Sexual Assault Centres Addressing Human Trafficking in Ontario


By the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres

The sexual exploitation of persons through human trafficking is a crime that disproportionately affects women and girls. Marginalized and exploited populations of women – for example, youth, Aboriginal women and girls, and women with limited or no status in Canada – are most vulnerable to being targeted. Ontario’s Sexual Violence Action Plan identifies that there is a “need for a more coordinated response to human trafficking”; further, a number of different sectors need to be involved “in order to assist victims with everything from safe housing to navigating immigration processes”.

We also recognized the importance of a collaborative approach to human trafficking. As sexual assault centres, we shared concerns on how to do collaborative work effectively in our own communities and across multiple sectors while maintaining a feminist anti-oppression and intersectional approach to the work.

Sexual Assault Centres in Ontario: Competencies in Addressing Human Trafficking

While all Ontario sexual assault centres support sexual violence survivors and share similarities in their programs and services, centres across the province are autonomous. Sexual Assault Centre staff and volunteers engaged in this work, however, all agree that sexual violence against women and children is power-based, gender-based, structurally supported and therefore political.

Violence includes the human trafficking of women. Particularly, sexual assault centres are interested in supporting women and girls who are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. A recent report from the U.N. crime-fighting office noted that 2.4 million people across the globe are victims of human trafficking at any one time, and 80 percent of them are being exploited sexually2.

In many ways, Sexual Assault Centres are well-positioned to address human trafficking in Ontario.

Sexual Assault Centres transferable competencies include the following:

  1. Centres are committed to respond to all survivors of sexual violence with whom they come into contact, including women experiencing sexual violence in the context of human trafficking.
  2. Centres have considerable and longstanding expertise in working with women surviving sexual violence from a trauma-informed, anti-oppression, intersectional framework.
  3. Centres understand that different women experience sexual violence differently. For example, a woman’s race, religion, socioeconomic status, age or sexual identity affects her level of risk for being targeted for acts of violence, as well as resources accessible to her in her healing from violence. This framework for support acknowledges that different women present different confidentiality, safety, shelter and access needs, and compels Sexual Assault Centres to respond to these needs.
  4. Feminist counselling approaches used at Sexual Assault centres include “the ability of workers to assert and reinforce boundaries in ways that do not exploit power differences between clients and staff…and the ability of workers to apply ongoing critical analyses of larger societal systems and institutions”¹.
  5. Centres have historically exercised the capacity, motivation and resourcefulness to support survivors of sexual violence who choose not to engage with the criminal justice system as a means of resolving their experience of violation. Sexual Assault Centre workers instead agree that mandatory reporting to police can promote overreliance on a current legal system which (1) does not effectively resolve most reported sexual assault cases, and (2) can alienate or outright prohibit access to support for marginalized populations of survivors², including survivors who are in conflict with the law. While it is important that sexual assault survivors have access to the legal system, women also need alternatives. This position can be very useful to survivors of human trafficking, who may elect not to engage with the criminal justice system, may face barriers, or may feel ambivalent about accessing the criminal justice system. Currently, many human trafficking initiatives in Ontario have a strong criminal justice focus; or prioritize the prosecution of traffickers ahead of support for trafficking survivors. In this, Sexual Assault Centres bring increased capacity to community work with survivors who choose not to report.
  6. Centres continue to exercise the capacity and motivation to advocate for women survivors individually (that is, on a case by case basis) and systemically.
  7. Centres have the capacity, motivation and expertise to challenge policy criteria (i.e. criteria for admission into a women’s shelter, to acquire Special Priority on housing listings, to apply for Ontario Works) meant to support women experiencing violence in their regions. Women who are trafficked often do not meet these criteria due to lack of documentation or identification. Motivated and experienced advocates, such as Sexual Assault centre staff, can support women in challenging outdated policy/criteria and achieving these supports.
  8. Centres agree that “survivors are at the centre of the work”3, and that this framework for supporting survivors of violence can be extended to developing specific supports for trafficked women. Support, in this context, includes activities and services facilitated by sexual assault centres, as well as larger lobbying action for legal and systemic changes that support survivors of trafficking. Sexual Assault Centres acknowledge that survivors of sexual violence “know from experience…where the gaps and traps are in systems and policies”4. In this, Centres are interested in understanding the needs of trafficked women and creating regional responses that address these needs.

