In the past couple of weeks, a horrific tragedy has unfolded in Southwestern Ontario. On May 6, Tim Bosma, a 32 year old husband and father of a toddler, went missing. He had posted an ad online to sell his truck, and never returned after going for a test drive with two potential buyers. A massive search ensued, involving the police, the media, and hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. Posters were pinned onto family homes and business windows.
Communities were shaken, and still are.
On May 14, police confirmed that they had found Bosma’s burned remains on a farm near Waterloo. One suspect is in custody, and the police are searching for others. Some believe that this may have been a thrill kill. This horrific incident has consumed my mind for the past two weeks, and my heart aches despite not knowing the family personally.
Shortly after Bosma went missing, we got an email from a friend who worked for years with street youth. He pointed out that homeless people and at-risk teens go missing all the time – yet it doesn’t even make the papers. But the moment a rich white male goes missing, everyone jumps on board.
I heard similar things from others, including anti-trafficking advocates, who wished that the same attention being drawn to this case would be applied to those who are missing from poor and marginalized communities. Native girls and women go missing all the time, often ending up in trafficking rings or in ditches, yet no one seems to care. In British Columbia, a man named Robert Pickton murdered at least 26 women – many of them prostituted women from Vancouver’s East Side – and even though police received tips about something going on at Pickton’s pig farm in connection to the missing women, a full investigation was not a priority.
Missing women from Vancouver's Downtown East end
My husband Jay had a beautiful response in light of the Bosma case, which reflects our heart in this.
Regardless of the fact that one person’s pain is prioritized over another’s, let us not become embittered. Let us not permit it to spoil our loving spirit.
Let us mourn for this man and his family, and tell his story. And let us also mourn for those who society considers to be the “least of these,” those who have been forgotten and marginalized.
We must let this be an opportunity to expose our own racisms and prejudices, and a chance to learn or re-learn what true, unbiased compassion looks like.
Pain is real, whether one is rich or poor, white or black, young or old, celebrated or marginalized. Refusing to take part in one person’s pain will not alleviate that of another.
This crime has wounded many of us because it is closer to home than ever before. Perhaps this is an indication that many of us are living in a bubble of safety and complacency, where we can avoid the painful realities of those who have not had the same opportunities.
The memorial service for Tim Bosma is taking place on Wednesday, May 22. This is a time for us to mourn with those who mourn, and my hope is that this would be a starting point for extending this love to those in our communities that have been forgotten.
We can do both. We can enter into mourning with the Bosma family, and we can enter into the pain of those on the margins. Our hearts have a capacity to love greatly.
My sincere condolences go to Tim’s family during this difficult week, as well as to those whose loved ones have been forgotten.
Last weekend I was sitting out on the front porch at my inlaws’ place, sipping iced tea and enjoying the beautiful spring weather. A neighbour passed by on his bicycle and we asked him to join us. He is from Bangladesh. We started talking about the recent factory collapse that has caused the deaths of over 1,000 garment workers in his country. His countenance fell. ”I’ve decided to not purchase any clothing made in Bangladesh until labour laws change,” he said. Pain was etched into his face.
On Wednesday April 24, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed with about 3,500 workers inside. Large cracks had been discovered in the walls the day before, but despite this, workers had been ordered back to work on Wednesday. They were told that their month’s pay would be withheld if they did not enter the building. A survivor recounts:
“The owner of Rana Plaza along with gang members holding sticks were standing in front of the main entrance gate threatening that they would beat us with sticks and break our bones if we didn’t work that morning. We were frightened and had no choice but to go in to work.”
An hour later the building crumbled. Here is a list of labels that were being made in the building that collapsed:
Joe Fresh, owned by Loblaws Inc. of Ontario, Canada (custom records and labels found on site)
Velilla – Spanish work clothing company (labels found on site)
And here is where the finger pointing begins. The race to the bottom, a bi-product of unchecked capitalism, ensures that no one is really responsible for what happened.
Plausible deniability: A condition in which a subject can safely and believably deny knowledge of any particular truth that may exist, because the subject is deliberately made unaware of said truth so as to benefit or shield the subject from any responsibility associated through the knowledge of such truth.
The owner of the plaza that housed the garment factories is not responsible because he is part of a system in which building owners can take shortcuts without government repercussions. If the government enforced proper building codes, he would have made this a bigger priority.
