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Sisters prepare to tackle sex trafficking during Games

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

04/22/2015

TORONTO (CCN) — The Pan Am Games will be a big deal for Toronto. They will cost $1.4 billion. With fewer than 100 days to go, more than 350,000 tickets have been sold. With athletes coming from 41 countries, it’s bigger than the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver — the largest multi-sport event ever held on Canadian soil.

Spinoff?

“Human sex trafficking goes with national and international sporting events,” Canadian Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton warned in Ottawa last month. “And it will be coming to my city, because Toronto is hosting the Pan Am Games this summer.”

Led by Catholic religious sisters, a broad coalition is getting ready for the Pan Am Games — running July 10-26, followed by the Parapan Am Games Aug. 7-15 — by ramping up public education campaigns about human trafficking and the sex trade. The most visible of these will likely be the GIFT Box. Two metres long, two metres wide and three metres high, the GIFT Box will look like a present on the outside and tell the tale of enslavement and exploitation on the inside.

The Interfaith Alliance to End Human Trafficking is still considering designs for its giant GIFT Box. It’s also looking for a central location accessible to the crowds wandering from venue to venue. The effort is linked to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, which goes by the acronym UN.GIFT. The first GIFT Boxes were set up in four locations around the 2012 London Olympics. Since then there have been GIFT Boxes for events in Brazil, Slovakia, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The idea is to show people just how victims are caught up in human trafficking, said Varka Kalaydzhieva, Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network co-ordinator.

“It signifies or symbolizes the way they lure you into trafficking. Once you go into the box, once you are tempted, you open the gift and go inside,” Kalaydzhieva said. “There it explains to you how human trafficking happens, what are the signs, some stories of survivors and how they were taken into trafficking.”

While the GIFT Box tries to reach a public that may never have considered the issues around human trafficking, it also hopes to alert potential victims or those who may know victims and provide help.

The Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network is working on a “unified response model” which will include a hotline which can link victims to police, social workers, shelters, health care and more, said Kalaydzhieva. The two-year-old network, headquartered at FCJ Hamilton House and backed by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, hopes to have its hotline in place and functioning in time for the GIFT Box and the Pan Am Games.

But do people really celebrate track and field, table tennis, field hockey, wheelchair races and swim meets with drunken carousing? Is there really a link between the kind of sport the Pan Am Games represent and the sex trade?

Sister Nancy Brown works with young, at risk women at Covenant House in Vancouver and was part of the Buying Sex is Not A Sport campaign during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. She has no doubt about the link between sports and increased trafficking in boys, girls and women.

“Yes, of course it increases,” Brown told The Catholic Register in an email. “But it is impossible to get numbers because of the hidden nature of the crime.”

For Brown it just makes sense. “Sport draws more males,” she said.

But not all campaigners against human trafficking are so convinced.

“I’ve never been one to push the idea of links between sporting events and sex trafficking,” said human trafficking expert Sister Sue Wilson of the Congregation of St. Joseph’s office for systemic justice. “Any evidence of increased numbers at events such as the Olympics or Pan Am Games is anecdotal at best.”

There have been a number of U.S. studies that look at escort agency advertising online around the Super Bowl. But academics in the field have dismissed these studies for failing to show the link between increased advertising and actual increases in the number of women trafficked for sex.

But Mary Lee Bouma, a staffer at Vancouver’s Resist Exploitation Embrace Dignity organization and a volunteer for the Buying Sex is Not a Sport campaign during the Olympics, isn’t waiting around for proof positive. She talks regularly to girls on the three largest strolls in Vancouver. The women “gear up” for nights when the Canucks are playing even the most meaningless regular season NHL games.

“I’m not even talking Pan Am Games or the Olympics, on a week-to-week basis on a night when there is a big hockey game the women are geared up because they know there’s all kinds of men who are going to be coming out,” Bouma said.

Whether there’s a specific link with sports or not doesn’t much matter to Kelly Colwell, co-ordinator of the Faith Alliance Against Human Trafficking.

