Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

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:

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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.

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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.

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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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How To Prevent Your Child from Falling Prey to a Trafficker on Facebook

by Michelle Brock on July 30th, 2014

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“Heyy thanks for adding me your very pretty would you be interested in a job making easy money.”

“hey sexy how you doing im rico…i just wanna say you sexy and I will love for you to come get this money with me i see a lot of potential in you.”

“What up Bri? Call me soon as u get this love so we can chop it up and get better acquainted..”

“I LOVE trapping on the weekends. #$Money Making Mission.”

These are some facebook status updates and messages taken from court documents, showing how pimps recruited girls into prostitution by making initial contact online.

A couple years I met a girl in the Oakville area who had accepted a friend request on facebook from some “cute older guys.” They told her they could hook her up with alcohol and get her into all the parties.  She was in high school at the time, and had no idea these older boys were traffickers on a mission to recruit.  As the relationship developed, she was gradually groomed into prostitution.  (I recently came across a similar story online – you can listen to Nina’s story here).

textingThis is happening all over the world.  In Indonesia, 27 of the 129 children reported missing to its National Commission for Child Protection are believed to have been abducted after meeting their captors on Facebook.  The internet has no cultural or socio-economic boundaries.  While many trafficking victims have traditionally been lured or abducted from marginalized or impoverished communities, the internet has opened up the playing field to include middle and even upper class homes.  Teenagers and children are curious and hungry for compliments regardless of socioeconomic status, and traffickers can easily access them via facebook, twitter, and texting at all hours of the day.

For parents, this is a poses a real challenge.  Cell phones, the very thing that parents often want their kids to have for safety purposes, may be the tool that undermines their safety in the worst way.  Social media, which is supposed foster good relationships, sometimes acts as a breeding ground for toxic ones instead.  So what’s a parent to do?

The FBI has identified some warning signs that your child may be at-risk online:

  • Your child spends large amounts of time on-line or texting, especially at night
  • You find pornography on your child’s computer/phone
  • Your child receives phone calls from men you don’t know or is making calls, sometimes long distance, to numbers you don’t recognize
  • Your child receives mail, gifts, or packages from someone you don’t know
  • Your child turns the computer monitor off or quickly changes the screen on the monitor when you come into the room
  • Your child becomes withdrawn from the family
  • Your child is using an on-line account belonging to someone else

 

Here is a list of tips for parents regarding internet safety that could be quite helpful.  Instruct your children:

  • to never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met on- line
  • to never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or on-line service to people they do not personally know
  • to never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number
  • to never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images
  • to never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing
  • that whatever they are told on-line may or may not be true

You can read the full FBI Parent Guide here, and some more social media tips here.  Below is a conversation between a pimp and a teen’s parent who stepped in (taken from this CNN Money article):

PimpConvo

family dinner 300x300The most powerful way to traffic-proof your child is to have a strong relationship with them.  This starts at the youngest of ages.  Maybe it’s time to make regular family dinner a bigger priority.  Or to get a new job that allows for more quality time with your kids.

Investing into your kids when they are young can pave the way for a healthy relationship when they are teenagers, and that is a challenging hurdle for pimps to overcome.

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A Subtle Way to Guard our Girls from Predators

by Michelle Brock on July 21st, 2014

I heard my mom’s laughter upstairs.  “Michelle, come take a look at this!”  I bolted up the steps and saw her pointing at the large stuffed animal mouse that stood in the corner of her bedroom.  Its face was covered in lipstick, the red marks concentrated primarily on the lips and eyes.  We considered the culprit – my little sister, who had just learned how to walk – and wondered how she’d managed to find a lipstick and create such a masterpiece during her short nap.

lipstickAfter some investigation, we figured that my sister had crawled over the guardrails on her bed, pushed aside obstacles that were supposed to keep her out of my mom’s drawer, picked out the lipstick and used it on the mouse, returned the lipstick in its rightful place in the drawer, and crawled back into bed as if nothing had happened.  My mom tried to her best to reprimand my sister without breaking into a smile, and we both thought her plan was ingenious and adorable.

I remember marvelling at the keen awareness of a two-year-old.  Whether she had seen my mom put on lipstick, me put on lip gloss, or a commercial advertising eye shadow, my sister understood the basic premise of make-up.  While at her age it came down to mere curiosity and wanting to imitate the women around her, in our appearance-obsessed society there is a point where, for many young girls, curiosity can switch to insecurity.

During our documentary film tour this spring, I met someone who told me of a tactic that some traffickers were using in their area.  They would go to a place where teenage girls were hanging out, like a mall or park, and strike up conversation.  They’d find ways to compliment each girl in some way, whether it was about her hair, her eyes, or her body, and strategically gauge their reaction.  Some girls would ignore them entirely.  Others would respond with “thank you.”  Some would immediately gush out “no I don’t” or “I’m so ugly,” and these were the girls that would be selected for the grooming process.  A little attention goes a long way for a girl starved of self worth, and traffickers would merely pose as boyfriends, showering them with gifts, compliments, and affection, while gradually grooming them into a life of prostitution.

Those of us who are adult women have a responsibility to set an example for young girls.  Are we masking our natural beauty because we are insecure?  Do we complain about our bodies in front of our children, our nieces, our sisters?  What are the possible repercussions of living out of fear?  Let’s examine our hearts and our minds, so we can empower the younger generation to live with contentment, gratitude, and courage.  It’s a subtle way to guard our children from predators seeking to exploit insecurity.