Whether a Centre currently has direct experience supporting survivors of human trafficking in your region or not, it likely identifies with the above competencies and operationalizes them within its services for survivors of sexual violence.

These competencies are all applicable to ─ and useful in ─ addressing the needs of human trafficking survivors in Ontario.

Sexual Assault Centres in Ontario: Challenges in Addressing Human Trafficking

Sexual Assault Centres identify a breadth of difference in terms of their current level of engagement in human trafficking initiatives within their regions:

  1. Some Centres are presently serving sexually trafficked women in their region
  2. Some Centres anticipate a coming need to respond to sexually trafficked women in their region, and are presently doing preparatory work with their frontline workers and with various community partners
  3. Some Centres have made little formal preparations to respond to sexually trafficked women (i.e. increases safety planning measures)
  4. Some Centres have experienced resistance to the notion that trafficked women and/or traffickers existing in their region.

Understandably, Centres with less current engagement express different concerns than Centres with greater engagement. In any case, Sexual Assault Centres identify a number of challenges when considering how to address human trafficking in Ontario.
Challenges and barriers include the following:

  1. Overall, many service providers supporting women lack of knowledge about Canadian legislation and policy that can impact trafficked women. While many of these areas of legislation and policy are similar to those affecting survivors of sexual and domestic violence, others diverge considerably from current expertise.
  2. Centres identify a need to ensure consistent training for workers and volunteers who may come into contact with trafficked women. Many have now begun to provide this.
  3. Some marginalized populations of women ─ for example, young women, women with mental health diagnoses, women engaged in substance use, criminalized women, refugee women and racialized women ─ may be disproportionately or differently affected by trafficking. Frontline workers supporting trafficked women must consider ways to effectively outreach to and support these populations of women.
  4. Centres identify that they are most often the only community service provider that operates from an anti-oppression, feminist perspective. This perspective, though useful in addressing the needs of trafficked women, may be marginalized or resisted at community networks.
  5. Centres identify that sex work and human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is often confounded at community networks and tables. Some community partners may view sex work and trafficking as the same thing; some may not. It’s important for Centres to find or create networks that fit with their understanding and definition of human trafficking.
  6. Frontline workers identify a need to increase their capacity to create safety for trafficked women. Perpetrators are often involved in organized crime, and employ aggressive, violent attempts to retain the survivor. Survivors require immediate and/or heightened support, safety plans, safe homes and safe travel.
  7. Moreover, perpetrators are often involved in organized crime, and employ aggressive, violent attempts to retain the survivor, and this has implications for safe houses and workers.
  8. Centres identify the need to expand outreach and communications strategies to better support women who are hidden or living in isolation.
  9. Centres identify limited resources to support survivors of sexual violence in their region. Significant challenges present when anticipating an increase in demand for service.
  10. Centres identify limited time to develop the community networks needed to address the needs of trafficked women.

Resources that support Sexual assault Centres in addressing Challenges and barriers:

  • Information related to legislation and policy that affects trafficked women. This information would most certainly support Centres in advocating for women. Information on various areas of law that affect sexually trafficked women include:
    • International laws (UN)
    • Covenants (CEDAW)
    • Criminal Code
    • Bill C49, Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act
    • Charter implications
    • Immigration law, including temporary work, student and residency permits
    • Provincial legislation related to Ontario Works and sponsorship agreements when applicable
    • Human Rights legislation

Please see Breaking the Chains of Human Trafficking — Linking Community Support in Peel. This manual, applicable to all community-based work in Ontario and created by the Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Centre of Peel (2012), is provided to all Centres from OCRCC. It addresses much of the above topics.

Sexual Assault Centres in Ontario: Practices for a Survivor-Focused Community Network, Collaborative or Protocol

Ontario Sexual Assault Centres are committed to engaging with community and institution-based organizations who come into contact with women trafficked for sexual purposes. Centres seek to identify possible synergies with other organizations, referral relationships and possible community network agreements.

In discussing community relationships in working with sexually trafficked women, the following was identified.

