Woman's face in profileFor the last two weeks, I have had the privilege to travel across the country to visit social service agencies and community-based organizations that are championing anti-trafficking initiatives at the local level. Most of these programs are run by women and informed by people who have experienced trafficking in one form or another. All of them are looking for ways to support those who have been trafficked while tackling the root causes of the problem in their communities.

When we speak of sex trafficking at the Canadian Women’s Foundation, we define it as an extreme form of violence against woman and girls. The coercion of a girl or a woman to engage in sex for the financial gain of another is nothing less than violent and an egregious form of abuse that must not be tolerated. Less often discussed in public forums is the fact that sex trafficking is also a human rights violation. Sex trafficking is more than just one person mistreating another — it is the result of systemic problems in our society that need to be urgently addressed.

Some of the most effective uses of a rights-based analysis comes from Indigenous communities who were among the first to identify domestic trafficking patterns in Canada. They used trafficking to describe what was happening to the women and girls from their communities who were being coerced into the sex industry. Too many of these women are now included among Canada’s infamous missing and murdered statistics. These communities understand that gender inequality, racial discrimination, poverty, intergenerational trauma, and marginalization are among the many root causes of sex trafficking. Every one of the root causes is a violation of human rights, including the right to non-discrimination, the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to liberty and security, the right to life… the list goes on.

When rights are at the centre

Some of the most successful community-level initiatives combatting sex trafficking have been borne out of rights-based principles.

Ndinawe, a Winnipeg-based organization funded by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, understood that the under-representation of child and youth workers of Indigenous heritage meant that children at risk would not have access to supporters and allies with a clear understanding of their needs. They also recognized that women exiting situations of trafficking needed solid educational and employment opportunities to rebuild their lives. Bridging these needs, Ndinawe developed a partnership with Red River College to provide education and training to trafficking survivors who wished to become child and youth workers. After nine years in operation, their 75 grads are making waves. In their words, they are “decolonizing the system” by their very presence and having an immeasurable ripple effect in their community.

Ndinawe’s efforts provide remedies for discrimination in education and employment, sexism, colonialism, intergenerational trauma, and a host of other rights violations that create the conditions in which sex trafficking thrives. It also provides women who have experienced trafficking with the skills and knowledge to shed their “victim” label and to claim their rights, demanding better from the society they live in.

When rights are an afterthought

Frontline service providers consistently tell us that in addition to being a rights violation, sex trafficking thrives where human rights are routinely violated. Interventions to assist trafficked persons that do not account for the rights of those affected by sex trafficking risk making the situation worse, and are ineffective in creating conditions where sex trafficking can be avoided for others.

A great example of rights analysis in action is the work of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a network of immigrant and refugee serving organizations across Canada. They share information and promising practices across their anti-trafficking network to strengthen service provision and advocacy. They use their knowledge to call for policy change to better protect the rights of internationally trafficked women, which includes all forms of trafficking.

Their work, alongside the work of other migrants’ rights groups in Canada, has called attention to the urgent need for the government to issue temporary resident permits to internationally trafficked women and girls to avoid their immediate detention and deportation once identified by police. Detention and deportation is a common practice in police responses to trafficking, as internationally trafficked women are very often undocumented migrants. When a trafficked woman is deported rather than receiving the legal and social supports that would otherwise be offered to a Canadian citizen, she is being discriminated against by the state—a violation of her rights and an action that may well subject her to further harm upon return to her home country.

Why does a rights-based lens matter?

It is through a rights-based approach that we are able to claim that it is the government’s obligation to address the root causes of sex trafficking. A rights-based analysis obliges us to look at all who experience sex trafficking as individuals and as rights-holders, equally entitled to non-discriminatory support and services irrespective of who they are, what their experience has been, or where they come from. Building knowledge of human and civil rights among those who have experienced sex trafficking is powerful— it reaffirms to survivors that they are not to blame for the violence they have suffered and that they are empowered agents who can call for the protection of their rights and respect for the rights of others.

What can you do?

At Canadian Women’s Foundation, we are committed to working with community-based organizations and social service agencies to end sex trafficking in Canada. To meet this goal, we provide ongoing financial support to organizations working within their communities, bring service providers and policy-makers together to strategize and share best practices, and talk to policy-makers about the steps that can and should be taken.

To support this work you can:

  • Read our factsheet to learn more about sex trafficking in Canada
  • See our tips for parents on preventing sex trafficking.
  • Make a donation and support organizations across the country that are working to end sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a grave violation of human rights and an extreme form of violence against women and girls. But it is not inevitable. Together, we can bring an end to it and ensure that every woman and girl lives free from violence.

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