The owners of the the garment factories are not responsible, because they are only trying to meet the demands and deadlines of the multinational corporations who they make clothing for.
The companies who sell clothing in their stores are not responsible, because they assume that the government of Bangladesh is enforcing labour laws that align with their codes of conduct.
The government of Bangladesh is not responsible, because if they start to reinforce labour codes, international corporations will pull out of Bangladesh, with significant economic ramifications.
The customers buying clothing are not responsible, because they assumed that the company selling them would be monitoring their factories. And, at the end of the day, stylish clothing for low prices trumps any further investigation as to where that clothing comes from.
In essence, the landlord blames the factories, the factories blame the multinational corporations, the multinational corporations blame the government, the government blames the economic climate, and the customers blame their ignorance or inability to afford clothing that is ethically made.
And no one is left to take responsibility for the hundreds of people crushed under the weight of concrete.
A last embrace: Two victims uncovered from the rubble from the Bangladesh Factory Collapse. Photo by Taslima Akhter. Photo Source: http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/08/a-final-embrace-the-most-haunting-photograph-from-bangladesh/#1
Of course, the reality is that every player in this sequence is responsible. It’s time to make this personal. If you have purchased a Joe Fresh item, you are responsible. If you don’t research where your clothing comes from, you are responsible. If you are a shareholder of once of these corporations, you are responsible. If you manage a sweatshop, you are responsible.
This goes for me too. This is a picture of me several years ago, before I was fully aware of where my clothing was coming from. I am wearing a grey, super comfortable Joe Fresh shirt that I bought for around $15.00. I didn’t realize where this shirt had come from. I was unaware that the people making it were earning wages of 14 cents to 26 cents an hour while working 13 to 14 ½ hour shifts – 6 and 7 days a week. Despite my past ignorance, I have decided to take responsibility today.
This shirt is the only Joe Fresh item I have owned, and I am donating the amount the I paid for it to the Bangladesh Injured Worker’s Relief Fund, set up by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. I have benefited from the labour of these workers, so the least I can do is support their families in a time of absolute crisis.
It will be interesting to see if companies are willing to take responsibility. Since Joe Fresh is close to home, let’s look at their promises in response to this tragedy:
“A new standard at Loblaw, ensuring all of our control brand products are made in facilities that respect local construction and building codes, and a commitment to have Loblaw people on the ground who will report directly to us ensuring that product we produce is made in a manner that reflect our values.”
However, making a real change would require Loblaws to alter its core value for the Joe Fresh line. In a video on their website, the Creative Director explains:
“The Westons came to me and asked me to create this line of apparel, and restrictions were: price point.”
Since restrictions is plural, I assumed there was more coming. But as it turns out, price point was the only restriction. Which means profit at any cost. This is why companies often seek out countries with poor government labour regulation. Cheap labour equals lower prices for customers and bigger profits for shareholders.
Analysts were told that there has been no measurable impact on Joe Fresh sales since the tragedy in Bangladesh.
I am very concerned for the 1000+ families who now have no income. These types of scenarios often push girls into the sex trade, and there is no doubt that traffickers are currently on a hunt in this area of Bangladesh where vulnerability and chaos abounds.
This raises the following question: if families in poor countries are made even more vulnerable to abuse, sex trafficking, and homelessness when a factory shuts down, doesn’t that mean we should continue purchasing products made in these factories, even if the conditions and pay are not adequate? If we stop consuming, won’t we put all these people out of work?
In this situation, I think the best thing that can be done is to plant the good and phase out the bad. Currently, the economics are twisted in such a way that workers in impoverished countries are dependent on their own exploitation. While I believe that we should stop purchasing clothing made by low-paid labour in places like Bangladesh and China, we must simultaneously support fair trade initiatives in these countries. I am perfectly fine with buying ethically made clothing from any country. Every dollar is a vote, and the more we demand ethically made products, the more it will impact communities positively. Eventually, ethically sourced products could become mainstream. People in Bangladesh could gain independence through real opportunities instead of depending on their exploiters for a quasi-livelihood.
7 Things You Can Do:
1. Go through your closet. For every piece of Joe Fresh clothing (or clothing from the other companies mentioned earlier) that you own, make a donation for the amount that you paid for them. Don’t own anything from these clothing lines? Look at the labels and make a donation for every piece made in Bangladesh, whatever the brand.
