Empowering the Future – Kolkata, India

Empowering the Future – Kolkata, India

The Founders of New Light and Aura Freedom have a long-standing and loyal friendship born from feminist activism and a shared desire to see a world free from gender-based violence and human trafficking. Throughout the years, Urmi Basu and Marissa Kokkoros have collaborated on different initiatives and events to bring awareness to violence against women, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. Then, in 2021 during the COVID-19 crisis, the Empowering the Future project was born.

Empowering the Future will be implemented through New Light’s Soma Home, a full-time residential facility for vulnerable girls in South Kolkata. The home, founded in 2005, was named after an infant girl, Soma, who suffered an untimely death due to lack of proper medical attention by her family. Through the existence of this girls’ home, it is hoped that the “value of the life of a girl child would be kept alive in the memory of all those who knew her.”

Soma Home, beautifully operated by New Light for the past 17 years, is a safe haven for the children who live there, offering a variety of support such as counselling, positive relationships with caring adults, connection to family, educational opportunities, self-defense, and
music/dance therapy to help them grow and develop into healthy young women.

New Light and Aura Freedom are implementing the following activities under the Empowering the Future project for girl children (ages 8-18) who are at high risk of sexual exploitation, human trafficking, child marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence and who have been removed from the red light districts of Kalighat, Sovabazar , Sonagachhi , Chetla and Khidirpur and other high-risk communities with the consent and cooperation of their mothers:

  • Provide safe and dignified housing
  • Provide healthy and nutritious food
  • Support the girls to attend regular school and tutoring, as needed
  • Provide extra-curricular activities such as Indian classical dance, modern dance and other art forms, computer and tech training, boxing, self-defense, sports, tailoring, craft, cookery and other activities/events of their individual interest
  • Support the girls to access healthcare, as needed
  • Provide mental health support and emotional support through trauma-informed counselling
  • Provide awareness of human rights, human trafficking, child marriage, and other forms of gender-based violence in order to prevent violence and exploitation
  • Provide rehabilitation, support and healing opportunities to girls who have previously experienced gender- based violence, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, etc.
  • To provide additional supports as needed for the girls and youth of Soma Home

We Need Your Help to Empower The Future!

Support this initiative and donate below:

Roe v. Wade: We Cannot Go Back

Our Thoughts on Roe v. Wade

When envisioning a world where women and girls achieve gender equity and freedom from violence, we at Aura Freedom push ourselves to not only imagine freedom from, but freedom to. Not just freedom from violence, from prosecution, from inequality – but freedom to make choices: about our bodies, our education, our health, our families, our movement, our paths. 

In response to the recent publication of a leaked document from SCOTUS that points to an imminent overturn of Roe v Wade, Aura Freedom would like to discuss the impact of this document and the impending decision from SCOTUS, and the matter of reproductive justice. 

Roe v Wade was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1973, which affirmed women’s rights to privacy as outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Under this right to privacy, it was decided that women had the right to access abortion without extensive government restriction. While States have differing regulations regarding abortion, Roe v Wade signalled a massive step forward in the movement for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy both in the United States and abroad. This landmark decision hugely influenced other countries in their subsequent decisions to decriminalize abortion, and its will undoubtedly have similar effects, especially in neighbouring countries in South America.

Of course, we know that abortions existed and were performed before the Roe v Wade ruling. Illegal or informal abortions have always existed underground in contexts where abortion is criminalized, with varying levels of safety and accessibility. These illegal abortions present significant social, financial and health risks to all women, and these risks are more significant for poor, racialized, immigrant, disabled and queer women (to name a few). 

Leading up to the legalization of abortion, feminist groups across North America organized self-help clinics to place knowledge and tools about women’s reproductive health in the hands of women. These clinics touched on subjects ranging from pregnancy tests, reproductive anatomy, and self-induced abortions.These feminist consciousness-raising groups recognized reproductive health as a site of political power, and reappropriated biomedical knowledge and tools to place this power in the hands of women. 

Feminist self-help clinics are a heart-warming example of resilience and grassroots feminist movement-building in the face of oppressive restriction on bodily autonomy and integrity. However, the reality of abortion before Roe v Wade for most women was in stark contrast to the empowerment and sisterhood that defined self-help clinics.

For decades, feminists have endlessly repeated what we all know to be true: criminalizing abortion will not prevent abortions from occurring, it will only make them more dangerous and less accessible, especially for marginalized women. This is backed up by research that concretely demonstrates that abortion levels are roughly the same across countries where it is legal and countries where it is criminalized. In countries with high levels of poverty where abortion is criminalized, abortion rates are four times higher than in higher-income countries where abortion is legal. 

