act as push factors that make youth vulnerable, and we must be diligent about putting systems into place that get at some of these root factors.  If we are serious about preventing sexual exploitation, we also need a public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls.
  • One thing that makes me sad is how polarized this issue became in Parliament.  I personally knew of MPs across party lines who supported the legislation but voted the party line.  The extremes appeared on both sides of the political spectrum.  On the right, some argued that everything should be criminalized, including the selling of sex.  On the left, some argued that nothing should be criminalized, including the purchase of sex.  The asymmetrical approach of the bill (which also applies to loan sharking) addresses both vulnerability and demand.  My hope is that as we move forward, our Parliamentarians would be more willing to work together so that the law can be fine-tuned wisely if need be.  I guess the question is: how do we make the environment in the House of Commons less toxic, less partisan, and more respectful?
  • Let’s commit to the long haul.  Let’s encourage our representatives – locally, provincially and federally – to make this a financial priority.  $20 million is the tip of the iceberg for what is needed, so let’s do our part to funnel more funding into both prevention and aftercare.  This is of paramount importance for this legislation to succeed.

If we are intentional and wise, I believe that Canada’s new prostitution law has great potential to go a long way to prevent sexual exploitation.  I am honoured to be part of a community that cares about these issues and continues to press on!

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How Do You Wield Your Power?

by Michelle Brock on November 3rd, 2014

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Over the past week, I’ve read and listened to numerous reports surrounding former Q host Jian Ghomeshi.  It seems that every day new allegations come to the surface, ranging from stories of inappropriate flirting in the workplace to downright sexual harassment and violence.  What started as one woman coming forward resulted in a tidal wave of others – ranging from Canadian actor Lucy DeCoutere and author Reva Seth, to a host of aspiring media grads who were afraid to report Ghomeshi’s behaviour because of how it might affect their future careers.  Each have recounted eerily similar experiences with the successful and popular radio show host.

After his dismissal from the CBC, Ghomeshi took to facebook and hired representation for his defense, but a few days later the crisis management experts and public relations firm both dropped him as a client.  The police have opened up a formal investigation, which will hopefully get to the bottom of it all.

In the midst of the media storm, I’ve been contemplating the stewardship of power.  At a leadership conference a few years ago, I heard Andy Stanley ask a thought-provoking question while speaking about influence:

“What do you do when it dawns on you that you are the most powerful person in the room?”

 

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All of us have been in this position at one time or another.  If we have children under our care or staff under our leadership, we are in a position of power.  If we have followers on social media, money in our wallet, or the ability to speak English, we are in a position of power.  If we have physical strength, sharp intellect, infectious charisma, we are in a position of power.  If we possess a skill, hold a political office, or have a wide network of relationships, we are in a position of power.

This means that we are constantly stepping into moments where we are the most powerful person in the room, so to speak.  Do we recognize our power?  Do we intentionally steward our influence?  How do we put safeguards in place that prevent us from taking advantage of others?

If the allegations against Jian Ghomeshi are found to be true, it means that he leveraged his power to manipulate and even hurt others for his own selfish purposes.  Though behaviour like this is absolutely unacceptable, we must remember that none of us are immune to slipping into patterns of misusing influence.

Let us not leverage power for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

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Is Sensationalism a Prerequisite for Our Compassion?

by Michelle Brock on September 18th, 2014

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I recently listened to a CBC Radio interview about Rosewater, a movie about a journalist who is detained and brutally interrogated in an Iranian prison for more than 100 days.  The film, based on a true story, is John Stewart’s directorial debut, requiring him to take a 3 month leave from The Daily Show to make it happen.  During the interview, Stewart highlighted something interesting that we don’t usually associate with detainment:

“I think there is a tendency to view torture in a very narrow light.  I think we’re accustomed more to that American cinematic version…’Tell me what you know’ and the guy’s in a dank dungeon and [gets kicked] in the face…But the truth of the matter is, deprivation is torture.  And solitary is torture. And what Maziar went through is a far more common and ubiquitous form of torture that we no longer recognize.  

We’ve become desensitized to the more mundane aspects of someone losing their freedom.”

The things we do in our day-to-day life – our routines, habits, and relationships – are an intrinsic part of being human.  Like drinking coffee in the morning, going to work, hanging out with friends, doing laundry, sleeping in a bed, reading a book, listening to music, eating good food, buying a home, raising children.  Torture is not limited to being physically battered and verbally threatened.  Torture often takes the form of simply losing one’s freedom to do the mundane – yet meaningful – things that make us who we are.

