Until last week, I was pretty ignorant about human trafficking, and what little I knew, I didn’t believe. I’d heard it defined, sort of, but figured it was probably an exaggerated description of prostitution. A sad vocation for anyone for sure, demoralizing, and chosen maybe out of desperation and a sense of worthlessness, but in part, at least, a choice. Because people in modern civilization don’t own other people, and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t try on such barbarity in London, Canada, only fifteen minutes away from where I live.
This mind-set came with me to the Sexual Violence and Human Trafficking course I attended this week at my interpreting agency. I hid a smile the first morning when Lorrie, our instructor, asked each interpreter to describe what they had come hoping to learn this week. Course attendance was a government mandate. My hopes had little to do with it.
Fortunately, the London police officer, lawyer, nurse and various other presenters at the course who meet victims of human trafficking on a regular basis are neither ignorant of nor skeptical about the subject. Their knowledge and experience is not limited to people who prostitute themselves to earn a living. It reaches to girls and women who are literally owned by people who let other people, up to ten or twenty other people rape them every day for profit. Girls and women who couldn’t dream up a life like this in their worst nightmares let alone choose it.
The horrific reality lived by victims of trafficking began to impress itself on my mind as I watched and listened. Traffickers lure their victims by means as varied and ugly as the evil that drives them. Smuggling is a big one. Women regularly accept offers of help to enter a foreign country illegally in hopes of a better life. Once over the border, they’re powerless in the hands of their supposed helpers who take away their identification, lock them up and rent them out for sex to anyone who has the money to pay up front. Besides posting guards over them and beating them, they prevent victims from trying to escape by threatening the lives of their families. The kinds of women who fall prey to traffickers defy many stereotypes but they are characteristically very thin from lack of food and from the horrendous conditions in which they end up.
I learned that people from impoverished backgrounds are most vulnerable to trafficking. In Canada, aboriginal girls and girls from group homes make up the majority of victims. Traffickers often pose as suitors who exploit the girls’ need for love and stability. Once they’ve trapped their victim, they only use the boyfriend charade in public when they allow the victim out of the place where she’s kept. It’s a charade that law enforcement finds difficult to disprove because the victim is usually too terrified of her captors to expose them.
This excerpt from the 2005 t.v. miniseries, Human Trafficking, depicts a couple of ways women get trapped. It’s pretty graphic though, so use your discretion.
According to police, every motel in London, from the sleaziest dump in the east end to the fanciest place on the north side has been used for sexual encounters with trafficked women and girls. Not (just) prostitutes. Women who get carted around from city to city and peddled like wares. Women, who, if they were to try to flee the motel would be beaten or worse. When discovered by police, some victims don’t even know where they are. They don’t know that they’re in London.
Our training uncovered another reason I found human trafficking so hard to believe: it’s because I didn’t know we could do this. People, I mean. I didn’t know that people with our God-given capacity for empathy could ignore the cries of a twelve-year-old girl while she’s beaten until she submits to anything the depraved mind of man can devise. I didn’t know we can tattoo a woman’s neck or hip or backside to identify her to other pimps like a rancher branding Longhorns. Except no respectable rancher would starve his animal, breed it ten, twelve, twenty times a day and then beat it when it tries to run away. For most of my adult life, I’ve thought I was a cynical, worldly-wise person. I thought this was one of the most negative and unattractive things about me. Would that we could know without polluting our own ingenuousness just how many of our illusions have remained intact after all.
Until last week, I felt rather like I needed a bath when I drove down Dundas Street or Hamilton Road or other seedy districts in London. Ajax and a bristle brush are still in order when I’m there now, but along with that come feelings of heaviness, sadness and anger.
They kind of showed up at home last night too, over a post by a German page I follow on Facebook. This picture would not have elicited more than a derisive smirk from me last week.
The title reads “The Language of Woman”. According to the list, the second word, “Nein” (No), really means “Ja” (Yes) in ladyspeak. I know now why people abuse exclamation points. It’s because they’re incapable of expressing their passion in clear, pointed language. At least, that’s what happened when I pounded out the few German words I could put to my feelings,
“Stimmt nicht. Nein ist nein!!! (Not true. No is No).
And the exclamation points. Three of them flew out from under my fingers before I knew what I was about.
Right now I don’t know what to do with those feelings. This is a start, I suppose. Arranging them into words and setting them in black and white…in whatever language they decide to come out.