2. Sponsor a child in Bangladesh. For about a $1 a day, you can provide access to life-saving basics that change a child’s future. World Vision’s child sponsorship programs are community based, meaning that the whole community ultimately benefits in a sustainable and wholistic way. If you want to decrease the likelihood of someone ending up in a sweatshop – or other vulnerable situations – investing in a child’s life is a great place to start. You can refine your search to children in Bangladesh here.
3. Discover your slavery footprint. Find out by taking the survey here and see what you can do. You can find letter templates to companies and other resources too!
4. Run an ethical business. We need a generation of selfless entrepreneurs who have a people motive instead of a profit motive - businessmen and women whose driving motivator goes beyond lining the pockets of first-world shareholders. Currently there are very few companies that source ethically. There is a market for this, so start a business! Go to Made In A Free World for ideas.
5. Research where your clothing comes from. Google the company name with the word “labour practices” and see what you find. Or, pick a product and see if you can find what factory it was made in. My friend had to do this for a university class, and barely anyone was able to complete the assignment due to red tape and corporate run-around. Write a letter to the company in question and tell them that you would like them to source their products ethically.
6. Buy used clothing. This way, you are not contributing to the booming demand for new clothes that are made in these factories. Consignment stores are awesome for this. Bonus: you will save money!
Archbishop Hélder Pessoa Câmara, a philanthropist who advocated for Brazil’s poor in the 1900s, famously quoted:
“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
I heard this quote at a justice conference I attended on the weekend, in which a common theme seemed to emerge from the sessions: the issue of systemic injustice.
Jay and I are passionate about sex trafficking prevention, but we have experienced significant push back. A social worker who helps street walkers told us all about the dangers and abuse that the women experience on a daily basis, but was afraid to speak on record about demand because she was paid by a government that had made prostitution fully legal. We were rejected funding for our film because critically examining the root causes of trafficking is too controversial.
If we focus on rescue and aftercare for victims of commercial sexual exploitation, we are called abolitionists.
When we ask the question of what systems allowed them to be exploited in the first place, we are called moralists.
Apparently we have stumbled on an unfortunate truth: dismantling systems of exploitation is not sexy. Which is exactly why the documentary we are working on is so necessary.
The systems of injustice connected to sexual exploitation take many forms. Take capitalism, for one. Profit is the soul of capitalism, and it comes at a high human cost. As Shane Claiborne shared the the conference, “when we really love our neighbour as ourselves, capitalism won’t be possible and Marxism won’t be necessary.” Capitalism undermines the ability of the poor and marginalized to have a chance of making a meaningful, sustainable living. If we are serious about ending trafficking, we must examine the system of capitalism that makes the rich rich and keeps the poor poor.
But to this, we face the back lash arguments of “trickle down economics” and the predictable accusations of being socialist.
A second system we are looking at is a legislative one – the legalization (or full decriminalization) of prostitution. In the past 5 months we have been to 10 countries to examine prostitution models, and have learned that making this industry fully legal changes cultural attitudes toward women, provides traffickers with a safer environment to blend in, and makes trafficking victims more difficult to find. Complex issue.
To this we experience the arguments that prostitution and sex trafficking must be kept separate, and that people should be able to do what they want.
A third system we have encountered is gender inequality. In most countries women are at a distinct disadvantage, disproportionately experiencing the negative effects of political and economic decisions. They are seen as objects or burdens, putting them at risk for trafficking, poverty, and rape.
Yet when we address this issue, people are either too disinterested to care, or dismiss us as radical feminists.
So, in order for us to have a popular, noble anti-trafficking campaign, we can’t address capitalism, we should never talk about the legal status of prostitution, we should let boys be boys and not discuss demand, and we should skip over the boring topic of gender inequality.
What does this leave us with? Oh. Right. Prosecution of traffickers and aftercare. We can talk about those. Because no one’s profits are in jeopardy. Corporations are off the hook. So is the sex industry. By this point, the money has already lined someone’s pockets.
But let’s consider the fact that the money required to rehabilitate one victim can be made by a trafficker in a week. And the fact that men who pay for sex have increasingly violent and degrading demands. And that traffickers rarely receive a sentence because international crime cases are extremely complex and extremely expensive to carry out successfully.