This research confirms that the restriction and criminalization of abortion only results in unsafe and unregulated abortion procedures, which puts the lives and the health of women at immense risk. Furthermore, it demonstrates that rates of abortion are more influenced by social factors, such as income and social status, than by legal restrictions or rights. 

The criminalization of abortion is therefore not simply a matter of reducing abortion rates – it is a matter of restricting women’s bodily autonomy and integrity, and thus an infringement on their Human Rights. The criminalization of abortion is violence against women, in action.

So, where does this leave us? 

Grassroots organizations and activists working in the Gender-Based Violence sector are no strangers to showing resilience in the face of oppression. Aura Freedom stands firmly in solidarity with feminists fighting to keep their rights to privacy and bodily integrity in the U.S., and voices our strong concern with recent popular anti-abortion and anti-woman political and social discourse. 

In Canada, where abortion is still legally accessible, we must fight to reaffirm our right to bodily autonomy, and demonstrate our will to protect this right. Furthermore, we must continue to fight for equal and safe access to reproductive justice for all in Canada. Currently, barriers in accessibility to safe and culturally appropriate reproductive health services are faced by the most marginalized communities – eliminating these barriers must be our first priority. The fight for legal, safe and accessible abortion for Canadians is not over until this right is guaranteed to all those who need it. 

Reproductive justice, as defined by the group Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, is “the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives”. 

Abortion is not a singular condition for reproductive justice, but it is a necessary one. The right to choose an abortion is as important as the right to choose to have children; the circumstances under which this choice is made is also of upmost importance.

This is what we are fighting for. This is what our sisters and siblings in the U.S. will lose if SCOTUS follows through with their decision to reverse Roe v Wade

We cannot go back.

Orlaith Croke-Martin is the Research & Policy Analyst at Aura Freedom

Aura Freedom’s Analysis of the 2022 Federal Budget

Our Analysis of Budget 2022

On Thursday, April 7th, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled her second federal budget for Canada to move ‘beyond the pandemic’.

While we recognize there have been large investments allocated towards housing, and further investments in the childcare sector, we argue that the government has failed to recognize how the effects of the pandemic will continue to be felt by many working class women, racialized and Indigenous women, LGBTQ2S+ caregivers, newcomers, women with disabilities, migrant workers, and more.

Although Budget 2022 has been touted as a feminist one, gender equality did not seem to be a priority this year. Indeed, the Statement and Impacts Report on Gender, Diversity, and Quality of Life is separated from the budget, as opposed to being embedded in it.

The following is Aura Freedom’s analysis of Budget 2022-2023, through the lenses of gender-based violence eradication, equity, human rights and intersectional feminism.

The National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence (NAP)

The release of Budget 2021 was a victorious day for feminists and advocates working to end gender-based violence in Canada. After decades of advocacy, we finally had our moment with an announcement of over $600 million to finally implement a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence.

Many of us were looking forward to hearing more in Budget 2022, but were met with vague language on the “forthcoming National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence”. The complete lack of information in this short section is deeply concerning for the GBV sector.

Budget 2022 proposes $539.3 million over five years “to enable provinces and territories to supplement and enhance services and supports within their jurisdictions to prevent gender-based violence and support survivors.” This does not seem like a coordinated, national plan. What does it all mean? Moreover, most of the money is forecasted in 2024-2027, which poses the question of how we are to get this long overdue and urgent NAP off the ground.

Gender-based violence does not just “go away”. As a deeply rooted societal issue, it will take years – if not generations – to eradicate it. Thus, it must be addressed consistently and in every fiscal budget, not just once.

In a world that has collectively mobilized to respond to COVID-19, from finding a vaccine to a multibillion-dollar plan to build the economy in five years, the question still remains: can we not mobilize in the same way for a pandemic that has affected the lives of millions of women and girls for centuries?

We believe that we can. With sustainable funding that places trust in grassroots organizations, and a strong political will, we can eradicate gender-based violence for good.

It just has to mean enough to us.

We will be monitoring this issue closely in the coming months and look forward to hearing more on the roll-out of the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, including Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Gender diverse peoples.

Indigenous Peoples and Reconciliation

$11 billion will be invested over six years in recognition of past harm and discrimination towards Indigenous children and families, to support Indigenous communities and advance self-determination. This is a significant reduction from the $40 billion announced in 2021 and much less than the amounts called for by Indigenous leaders and organizations.