This video says it so beautifully:

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Indoor Toilets, Vulnerability, and Canada’s Prostitution Law

by Michelle Brock on June 9th, 2014

There was a story from India in the news a couple weeks ago that I still haven’t been able to shake.  Two cousins from the impoverished, “low-caste” Dalit community, aged 14 and 15, went outside in the evening to use the toilet.  Indoor plumbing is still considered a luxury in many parts of the country, and it is quite common for a family to use a field or outhouse to relieve themselves.  Tragically, these two girls were attacked by a group of men.   One of the girls was raped, both were strangled, and their bodies were strung up from a mango tree.

India

Photo Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2645231/Teen-Indian-girls-raped-murdered-left-hanging-mango-tree-pictured.html

 

The community was in an outrage.  Some men were caught and arrested.  In India, rape is common and rarely punished, but gruesome, high-profile cases have been making the news in recent years. This specific case may have even been an honour killing.  The state’s Chief Secretary Alok Ranjan dubbed rape as a “trivial incident” and said the crime should “not be blown out of proportions.”

Though it’s true that indoor plumbing would have prevented this particular incident on that particular night, it’s absurd to argue that the lack of an indoor bathroom is what killed these girls.  No – what killed them was men who have been brought up in a society where women (especially women from the Dalit “untouchable” caste) have little value, and rape is a man’s right.  If every family in that community had an indoor toilet, India would still be dealing with a rape crisis because men would simply get more creative.

In the last few days, Canada has been having a very heated discussion about our prostitution laws.  In a nutshell, bill C-36, the proposed prostitution legislation that was tabled by Justice Minister MacKay, makes it illegal to purchase sex, to benefit from someone’s exploitation (ie. pimping), and to advertise the sexual services of another person.  In an effort to address the vulnerability of many of those selling sex while also touching on community protection, the bill simultaneously makes it legal for a person to sell sex, as long as they are not doing it in an area where children could reasonably be expected to be present (read more about my thoughts here).  An advocate from a sex work group made a statement about the bill, saying that “sex workers will die because of these laws.”

The argument is that making any part of the prostitution transaction illegal pushes it into the shadows and makes it more dangerous for sex workers.  While isolated areas can in some cases be more dangerous than well-lit, public areas, there is a misconception that location is to blame for the violence.  Trisha Baptie, who used to be in the sex industry, puts it best:

“It was never the laws that beat, raped and killed me and my friends — it was men. It was never the location that was unsafe, it was the man we were in that location with that made it unsafe…”

 

Switzerland 300x229People selling sex experience violence and death at significantly higher rates than the average citizen.  This is the case regardless of what prostitution laws are in place.  The law isn’t what is killing and abusing women in prostitution, it’s men paying for sex who are killing and abusing women in prostitution.

While making a documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking, my husband and I met a woman who had worked in legal brothel in Switzerland.

She experienced horrific violence at the hands of johns despite being in a legal establishment.  In some legal regimes, sex workers have panic buttons in their rooms and train each other how to get away from violent clients.   While not every john is violent, it’s not unreasonable to say that violence is inherent to prostitution because it thrives on anonymity, preys on vulnerability, and seeks to fulfill a one-sided fantasy.  While harm reduction efforts are vital and should continue, we should stop kidding ourselves by thinking that the industry will no longer have violence if we decriminalize the purchase of sex.  Perhaps it’s time to stop asking if prostitution is violent and start asking why it is violent.

These are some comments from sex buyers:

“The relationship has to stay superficial because they are a person and you’re capable of getting to know them. But once you know them, it’s a problem, because you can’t objectify them anymore.”

“…it can be very satisfying at the moment, but inevitably leads to a lot of stress and anxiety… I am supporting an industry that is exploitive and unfair and potentially harmful to myself and all parties involved…they are getting paid for it, but you are being a patron to an industry that is very dangerous…”

“Being with a prostitute is like having a cup of coffee, when you‘re done, you throw it out.”

“I have to admit that at one time I did think of women merely as sexual objects. And I‘m not proud of it. I was a product of my environment, and that‘s what was going on in the society I grew up in. I think prostitution degrades women and it treats all sexual relationships as cheap sex and not as a respectable loving relationship with intimate feelings for one another.”

MenAndWomen 300x300We collectively have an opportunity to decide which direction we want our society to head.  Laws, if enforced adequately, don’t merely have penal effects but also normative ones.  India’s attitude toward women has had horrific manifestations, like rape culture, honour killings, and female infanticide. Do we honestly think that installing indoor toilets, lighting up isolated streets, and teaching women to travel in large groups gets at the root of the problem?  Of course not.  These efforts are vitally important and can save some lives, but the core issue is men’s entitlement.  India’s long-term strategy should include holding men to account and shifting cultural values, and until that happens, we will continue to hear heart-breaking, gruesome stories in the media.

While decriminalizing the purchase of sex in Canada may have an illusion of empowering women, in reality it leads to a deeper entitlement for men.  A couple years ago, a stripper from Montreal contacted me.  She explained that when the laws changed and Montreal strip clubs started going from a “no-touch” policy to a “full contact” model, she found that men were no longer satisfied with just watching.  In a sense, the law empowered men to go further than before.  She thanked me for advocating against legalizing prostitution, because “men will just want more.”

While some women would no doubt make plenty of money by running escort services or choosing a few well-paying clients, the majority of those in prostitution do not have that kind of relative bargaining power.  And considering that we share a border with the U.S., not only will decriminalization lead to increased demand from Canadian citizens, but also from our southern neighbours.

No law is perfect, and prostitution and sex trafficking are complex issues.  But now is the time to ask ourselves what we value as a country.  Bill C-36, if implemented properly, serves as a good start if we are serious about holding the purchasers of sex to account.  The other alternative is decriminalization, which sends a very different message.  Let us seriously consider what direction we want our society to head, and what is the best option for the common good.

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