Written by Lindsay Stewart Glor
What teenaged girl doesn’t want to hear that she’s pretty; that she’s important and worthy of attention? It’s this searching for acceptance, belonging and validation that put this segment of our population at particular risk for exploitation. Across the globe the exploitation and trafficking of young women and girls for sexual purposes has reached crisis levels. And our daughters here at home are not immune to the threat.
In Canada, it is estimated that 600 women and girls are trafficked into Canada each year, while approximately 1,200 are moved across the Canada/US border. Worldwide, human trafficking is the third-largest international crime next to illegal drugs and arms trafficking. The issue is overwhelming in its enormity and its complexity. But there is hope.
In Winnipeg, law enforcement, NGOs and private citizens alike are working to end this modern slave trade. Notable among the voices raised in protest are those of Liz Crawford, Rosalind Prober and Joy Smith. These women, more visible perhaps than the dozens working quietly at the grassroots level, are taking the issue to the national and global stage.
Although she first became aware of the issue of exploitation and trafficking while modeling overseas as a 13-year-old, Liz Crawford says it wasn’t until she heard famed journalist and author Victor Malarek (“The Natashas”) speak five years ago that she was inspired to work for change in her industry. Since that time she has become a well-known face on the anti-exploitation scene and has lobbied for better regulation in the local modeling and entertainment industries.
In 2007 the campaign she spearheaded resulted in the passing of the Worker Recruitment and Protection Act. The act requires underage models to have a child work permit and for agencies to be licensed, which comes with a variety of safety and background checks. “The idea was to educate and license legitimate agencies, photographers and people in the business,” explains Crawford.
It’s a pretty common sense regulation, but one that Crawford doesn’t see coming for the modeling world at large. “If everybody did this it would change the industry world wide,” she says. “For example, in Manitoba if you’re under 17 you must travel with a chaperone. That would bring the industry to its knees globally.”
With new regulations in place, Crawford, who recently opened Swish Model Management, has turned her attention to educating young women and their parents about the potential dangers of those using her industry as a cover.
“There is definitely an element of exploitation in our industry but the bigger issue is traffickers using modeling agencies and websites to lure girls in for sexual trafficking,” she explains. “We know it happens in every city across Canada and that there is no victim description.”
Victims, she says, are often approached in a public place by someone posing as an agent or photographer and handed a business card. The girls, many of whom don’t tell their parents about the encounter, then post photos of themselves to an unknown website or go to a meeting at a private home. “They are preying on the hopes and dreams of young girls,” says Crawford.
Even those who are contracted by legitimate agencies to work overseas can face safety issues once they arrive, including having their passports taken away, being left without an adult chaperone and having their moves monitored.
In the modeling world many of those who are being victimized come from Eastern Europe, where economics, more than fame, make modeling an attractive choice. Unfortunately many beautiful young women and girls are lured by false promises into a world of exploitation. Stripping and prostitutions often follow and many are trafficked across borders. Frightened and lost, they are beaten, raped and threatened until escaping is hardly an option. This is the world of human sex trafficking and it is happening across the globe, including right here at home.
One of the most visible local organizations working to combat child sexual exploitation is Beyond Borders. Headquartered in Winnipeg, it is the Canadian affiliate of ECPAT International, a global network of organizations working to combat child prostitution, child pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes.
Beyond Borders was co-founded in the late 1990s by Rosalind Prober, a longtime child rights activist who also founded cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line to report online sexual victimization.
Working with a team of volunteers, including many from the legal community, Beyond Borders not only works to raise awareness about the issue of exploitation and trafficking but monitors victim rights, and sometimes intervenes in court cases to provide a voice for victims.
Often it is the victim who is lost in this story. Once they manage to escape from their exploiters, these young people are left with few places to turn. Across Canada there are only a small number of safe houses where victims can go to recover and rebuild their lives. Those that do exist are straining to meet the growing demand.
Once back in society, many young victims find that they are treated like criminals for having participated in illegal acts. They are left without money, friends or family, unable to trust and living in fear. “They have become a non-person,” explains activist Joy Smith. The girls are then further victimized when their abusers, the few who are brought to justice, receive little or no penalty for their actions.
Prober’s work puts her in touch with a number of international agencies and is well aware of the reputation Canada has as a safe-haven for those who exploit children. Much of this is due to what many see as weak penalties for crimes like sexual trafficking.
Mandating stiffer legal punishment for traffickers has been the focus of politician Joy Smith’s work, both as a member of Manitoba’s legislative assembly and now as a member of Parliament.
A former schoolteacher turned politician, Smith first took notice of the issue of sexual exploitation quite accidentally. “My son worked for the Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit,” she explains. “He was just a young cop and his hair was turning grey.” She soon learned what was going on in the ICE unit and found she couldn’t turn away. “I found out way more than I wanted to know and now for eight years I’ve devoted my focus to it.”
Besides working to create a national strategy on sexual exploitation and trafficking, and promoting the establishment of safe houses and rehabilitation centres for victims, Smith’s most visible project has been Bill C-268. The bill passed its second reading and the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in June and is currently at Report Stage and Third Reading. It contains amendments to Canada’s Criminal Code that require a minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of the trafficking of minors in Canada.
