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:
- 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.
- Centres have considerable and longstanding expertise in working with women surviving sexual violence from a trauma-informed, anti-oppression, intersectional framework.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Centres continue to exercise the capacity and motivation to advocate for women survivors individually (that is, on a case by case basis) and systemically.
- 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.
- 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.