Prevention, by nature, requires us to look at systems of injustice, and dismantle them. We must do so with wisdom, patience, discernment, as well as compassion and grace. Our goal is not to press buttons for the sake of pressing buttons, but to examine the motives holding up these structures that make commercial sexual exploitation possible.
I do not have all the answers, because these issues are big, complicated, and culturally sensitive. But until we get serious about prevention by asking the tough questions, we must be willing to accept the fact that we will need more and more after care facilities, and more specially trained police – more and more time, and more and more resources.
I propose we creatively and strategically subvert systemic injustice.
I hate mushrooms. I have been expanding my vegetable horizon a ton in the last 2 years, getting over my dislike of onions, asparagus, and eggplant, as well as overcoming my fear of pomagranates. I now love all these foods and eat them regularly, which makes me feel like I am making healthy (adult) decisions. But mushrooms are a whole other ball game. Fungus weirds me out.
This weekend in New York, Jay and I went to the famous Grimaldi’s – a pizzeria in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. We stood in line for 30 minutes, ordered our pizza once we were seated, and waited for another 50. Our mouths were watering by the time it arrived, but there was a slight problem – the entire pizza was covered in mushrooms. While I often pick them off with ease and pass them to my mushroom-obsessed husband, the mushrooms on this pizza were small and very numerous, baked under the cheese. So, like a 4 year old, I began to pick them off one by one. Jay sat there, annoyed and probably embarrassed, as I meticulously slaughtered my slice.
And then I saw it. A camera. Pointed at my plate. Two girls at the table next to ours were filming me pick at my meal, trying to hold in their laughter as they zoomed in on my plate as well as my concentrated face. All of a sudden, I realized that my moment of immaturity was probably going to be posted online somewhere for the world to see, and I felt extremely embarrassed. Not only that, but I was reminded of the fact that while I sat there picking at my meal, children around the world were digging through garbage to find something edible to quell their aching bellies.
I was silent as we walked to the subway. I was afraid that this video would go viral and be seen by thousands of people. If this video of me gets put online and I never find it, I can’t even respond to it. I felt ashamed. And I felt violated.
As the train rushed into the station and screeched to a stop, a horrific realization dawned on me. Traffickers often make pornographic videos of their victims, and use them as a tool for absolute submission.
“If you try to escape, we will show this to your family.”
“If you don’t comply with our demands, we will spread this around your village.”
“If a customer complains, we will put this on the internet.”
Though for a while I have known this to be a common method of manipulation among traffickers, I have never actually put myself in the shoes of a victim who is being blackmailed.
Take a moment and think of the most shameful or embarrassing thing you have ever done, and imagine it being videotaped and sent to everyone you know.
It might cost you your reputation, your job, your friends, your future opportunities. Or, if you are part of a loving, healthy community, they will love you despite what they have seen you do. Unfortunately, in many cultures, protecting one’s family honour results in victims to bowing to the threats of traffickers.
As much as I hate the discomfort of learning lessons in such a tangible way, I want to thank those girls for filming my childish, embarrassing moment at Grimaldi’s. It has allowed me to walk in another’s shoes and humbled me immensely.
So, if a youtube video with a frowning blonde picking mushrooms out of her pizza goes viral, take a moment to remember those who are being sexually exploited and manipulated for profit. And let’s all become the kind of community that loves others despite their shameful moments, whether those moments have been forced upon them or resulted from poor decisions.
52% of traffickers who recruit victims are men, 42% are women and 6% are teams. #ShockingTruth
Setting aside the fact that trafficking statistics are hard to nail down due to the nature of the trade, there is a sad truth embedded in this tweet. In a dog eat dog world, women are exploiting other women.
On the streets of Las Vegas, Hispanic women hand out promo cards with naked body parts of other women, with a phone number people can call “for a good time.” I tried to make eye contact with the women handing out cards, but it was impossible. They had likely been pushed into a job like this out of financial desperation.
As outlined in the documentary, It’s a Girl, in India and China women are killing their own babies based solely on the fact that they are female. The cultural and legal pressures of having a girl have created an environment in which mothers not only kill or abandon their own daughters, but urge other women to do the same.