Currently, Canada lags behind many countries by not having minimum sentences for this crime. In the U.S., sex traffickers face a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence if the victim is under 15, and a minimum 10-year sentence if the victim is between the ages of 14 and 18. In India the minimum sentence is seven years, and five years in Thailand. In the Dominican Republic the trafficking of a child can result in 20 to 25 years in prison.
The comparatively inadequate sentencing laws in Canada reinforce the idea that this country is a safe place for perpetrators, which is a message Smith is determined to change. “We want to put the message out there that our children are not for sale,” she says.
Recent history, however, tells a different story. In 2008, an Ontario man, Imani Nakpangi, was convicted of trafficking and exploiting a 15-year-old girl. Although he had sexually exploited her for two years before her eventual escape, his sentence was just three years, with a 13-month credit for time served. Last year a similar case resulted in the convicted offender spending just one week in jail.
Smith is hopeful that her bill will be one step towards change. The other, perhaps equally important step, she says, is educating the general public about the issue. “These are everybody’s daughters,” she says. “Parents are naïve if they think it couldn’t happen to their family.”
In Winnipeg, any one of the estimated 400 children and youth who are exploited each year could be someone you have met, said hello to, or passed by on your way to work. No victim’s story is the same, however there are certain statistics that cannot be ignored. According to stopsexwithkids.ca, a local initiative geared towards public education, Aboriginal youth are at particular risk of exploitation and make up a disproportionate number of those victimized, nearly 70 to 80 per cent. Another particularly shocking statistic is that many children are in the care of Child and Family Services at the time of their victimization. The average age of initial exploitation in Winnipeg: 13-years-old.
At such young ages, without a strong support system behind them, it is easy to see how a kind gesture of friendship could bring a desperate child into the world of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Statistics show that many victims know their trafficker, and many think they are their friend or girlfriend. From a position of trust they are easily put into an unsafe situation. They might, for example, willingly go on a short road trip with their “friend”, finding themselves in a different city or province, without identification or a cell phone, in an unknown hotel, being sold into prostitution by the very person they trusted.
It is a story Joy Smith has heard too many times. “Put yourself there and picture what you would do,” she urges. “We need to develop compassion.” It is this compassion, she hopes, which will spur people to action. “We need to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” she says, “our children.”
Keep up to date on the status of Bill C-268 by joining Joy Smith’s Facebook group at Support Bill C-268, or head to her website at www.joysmith.ca.
Soft hands make a differenceTwenty years ago Anita Roddick, the enigmatic founder of The Body Shop, used her London store window to support the Save the Whales campaign and a new face in activism was born. Since that time Roddick’s popular bath and beauty products chain, which has 2,400 stores in 16 countries, including two in Winnipeg, has created some massively influential social campaigns, including one to stop animal testing on cosmetic products. It has also created ongoing campaigns to raise awareness of domestic violence and HIV and AIDS. Before she died in 2007, Roddick became involved in the issue of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Following her lead, the chain launched the Stop Sex Trafficking of Children & Young People Campaign this past summer.
This global initiative is a partnership with ECPAT International and the Somaly Mam Foundation with the goal of both educating the public and raising money for community programs. Leaders from Winnipeg-based Beyond Borders, the Canadian affiliate of ECPAT International, say they are thrilled to have such an influential force behind their cause.
“The Body Shop can reach so many people,” offers Nicole Merrick, a lawyer and legal volunteer with Beyond Borders. Indeed the store’s track record proves it can be a force in changing public opinion. “The Body Shop is not a firm that jumps in and jumps out of a cause,” says Rosalind Prober, president and co-founder of Beyond Borders. “When they did their domestic violence campaign they made a real impact.”
Just a few months into the campaign partners have already released a series of information packages and videos, co-authored a global report on sex trafficking and debuted three new fundraising products.
While many companies are criticized for donating just a small amount of the profits from fundraising products, more than half of the $10 Soft Hands Kind Heart hand cream—$6—goes directly to support ECPAT and its global affiliates. Money raised by sales of the store’s The Body Shop Bag for Life and gift bags go directly to the Somaly Mam Foundation, which supports rehabilitation and support services for sexually exploited women in Cambodia.
For Prober, having the retail giant on board lets consumers support the cause on a number of levels. “They can buy the hand cream and feel that they’ve done their part,” or, she offers, “they can be more involved. I feel like we’re going to be overwhelmed with volunteers who will help raise awareness.”
Awareness, says Merrick, is the key to affecting change. “Often it’s not seen as a Canadian issue,” she explains. “But at Beyond Borders we say ‘Not your child, not mine, not anyone’s.”
To learn more about the issue of human sexual trafficking, and ways you can help, check out these websites:
Somaly Mam Foundation
The Body Shop awareness campaign
UPDATE: Trafficking Bill Passes to Senate
In the fall issue of Winnipeg Women Magazine we looked at the complex issue of human sexual trafficking in Canada. We have since learned that Bill C-268, which will enforce minimum sentences for the trafficking of minors, has passed at Third Reading and will now go on to the Senate for consideration.
Winnipeg MP Joy Smith, who introduced the Bill and has been instrumental in gaining political and public support, had this to say after the proposed legislation was passed on September 30: "Today's support for Bill C-268 reveals a clear indication that the majority of Members of Parliament understand the necessity of ensuring the traffickers of minors receive sentences that reflect the severity of this grave offence. Traffickers need to know that we will not accept the exploitation and sale of our children and any attempts to do so will be met with stiff consequences."