The bit got me thinking about a conversation I’ve had with several front-line workers who deal with victims of trafficking and abuse.  There is a temptation for many of us in anti-trafficking circles to tell the worst stories, to shock the audience with horrific details, and in some cases, to exaggerate stories to the point where they are no longer true.  But while focusing on “the worst stories” may illicit temporary support and funding for important projects, in many cases it undermines sustainable compassion - the kind of compassion that cares about the nuances of people’s situations and doesn’t require sensationalism to keep it going.

It’s true – some victims of exploitation are locked in a room and have to service dozens of men daily. But there are other victims that are stuck in prostitution because of invisible chains, like being in love with their pimp or trying to provide for their kids.  There are some who were kidnapped off the street and sold into prostitution, and there are others who knew they would enter prostitution but had no idea how hard it would be to get out.  Some are beaten every day and deprived of food and medical attention, while others are permitted to move around and even have their own home as long as the money keeps filling the pimp’s pockets.  And then there are those who are not being sexually abused at all, but are forced to work in a field or a factory for little or no pay.

Our response and our compassion should extend to all these situations, because while some are more extreme than others, they are all missing elements of freedom.

As cliche as it sounds, picture yourself in another’s shoes and allow yourself to feel their fear, their discomfort, their frustration.  Let’s strive to care about injustice in all its forms, and wean ourselves from the addiction of sensationalism.

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15 Indicators Teachers Can Look For to Spot Trafficking in Their School

by Michelle Brock on September 4th, 2014

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The fall always feels like the beginning of a new year, and as I write, teachers and students in Canada are wrapping up their first week of school.  I have the privilege of knowing some incredible teachers, who not only care about information transfer and test scores, but also about the students themselves. Some of my teacher friends have become mentors, helping kids through difficult issues like bullying or abuse in the home.  They may be the only ones who notice a student struggling with an eating disorder, loneliness, or, in some cases, something as serious as human trafficking.

The Texas School Safety Center recently came out with an article about recognizing the signs of human trafficking in schools.  As I read the article, faces of trafficking victims flashed through my mind. I met one girl who, at the age of 15, met some older guys on facebook.  The exploitative nature of the relationship progressed to the point to where she’d go to class during the day and be sold for sex at night.  Her parents had no idea.  In Vegas I learned that grade 12 boys were pimping grade 9 girls out of bathroom stalls at school.  Due to cell phones and the internet, traffickers can have access to students all day long without even having to enter school premises.

Teachers, coaches, and other school personnel are in a unique position to spot warning signs.  Here are a few to keep an eye out for:

Human Trafficking Chart

Source: Texas State School Safety Center

 

Though these signs can point to a variety of issues, not just trafficking, it is good for teachers to be aware.  Here’s some more pointers:

1.  Have a relationship with the school liaison police officer, and ask if they have been educated/trained on human trafficking.  If so, they may be able to help you with a specific situation and give you ideas for local resources.

2.  Build a relationship of trust with your students.  In many cases, a trafficking victim won’t identify themselves as a victim, so it takes trust to help them.  Jennifer Lucking, a good friend of mine who has worked extensively with survivors of exploitation, explains that unless teachers have an incredibly close and trusting relationship with their students, a victim of trafficking will likely not listen to a teacher’s concern.

It may be better for a teacher to ask some challenging questions that will really help a victim identify for themselves that their situation isn’t ideal.  For example instead of a teacher saying “he’s a pimp, not your boyfriend, you shouldn’t be doing that,” a teacher could ask “what does he do to make you feel cared for? What does he do that makes you feel uncared for? Do you think you deserve that?”  At the very least, you are establishing that you are a safe person if the student ever decides to reach out.

You can read the entire Texas School Safety Center Report here.

It’s my hope that we can work together to traffic-proof this school year, and make schools safe zones where kids can learn and grow without fear of exploitation.

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Crisis in Iraq: Rape and Sex Slavery as a Strategic Weapon of War

by Michelle Brock on August 15th, 2014

When most of us think about war and conflict, we tend to picture soldiers, guns and bombs.  If we watch a lot of movies, we may even envision hand-to-hand combat, underground torture chambers, and chemical warfare.  But there is another factor that is tragically common in the context of conflict: sexual violence as a weapon of war.

