Traffic report

Thursday, September 24, 2009


I never knew a thing about international sex slavery, in which young men and women are essentially kidnapped and work as slave prostitutes, until I saw the movie Lilya 4-ever by Lukas Moodysson. Initially, I took a "not in my backyard" kind of attitude, assuming this sort of thing happens in other parts of the world. However, I think it is time to address my own ostrich-ing of this topic and find out if sexual slavery is present here and, if so, what is being done about it. Furthermore, what can I do to stop this from happening whether on a local, national or international level? Thank you very much for any advice you can provide.



Though film is a wonderful medium in which to explore important topics, its portrayal of sex work is often distorted and clichéd and doesn't always provide layered insight or concrete support. The issue of trafficking is particularly complex. Many filmmakers likely mean well when they tackle this sensitive subject and, yes, the exploitation of human beings for any type of labour is reprehensible. But when it comes to people trafficked into sex work, those best equipped to provide legitimate support and insight are other sex workers and the allies they themselves engage.

"A key goal of sex worker activists is to improve sex-working conditions, but self-organization is impossible when sex work is regarded as merely another form of slavery," says Émilie from sex worker-rights organization Stella in Montreal. "Then authorities and laws trying to stop true slavery—trafficking—get misapplied to sex workers, clients and others involved in the sex industry. Law enforcement raids in the US and abroad have led to little success in identifying trafficked persons but instead have driven sex work underground. This exposes sex workers to an increased risk of violence and denies them any protection of laws against assault or access to medical, legal and educational services. It denies them human rights."

I urge you to read the award-winning report by Anna-Louise Crago called Our Lives Matter: Sex Workers Unite for Health and Rights (it can be downloaded at In it, she describes the actions of one particular sex worker support group, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC ) in India, which is "staunch in their opposition to trafficking and underage youth" in the sex trade: "In 1997, the DMSC undertook a groundbreaking, large-scale initiative to prevent and respond to human rights violations in the sex trade. In a number of red-light districts, they began organizing self-regulatory boards of DMSC staff, doctors, advocates, national human rights commissioners, local politicians and officials, and sex workers working in the streets and brothels.

There are now 33 self-regulatory boards in West Bengal, out of a total of 40 sex-work areas. Each board is responsible for patrolling its red-light district and coming to the immediate assistance of girls who are underage or of those coerced into the sex trade. The boards provide safe exit from the red-light district, temporary shelter, medical care and a companion/mentor for returning home or finding long-term shelter and skills training, depending on which the woman or girl chooses."

Laura Maria Agustin's book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry also provides an analytical and in-depth view of the subject. I recommend it as a rational, nuanced and non-sensationalistic introduction to the issue.

Here at home, groups like Stella in Montreal are on the case. "Trafficking occurs in every industry and there is a great need for migrant, labour and human-rights based initiatives to fight it," says Émilie. "Stella's outreach team has five outreach workers, 6,000 contacts per year for 14 years, with sex workers working on the street, in bars, strip clubs, massage parlours and in escort agencies. The phenomenon of human trafficking is invisible to our eyes, which means that this problem is usually presented as being more common than it is in reality. We see a lot of migrant sex workers, some with problems of debt bondage, but not so many real cases of trafficking. Understand that all women who are unable to access travel documents and need or wish to migrate must secure the assistance of an agent or broker. Anti-trafficking groups must work toward enabling women to travel independently, and fully support improvements in working conditions in all industries."

If you wish to help, Rachel, it would be best to contact a group like Stella and find out what you can do to support them in their efforts.

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