  1. Successful interventions for human trafficking survivors involves multiple sectors: community-based organizations such as Sexual Assault centres, medical/health services, legal services, the criminal justice system, and more. There is a “need for a more coordinated response to human trafficking”; further, a number of different sectors need to be involved “in order to assist victims with everything from safe housing to navigating immigration processes”7.
  2. Proactive initiatives are crucial. Some community organizations and police services, particularly in rural or remote regions, report that “human trafficking does not exist” in their jurisdiction. This is problematic as it then requires a human trafficking “incident” in order for the community to mobilize support. Organizations are encouraged to initiate collaborative work where none exists.
  3. Sexual Assault Centres see public education on human trafficking as foundational to the development of community network responses and agreements. Community partners must know the realities and prevalence of trafficking before it can be effectively, confidently addressed.
  4. Natural synergies should be identified where they exist. These may include other violence against women allies and organizations. These may also include other organizations or institutions that come into contact with sexually trafficked women.
  5. We acknowledge the limitations that exist in some communities. For example:
    1. Mandates in some shelters for abused women limit admittance for sexually trafficked women, women who present high safety risks, or women without status.
    2. Aboriginal women may find local VAW shelters discomforting when institutional practices exist, or when shelter workers are largely non-Aboriginal
    3. Safe housing, legal advocacy, support for women with complex needs are limited
    4. Mechanisms for “safe return (sending)” or “safe receiving” (particularly in Northern communities) do not exist
    5. The safety concerns of trafficked women can include threats to women’s safety by highly organized groups, and threats to their support networks by extension. These are safety concerns that have not yet been addressed by most communities in Ontario
    6. Identifying heath organizations that provide services for clients without identification is necessary to support trafficked women
    7. Court support for women who have been trafficked and criminalized are also needed Ontario rural, isolated, Northern and Aboriginal communities have much less options in of these areas and present additional challenges for Centres attempting to establish community networks.
  6. New community partners present new challenges. New partners may have little or no experience working with a feminist anti-oppression intersectional analysis, and so the potential for new polarizations exists. Faith-based groups have much to offer to a coordinated network response (grassroots safe housing, financial, settlement support, etc), and working with women in innovative ways. However, some faith-based groups also present differing frameworks for addressing human trafficking and sexual exploitation: for example, groups may not differentiate between sex work and sexual trafficking; may offer divergent stances on sexual orientation, gender identity; and may frame trafficking as a morality issue societally, as opposed to a human rights issue. Seeking potential synergies, however, can be accompanied by community education and a commitment to conversation on these contentious or controversial topics. Centres can seek to identify the roles and capacities of all involved, and work as a partner in the primary goal of safety and support for sexually trafficked women.
  7. Community education regarding the needs of sexually trafficked women is already being delivered by some (a few) Sexual Assault Centres, developed recently on their own initiative. Their experiences can be shared amongst Centres to increase the capacity amongst all Centres.
  8. Research and statistics on human trafficking in Ontario is extremely limited. Our capacity to track new and innovative work is important for future work. Networks and organizations are often asked to identify the prevalence of trafficking in their community, and we do not currently have adequate information to do so. It will be important for Centres to compile practice-based evidence over the long-term starting now.
  9. Outreach to sex workers is offered proactively by many Sexual Assault Centres already. This has been identified as a means by which sexually trafficked women have been able disclose their experience of being “bonded, coerced, deceived, exploited”. Some Centres have supported au pairs and domestic workers and through a similarly supportive relationship, and have thus learned the prevalence of exploitation.
  10. Engaging supportive response from law enforcement is important. The differences in perspectives and priorities – for example, perpetrator conviction vs. support for the survivor – challenge collaborative relationships to address trafficking. This divergence is very present in police-Centre relationships concerning women who have been trafficked for sexual purposes; it invariable affects possible agreements or service protocols, and the mandate of these protocols/agreements


1 Bonisteel, M. and Linda Green. “Implications of the Shrinking Space for Feminist Anti-violence Advocacy”. Presented at the 2005 Canadian Social Welfare Policy Conference, Forging Social Futures,Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, 40
2 Erwin, P. E. “Exporting U.S. Domestic Violence Reforms: An Analysis of Human Rights Frameworks and U.S. ‘Best Practices’”. Feminist Criminology, Volume 1 Number 3. July 2006, 198
3 Riggs, Joan. 2009. “Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) Strategic Plan”. Ottawa, 5
4 Ontario Association of Interval and Transiion Houses. 2008. “Survivor Voices: Welcoming Women to Make Change. Calling on Services and policymakers to Include Survivors in Their Work”, vii.
Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Centres Addressing Human Trafficking in Ontario


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