The current crisis in Iraq is no different.  ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) – otherwise known simply as IS (Islamic State) – a militant Sunni jihadist group that is advancing through the country, is strategically raping and kidnapping women and children along the way.  Historically on a global scale, rape and pillage have been common, opportunistic practices in the context of conquest.  But in recent decades, sexual violence has become known as a strategic war tool, intentionally and systematically carried out to undermine and fatally wound local communities.

Iraq

According to two United Nations officials, about 1,500 women and children may have been forced into sexual slavery in recent weeks.  The victims are mostly from minority groups within Iraq, consisting of Yazidi, Christian, Turkomen and Shabak women, girls and boys.  What is the purpose of this? Dr. Nazand Begikhani breaks it down:

  1. To foster fear in communities – even if a man is not afraid of getting killed himself, he is afraid for his family and what might happen to his wife and children
  2. Since women are traditionally caretakers, raping or kidnapping them undermines family structures
  3. Perpetrators see gang rape as an opportunity to bond with each other, strengthening their loyalty to the brotherhood
  4. In the case of ethnic cleansing, which is an apparent goal of IS, impragnating women from minority groups is a way to “pollute” the bloodline of a population

As Major-General Patrick Cammaert puts it:

“It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict.”

 

ISISAs IS gains ground in Iraq, we must do everything we can to support those who are on the front lines offering humanitarian support and advocacy.

This is not an easy fix situation, and the history of the area plays a huge role in its complexity.  But but below are some links to organizations that are requesting your activism and generosity (please note that some of these are international organizations and may not be able to provide a Canadian tax receipt, but don’t that that stop you from giving):

Yesterday I watched a VICE undercover documentary (42 mins) about the situation in Iraq and Syria. Please set aside some time this week to watch, learn and pray.  But before you do, remember that this is an extremist group, and most Muslims are just as horrified as the rest of us at what is happening. Considering that many Iraqis and Syrians who currently live in North America or Europe still have family and friends stuck in the midst of this crisis, now is the time for us to reach out to our neighbours and offer support and kindness.

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If Slavery Doesn’t Kill You…Freedom Might

by Michelle Brock on August 11th, 2014

MansSearch 577x1024I am reading a really good book.  It’s called Man’s Search for Meaning, written by holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Whenever I’ve studied the holocaust or the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I’ve assumed that being freed from such horrific bondage would be the best feeling in the world. And momentarily, it probably is.  But as Frankl points out in his book, being freed is actually more of a process than a moment, and there are many challenges along the way:

“Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.  The way that led from the acute mental tension of the last days in camp (from that war of nerves to mental peace) was certainly not free from obstacles.  It would be an error to think that a liberated prisoner was not in need of spiritual care any more.  

We have to consider that a man who has been under such enormous mental pressure for such a long time is naturally in some danger after his liberation, especially since the pressure was released quite suddenly.  This danger (in the sense of psychological hygiene) is the psychological counterpart of the bends.  Just as the physical health of the caisson worker would be endangered if he left his diver’s chamber suddenly (where he is under enormous atmospheric pressure), so the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health.

diving 1024x570

During this psychological phase one observed that people with natures of a more primitive kind could not escape the influences of the brutality which had surrounded them in camp life.  Now, being free, they thought they could use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly.  The only thing that had changed for them was that they were now the oppressors instead of the oppressed.  They became instigators, not objects, of willful force and injustice.  They justified their behaviour by their own terrible experiences.  

This was often revealed in apparently insignificant events.  A friend was walking across a field with me toward the camp when suddenly we came to a field of green crops.  Automatically, I avoided it, but he drew his arm through mine and dragged me through it.  I stammered something about not treading down the young crops.  He became annoyed, gave me an angry look and shouted, ‘You don’t say! And hasn’t enough been taken from us?  ‘My wife and child have been gassed – not to mention everything else – and you would forbid me to tread on a few stalks of oats!’

OatsOnly slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.  

We had to strive to lead them back to this truth, or the consequences would have been much worse than the loss of a few thousand stalks of oats.”

Why is it that so many girls return to their pimps after they’ve been ‘rescued’?  Why is it that some people who have experienced child abuse end up abusing their own kids? Why is it that service providers experience violence at the hands of the very people they are trying to help?

Because freedom isn’t a moment, it’s a process.  With courage, boldness, and patience, we must strive to walk alongside those who have been hurt, enslaved, and exploited, and foster sustainable, healthy liberty.

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