Human trafficking: A ripple effect in a sea of exploitation

"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."
- Albert Einstein

I was upset when I learned about a 16-year-old girl who was forced into prostitution and of another girl who is only 14!

And I was very upset to read that girls as young as 17 who are looking for a job in the classified ads are, instead, mislead and caught into prostitution. The Joliette social street workers are very concerned about the increase of prostitution as, I am sure, are all those who work for the dignity of women.

How many young women are in similar situations? The answer is many. In last year's newspapers, I read that a 15-year-old girl ran away from home and found herself with a 30-year-old man she had never met. She later realized that she had been sold. From a country in Asia, a young girl succeeded in calling for help; she had been drugged before being put on a plane. The list goes on and on.

Disposable girls . . . suspicious massage parlours . . . shifty escort services . . . massive frauds . . . strip clubs . . . physical and psychological violence . . . women killed or missing . . . many young women unidentified, anonymous, damaged in body and soul.

It is all so overwhelming, and because of that, very often people do not know what to do to help the cause of abused and exploited women.

In my heart, I knew that indignation that is not followed by action is futile and wondered what I could do. It was then that a conversation I had with a friend came back to me. She had told me about a woman who, to express her disapproval, used to send back to the newspapers, every week, the classified ads for erotic massage parlours, escort services and other similar agencies. Her undeterred gesture inspired me to do something in a similar way. I began to read the ads from papers distributed for free and was appalled by the number of these ads, the overall lack of respect and dignity in the written texts, the insidious way of luring people into buying into the promised "goods" — exotic, erotic experiences, "beautiful Asian girls," "gorgeous black girls." It became evident to me that there is a link between certain types of classified ads, pornography, prostitution and human trafficking.

If it were your daughter

I began by sending a letter to the mayor of Montreal and urged all my contacts to do the same wherever it applied. In the letter, I expressed my concern about young girls and women being exploited and possibly trafficked.

The mayor answered, which in itself was an encouragement, and he thanked me for my concerns. I then wrote to the editors of three newspapers and mentioned to them what I deemed harmful in the newspapers ads. I talked about what has been done in certain cities and countries against pornography and prostitution. I asked that the classified ads for erotic massage parlors, escort services and other similar ads be banned from their advertising lists, stressing the danger of exploitation and trafficking.

Results

In the work for justice one does not usually get results very fast. But in this case, after a few months, someone mentioned to me that the number of ads had disappeared from one newspaper and diminished radically in another! I do not know what triggering factor brought about this policy change in the newspapers, but it was clearly an indication that people knew what was at stake.

The world is aware

When I first started to work against trafficking, there was very little if anything in the media about this modern slavery. People I met kept telling me they did not know about trafficking.

But things are changing. The media has brought people up to date on this issue. I read that the mayor of Montreal intended to crack down on dubious businesses advertised in newspapers. In Toronto, a committee was preparing a plan of action to boycott certain newspaper ads. References or clear mentions of trafficking appear in the works of bestselling authors such as Kathy Reichs and popular television series such as "Law and Order."

During the Vancouver and the London Olympic Games, steps were taken to make sure no one was exploited in any way, and it was done again very recently before the Super Bowl in the United States. After hurricane Haiyan, people in the Philippines were alerted to the dangers of human trafficking. And now, we hear the same thing about the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria.

Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, London — The world knows!

Allies

Many individuals, old and young, groups and numerous NGOs are taking up the cause of dignity for all people, especially young girls and women. Let me stress the importance of this issue by mentioning a few eminent persons who strongly opposed any form of modern slavery: Hillary Clinton and John F. Kerry from the United States, Joy Smith and Maria Mourani from Canada, and, of course, Pope Francis.

At the beginning of the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, for instance, Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State at the time, wrote ". . . despite the adoption of treaties and laws prohibiting slavery, the evidence nevertheless shows that many men, women and children continue to live in modern-day slavery through the scourge of trafficking in persons." John F. Kerry adopted similar language in 2015: "Trafficking in persons is an insult to human dignity and an assault on freedom."

Joy Smith has been actively working for victims of trafficking for years while a member of the Canadian Parliament and expressed her support to Maria Mourani who sponsored Bill C-452 that was approved in June 2015. The law amended the Canadian criminal code in order to provide consecutive sentences for offences related to trafficking in persons and to create a presumption regarding the exploitation of one person by another. It also added the offence of trafficking in persons to the list of offences to which the forfeiture of proceeds of crime apply.

Pope Francis himself has talked strongly against human trafficking and has linked it to climate change. He also acted to combat trafficking by supporting the creation of the Santa Marta Group.

There is hope yet that the diverse forms of modern slavery will be eradicated!

Sexual exploitation of women and children often results in long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease, drug addiction, pregnancy, malnutrition, social ostracism and death. There was a time when we took bullying among young people lightly. However, when cases of deep depression and suicide began to multiply, society began to pay attention. Today, no one considers this behavior a normal part of growing up that will pass in time without any repercussions for the victims. The same applies to the specific kinds of violence in pornography and prostitution, whose effects, particularly on young people, are very dangerous and often misunderstood.

So, when asked why I continue to work against human trafficking and its causes, I usually answer that having faith in possible changes put me on that road of justice, and hope keeps me on it.

The struggle against trafficking has been going on for many years and seems like an impossible task. Protesting against degrading classified ads is one simple action, but I believe that every action counts. This initiative and others make a difference, and we should not underestimate their ripple effect. We cannot rest in this ongoing battle because the stakes are too high. It is all about what we want for our society, for our youth.

Efforts to counter escalating modern scourges are an appeal to hope and to act. All we need is a listening and tender heart.

[Pierrette Boissé is a Sister of the Congregation de Notre-Dame from Montreal. After serving as a teacher and coordinator of her congregation's Social Justice Network, she now focuses on issues related to human trafficking.]

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