“It’s mostly that it seems like an opportune moment when there’s a lot of pedestrians, a lot of foot traffic in the city, people out and enjoying the summer and likely to stop by and learn a little bit about trafficking,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to educate people about a phenomenon that’s happening all the time.”

Colwell is just as interested in trafficking for construction work, cleaning staff, personal care workers and other forms of anonymous, contracted out labour.

A 2010 RCMP report on human trafficking estimated 90 per cent of the human trafficking in Canada is for prostitution and most of the victims are girls and women between the ages of 14 and 25. There has been a specific law on human trafficking in Canada since 2005 and in that time about 50 cases have made it to court.

Anti-trafficking campaigners call this the tip of the iceberg.

But April 2 pre-dawn raids in the northwest corner of Toronto involving the sex crimes unit saw a number of men led away in handcuffs. It seems police are getting more confident about using the law.

It’s the everyday fact of all forms of human trafficking that needs to be better understood, said Wilson.

“The reality is that both labour trafficking and sex trafficking happen every day in Canada,” she wrote in an email. “I prefer that people get that message, rather than focusing on big event stories. We need to raise consciousness of the everyday types of exploitation that go on.”

The church is increasingly focused on the issue. While women’s congregations have worked on the issue for decades and the Canadian Religious Conference representing Catholic religious orders and institutes has made it a priority since 2004, they have recently had a high-priority boost from Pope Francis, who dedicated this year’s Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita on Feb. 8 to the issue of modern slavery.

“Human trafficking is a wound in the body of contemporary humanity,” said Pope Francis. “It is a wound in the flesh of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”

And it’s woven deeply into our culture, economy and attitudes toward women, said Bouma.

“It’s one of the most important problems in the world,” she said. “Women and children — mostly children and then women — are migrating globally from everywhere, from the poorest places whether it’s a (First Nations) reserve just north of us or a corner of the city just east of us or a place in the world that’s thousands of kilometres east of us. People are migrating all over the world because of poverty and because of the demand of men for the bodies of these children and women. It’s an ongoing, huge reality right now.”

During the Vancouver Olympics the Buying Sex is Not a Sport campaign bought a small ad in the back pages of the free weekly paper Georgia Straight. The advertisements in those back pages are generally in colour, featuring pictures of naked and nearly naked women in sexualized poses. Services available are sometimes hinted at and sometimes more than hinted.

The Buying Sex is Not a Sport ad featured a black and white silhouette of a young woman’s head and shoulders with a text that read “The perfect date” and a phone number. In that week the small ad at the bottom of the page garnered almost 100 calls.

A taped message told callers to “think of your mother, your wife, your daughter” urging them not to buy women. Men left messages saying they had called the number by accident, or didn’t know what it was for.

“That gives you a feeling for the environment,” said Bouma.

The International Labour Organization estimates the global trade in human beings is worth about $32 billion a year. Drugs is the only category of crime that makes more money globally.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime used a Canadian example to illustrate the profitability of sexual exploitation in its 2014 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. In the Canadian example, UNODC said authorities estimated that one trafficker profited about $225,000 during the eight months of the victim’s exploitation in the commercial sex market. This means that the trafficker was able to earn almost $950 per day from somebody who began as his girlfriend.

Nothing makes Bouma more angry than arguments about whether prostitution should be unionized or regulated or treated as a viable economic option for women who choose this line of work.

“Instead of women’s right to sell themselves, is anyone looking at the men who buy?” she asked. “You would never want your own sister, mother, daughter — instinctively you just know this can’t be right. . . . Is this actually a need? Is this the right thing? Do men have the right to buy women?”

As the Pan Am Games heat up this summer so will the debate over how men have turned women’s bodies into a commodity, bought and sold in an open market. The campaign in Vancouver had people talking in bars and on buses, Bouma said.

The Pan Am Games organizing committee refused to speak to The Catholic Register for this story.