While we were in Amsterdam, we met a young woman who, despite being a trafficking victim herself, began to threaten, abuse, and train “newer” girls at the demand of her pimp. In some cases, once a girl begins to “lose her value,” her trafficker will hold out a carrot that is hard to resist:
“If you bring ten new girls to me, I will let you go.”
Around the world, there are some women who are fighting to legalize or fully decriminalize prostitution, even though it promotes gender inequality by creating a culture in which men view women as commodities. These regions often end up being hot spots for trafficking and exploitation. Every woman in the sex industry I have spoken with is against sex trafficking and wishes for it to end. However, the industry they promote can end up inflicting harm on other women. Men are conveniently silent on the issue, happy to let women fight the battles on their behalf.
We also must remember that women are not immune from the lure of money. Sometimes women exploit other women for the same reason as men do – the money is just that good.
The way that women treat other women reminds me of how child soldiers are sometimes forced to shoot their own families, or prisoners of war are forced to carry out torture on fellow countrymen. Exploiting or hurting a person in our “tribe” strips away pieces of our humanity and assaults our identity.
The exploiter and the exploited are both enslaved.
As easy as it would be for me to say that women need to stop exploiting or hurting each other, I have never been in a position where I’ve had to make those decisions.
I have never been forced to make a bad choice because of poverty. I have never been pressured by cultural norms to kill my baby simply because it is a girl. I have never had the promise of freedom held before me in exchange for luring others into the sex trade. I don’t know what it is like to find my identity in how much sex I can sell.
And so the statistic that 42% of traffickers are women humbles me and saddens me. I am humbled because for some reason, I have been given a life in which I have not had to make such difficult decisions. I often wonder what I would do if faced with such circumstances. What does justice look like when I am not worthy to judge?
But as I stand humbled, I am also saddened. Everything in me longs for women to stand in solidarity with other women, in compassion and with courage.
I usually like to wrap up my blog posts in a nice little bow, with some food for thought and possible solutions. But sometimes I stand at a loss. Sometimes I think I just need to allow myself to be sad, to mourn a world where human beings prey on each other.
When I was 7 years old, I had stereotypes about Africa. These were based on two things – those poor, starving children on TV, and my colouring books with pictures of safari animals. As a result, in my little world Africa was hungry and dangerous. Then my parents told me we were moving to Ethiopia. They assured me that we were going to be fine and see lots of exciting things, but I remained a skeptic.
We landed in Addis Ababa at night, and were driven to the house we would stay in while we looked for our own. We passed a fruit stand that was closing for the day, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t like fruit, but at least I could find my way back here if something happened to my parents and I was desperate for food. I memorized way just in case. ”Good thing I’m on top of this,” I thought.
Turns out Ethiopia was not what my childlike stereotypes had predicted. Yes, there was poverty. Plenty of it. But there was much life also. Bright colours and delicious food and cool people and interesting animals and adventure. All seen through the eyes of a child.
We left Ethiopia when I was in grade 6, and got settled in Canada. Oddly enough, during my junior high and high school years I developed a new set of stereotypes for Africa. I romanticized it. People around me who had gone on short term trips claimed that Africans were not like North Americans – that they were generous and forgiving and selfless and hospitable and kind. That they were content with little. I fondly remembered many people I had met in Ethiopia and agreed. I couldn’t wait to return.
And once again my stereotypes were shattered. In high school and university I returned to the great continent, to volunteer in South Africa and Namibia. I had my clothes stolen from my backyard, I learned about the Rwandan genocide, I had the outside walls of my house plastered with pages of porn in the middle of the night, I was gawked at and disrespected by men, my house mate was threatened with a gun. And I noticed something else – something that made me more uncomfortable than anything else.
Many Africans, just the rest of us, were not in fact content with making a living but wanted to make a killing.
Individuals, companies, and even some churches wanted to learn about get-rich-quick schemes. For the first time I saw Africa – and the world – through the eyes on an adult. It made me sad to realize that my romantic view was just as inaccurate as my childhood stereotypes had been.
In my travels around the world since then, I have realized that there is a common language of greed that is spoken with fluency by our families, communities, institutions, governments, and businesses. It cunningly masquerades under nomers like “The American Dream,” and we market it, sell it, celebrate it, worship it, honour it, and pledge allegiance to it. Success is measured by climbing the ladder, making big money, and being comfortable.
But I propose that the American Dream, or Canadian Dream – whatever you want to call it – has become an idol. I recently heard a message by Jeff Strong in which he explains that at the beginning, idols promise everything and demand nothing in return. It seems to work for a while. For example, in the beginning, money delivers fun and adventure and comfort and security and happiness. But soon the pursuit of money demands more and more, while offering less and less – until we reach a point in which we are giving everything to its pursuit and receiving nothing in return. We have money in the bank and a hot car in the driveway, but it has come at a high cost. We are stressed and discontent, and often it is our families and relationships that are ultimately sacrificed.
The same is true of lust, which fuels sex trafficking. It begins with pornography, and exciting discovery for any ten year-old boy. But just like the idol of money, it pulls us deeper and deeper, promising a better thrill at the next level. Not only do many women end up being exploited as a result of this monster within, but once again, it is families and relationships that end up being sacrificed on its altar.
A friend recently sent me this clip, which has gone viral in recent weeks.
This is where greed leads us, as a society. The spin-off effect is that people at the bottom are put in desperate circumstances. Many of us secretly don’t want the system to change, just in case we are the ones who end up at the top some day. But a system that thrives on such extreme inequality is what creates a perfect storm for all kinds of social issues – like increased gang violence, more teen pregnancies, prostitution, and homelessness.
But before you think I am going on a rant about corporate greed, I would encourage us to look at our own lives. I heard it said once that “direction, not intention, determines our destination.” Your intent to be generous someday means nothing if you fail to plan. Here are some ideas Jay and I have been throwing around.
Set an income ceiling for yourself. Our lifestyle always inflates when our income increases. Determine the amount you need, and whatever you make above and beyond that, give away. This could make pay raises even more exciting, because it creates a bigger giving slush fund!
Inch up by percentage points. Start giving, and increase the percentage each year.
Support local businesses with your dollars. Multinational corporations siphon money out of local communities, leaving less opportunities for people to start their own businesses or have meaningful employment. The lack of corporate accountability and regulation leads to the inequality we see in this video. If you support local entrepreneurs, you are offering someone a chance to make a living doing something they are passionate about while keeping the money in your community.
Employers, pay your workers a living wage and source your products ethically.This will require research and sacrifice. Visit the factories where your products are made and get to know the stories of those making them.
Get to know people who are on the margins. The homeless. The prostituted. The poor. The vulnerable. Personal relationships can motivate unlike anything else.
We should all learn to promote equality. It will take some sacrifice, some discomfort, some risk. But I believe it is worth it. Let’s stop exporting and celebrating an American Dream that is built on the backs of the poor, and cast off the idol of greed that entangles us.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
I couldn’t believe we were stuck in traffic. Two months ago in Boston, we inched our way forward in a sea of cars that stretched as far as the eye could see. We were late, an hour late, to reunite with a friend we had met in the back of a Guatemalan bus three years ago. We had been delighted to find out that Roxanne was back at Harvard and was able to squeeze in dinner while we were in town. She had a paper to write. And we were trapped.
When we finally burst through the doors of the restaurant, Roxanne hugged us warmly and nodded at the waiter, who by that point had probably thought that this poor girl was either lying or needed new friends who knew how to read a clock. Aware of our short time together, we plunged into conversation.
Roxanne filled us in on the last few years of her life, part of which was spent in Jerusalem. She has made her home in many conflict zones, and has helped women in hostile regions all around the world. Partway through our conversation, which meandered along endless rabbit trails of life changing stories, we began to talk about the secondhand effects of suffering. I told her about how exhausted we were after each time we interviewed a victim of sex trafficking. It was a new type of weariness I had never experienced before, and I couldn’t quite express how I felt.
Roxanne nodded and asked, “Michelle have you ever heard of compassion fatigue?”
She went on to explain that while the other field workers would be called to fix a broken pipe, she – as the gender and conflict point person – would be called to deal with a group of women who had just been raped. A caseload of broken pipes doesn’t exactly impact you in the same way. Dealing with these types of scenarios on a daily basis has a profound effect on a person.
Fast forward to this past weekend. We were at a friend’s birthday party, and towards the end of the night we shared some of our recent experiences while filming our documentary on prostitution and sex trafficking. As we spoke, one of the girls was quiet, seemingly uninterested. She suddenly entered the conversation in full force, and her thoughts tumbled out in waves mixed with tears, and anger, and utter frustration.
We found out that she is a social worker, and every day walks with people through their suffering. She witnesses mothers selling their bodies to buy food for their children, and children being taken away from their parents, and the debilitating effect of poverty, and the horrific treatment of Aboriginal people here in Canada. It quickly turned from a conversation to a session of soul-care, in which this tired and brave young woman spilled everything she had been holding in for so long.
And Roxanne’s words rang in my ears, “Michelle, have you ever heard of compassion fatigue?”
Compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary traumatic stress – these are words I had never heard before. When humanitarian workers, war zone journalists, social workers, and human rights advocates dedicate their lives to serving those who are suffering, there is inevitably some rub-off.
After a heavy week of victim interviews and research in Amsterdam last fall, Jay and I went to a carnival in the city. I felt like I was coming up for air. I remember forcing myself to calm down and not assume that every guy around me was a loverboy luring a young girl into prostitution. I ate a waffle and enjoyed it. I went on a ride and laughed at how fast we were going. Many of our Berlin interviews cancelled the following week, permitting us to have a week of rest. For the first time in my life, I realized I had come dangerously close to compassion fatigue, or at least some aspects of it. I just didn’t know there was a word for what I was experiencing. At first I felt silly admitting it – feeling I did not have justification since I had only listened to victim stories, while social workers and volunteers poured their lives to building relationships in these hostile environments on a daily basis. But no one is immune.
According to the Headington Institute, if you or someone you know is dealing with any of the following symptoms, it might be signs of vicarious trauma:
Difficulty managing your emotions
Difficulty accepting or feeling okay about yourself
Difficulty making good decisions
Problems managing the boundaries between yourself and others (e.g., taking on too much responsibility, having difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, trying to step in and control other’s lives
Problems in relationships
Physical problems such as aches & pains, illnesses, accidents
Difficulty feeling connected to what’s going on around and within you
Loss of meaning and hope
To deal with this, there are three things you can start with:
Getting away from it all, physically or mentally (books or films, taking a day or a week off, talking to friends about things other than work).
Having no goal or time-line, or doing things you find relaxing (lying on the grass watching the clouds, sipping a cup of tea, taking a nap, getting a massage).
Engaging in activities that make you laugh or lighten your spirits (sharing funny stories with a friend, playing with a child, being creative, being physically active).
As we parted ways with Roxanne, I was reminded of the importance of friendship. We need each other because the world needs us, and having someone in your life identify warning signs is truly a gift. Let’s take time to rest, play, and pray on a regular basis, so that we do not grow weary of doing good.
We spent last week in Las Vegas, Nevada. We left Ontario early in the morning on Sunday, and in true Canadian fashion our plane had to be de-iced before we could take off! We flew over the Grand Canyon and landed in the beautiful desert city of Las Vegas. It never ceases to amaze me that a trip that used to take months or years now takes a few hours.
Las Vegas surprised us. Generally speaking we do not like big cities, but found ourselves drawn to the unique desert landscape, gorgeous mountains, sunny skies, lack of traffic, beautiful hotels, and flashing lights. We were hosted by a wonderful family just outside Vegas proper who spoiled us with good local food! When we arrived, we took in the sights and watched the dance of the Bellagio fountains with awe and delight. I felt like a tourist.
While driving around, we would sometimes see an illusion of water in the distance, which ended up simply being a patch of dry earth. The name of one Vegas hotel perfectly describes the city – MIRAGE. Behind the glitz and glamour there were some darker themes that began to emerge as the week progressed.
We had the opportunity to meet with two trafficking survivors, one of who bravely told her story on film for the very first time, and the other who has started an organization to help at-risk girls. We also met with a detective who deals with pimps, a woman who used to be a dancer in a club, and a mother whose daughter is still being sold by a pimp in Vegas. Unbeknownst to us, we landed just in time for trafficking awareness week, giving us a chance to sit in on a task force meeting and attend a human trafficking summit at University of Nevada. We could not have come at a better time.
On the main strip where the big hotels are, people wearing T-shirts saying “GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU” handed out cards that had phone numbers and pictures of naked women – often just body parts of naked women. They would discreetly try to hand it to the men without their wives or girlfriends noticing.
There were two things that stood out to me. First of all, every person I saw handing out cards was Hispanic. I saw one man arrive at his corner and reluctantly pull his T-shirt over his clothes, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a job taken out of desperation. The second thing I noticed was that some of the people handing out cards were women themselves, who looked embarrassed when I made eye contact. Our host told us that one night she went with a group of people to give out gift cards and notes of encouragement to those handing out cards, and some of them actually cried because someone showed them kindness. It deeply saddens me that even those advertising the industry are being stripped of their dignity and humanity.
We were told that many of the pictures of women, on the cards as well as the trucks that would go by with big letters “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” were in fact decades old. They would recycle the same images over and over. It’s all an illusion.
I personally experienced a man in his 50s trying to proposition me and bring me to his $400 room at the Venetian Hotel. When he finally got the message and left me alone, I noticed my hands were shaking – mostly from being furious and disgusted that he thought he had the right to even approach me. I was also a little frightened, since the first question he asked me was whether I was alone. I wondered who he would end up with that night, and couldn’t help but think of the mother we had interviewed earlier that day whose daughter was still under the thumb of her pimp in the very same city in which this man was now prowling.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Part of a pimp's text that threatened those who helped a girl leave the trade
Unfortunately, this motto draws hordes of bachelor parties and other groups of men into town, and traffickers are now recruiting girls at malls and schools to meet the booming demand for paid sex. Though prostitution is only legal in the rural areas of Nevada, excluding Las Vegas, the culture of tolerance for purchasing women’s bodies makes the area ideal for exploitation. While some women say they have made a decision to be in the industry, a woman we met who used to be in it now tells her son that he must “respect women even when they don’t respect themselves.”
I leave Vegas with hope. The incredible community that is looking out for the at-risk and abused is gaining momentum, and I have no doubt that someday the motto of Vegas can someday be quite different.
My birthday falls two days before Christmas, making the time between December 23rd and January 1st a unique opportunity to reflect on the last year of my life.
Every year for my birthday, one of Jay’s gifts is the TIME Year In Review. I soak in every page, reading about people who have lived and people who have died – about the courage, creativity, and success of some and the mistakes, heartbreak, and failures of others. In the midst of it all I have looked back on what 2012 has been like for Hope for the Sold. What a year it has been! And much of it is thanks to people like you.
Between January 1 and December 31, 2012:
Bill C-310 became law. Many of you responded to our request to send letters to your MPs in support of Bill C-310, and in June of this year the bill received Royal Assent. This means that Canadians who engage in human trafficking abroad are no longer exempt from prosecution in Canada. Furthermore, the definition of human trafficking has been enhanced to include key factors to help police and courts to better identify cases of human trafficking. If you made your voice heard during the process, this certificate belongs to you!
We reached our fundraising goal. Because of the generosity of hundreds of people – including HFTS blog readers, friends, family, Ride for Refuge cyclists, and those who organized fundraisers – we raised over $20,000 in 2012! This brought us to the $40,000 mark which enabled us to begin filming our documentary on legalization of prostitution, its connection to sex trafficking, and preventative models that reduce sexual exploitation.
Local transport passes are the best
We began our project. In mid October we headed to Europe to begin filming.
Travel: Planes rides (6), train rides (22), subway/bus/streetcar rides (167), taxi rides (1), hours in car (39)
Wheels that fell off our luggage: 1
Interviews we were late for due to cancelled trains: 1
We’ve learned a lot:
Listening to trafficking survivors tell their stories required our full attention and drew our our deepest emotions. Each time, I would spend the rest of the day in contemplation, in tears, or in a state of numbness and exhaustion. If that was the effect on me, I can only imagine how drained the survivors themselves must have felt after recounting such trauma. We hold their stories with tenderness and care.
Culture affects policy, and policy affects culture.
Issues surrounding sexual exploitation are complex, but that should not scare us from taking a stand.
You can learn a lot in split second moments. Like the brief, tense encounter between a pimp and his “property” in a red light window, like men lined up at ATMs near brothels, like the small whimper from a victim when we asked her if she had been forced to have sex without a condom. Some moments can be caught on camera, while many happen so quickly that they can only be captured in words from memory.
We continue our documentary journey in January, and look forward to meeting more great people. Thank you for your support in 2012. Our work would not be possible without you!