The recognition of the intergenerational impact of the residential school and child welfare services on Indigenous communities, and the prioritization of the safety and health of Indigenous children are two essential steps towards Reconciliation and towards reproductive justice for Indigenous women.

Missing from the budget, however, was any mention of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls to Justice – and no new investments to implement those calls. We recognize that in 2021, $2.2 billion was announced over five years to respond to MMIWG2S, but there has been no further allocation of funding to get the work off the ground. In fact, “missing and murdered Indigenous women” was mentioned 16 times in Budget 2021, but only once in Budget 2022.

Genocide cannot be undone in one budget year.

The lack of prioritization of responding to the genocide of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples is simply not good enough. We implore a sustained commitment to addressing the root causes of violence towards Indigenous women and girls, and new investments in preventative programs to address this violence and empower survivors.

Also noted in this section of Budget 2022 is the lack of distinction between Indigenous groups and the diverse needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. Funding to address the criminalization of Indigenous land defenders was also missing, which is directly related to the ongoing discrimination and displacement of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Human Trafficking

There is not one mention of human trafficking in the entirety of Budget 2022, yet those of us working in this space know there has been a sharp increase in online youth exploitation and increased exploitation of migrant workers during the pandemic. This indifference to one of the worst human rights abuses of our time is infuriating and unacceptable.

Sexual Violence and Misconduct in the Military

In December of 2021, a public, formal apology was issued towards all Defence Team members and veterans that were victims of, or affected by sexual assault, harassment, or discrimination based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

This apology was a big step forward, recognizing the responsibility of the Canadian military to protect its service members, and acknowledging its long history of silencing victims of sexual violence and not bringing perpetrators to justice. 

To address this, Budget 2022 will invest $100.5 million over six years to address sexual violence within the Canadian Military. Since the language is vague on how the monies will be employed, we suggest a strong focus on the prevention of sexual violence, rather than the response to the violence after it has already occurred. This means investments in addressing the deeply rooted patriarchal beliefs and culture of the military, as well as training for leadership.

Housing

Budget 2022 presented significant investments in housing, responding to a long-standing housing crisis and rising levels of homelessness. Housing is a key social determinant of health, safety and wellbeing – and a human right.

While the report announced many exciting investments with regards to housing, there was no explicit mention of how these investments will immediately address housing insecurity and homelessness, especially for women – who have a higher incidence of core-housing needs, especially when they belong to marginalized communities, are a lone-parent, have a disability, or when they experience violence. We know that many women must choose between living in a violent home or facing homelessness. In the same way, we know that women who experience homelessness face much higher rates of violence and are extremely vulnerable to trafficking. Canada must address the housing crisis with a gendered and human rights lens to respond to the unique issues faced by women experiencing housing insecurity.

Housing supply is mentioned frequently in the budget, with claims that Increasing our housing supply will be key to making housing more affordable for everyone. However, supply alone will not end the housing crisis. Even with more supply, too many people living in Canada will still not be able to afford homes, including women, single parents, migrant workers, refugees, and those living in poverty. Livable incomes and wages are the biggest factor to housing stability and seem to be missing from the housing equation.

Delivering on Child Care

Budget 2021 made an historic investment of $30 billion over five years to build a high-quality, affordable and accessible early learning and child care system across Canada. In less than a year, the federal government reached agreements with all 13 provinces and territories, meaning that by 2025-26, it will mean an average child care fee of $10-a-day for all regulated child care spaces across Canada.

This investment will save lives – literally. It is well-documented that many women must choose between leaving an abusive relationship or living in poverty. Our own community research has shown that many survivors stay in violent homes because they cannot afford daycare on their own. Read more here.

Women are, for the most part, the primary caregivers of children in their families. Therefore, child care costs are also a major barrier to economic empowerment for the most marginalized women in Canada, including single mothers, immigrant and refugee women, Indigenous and racialized women.

Budget 2022 will provide an additional $625 million over four years, beginning in 2023-24, for an Early Learning and Child Care Infrastructure Fund. We are worried that this current funding, however, is inefficient to support the expansion needed (workforce, facilities, training, etc.) to make the child care dream a reality. We will be monitoring this situation closely in the coming months.

Anti-Racism and Combatting Hate

Anti-Racism Strategy and National Action Plan on Combatting Hate

$85 million over 4 years has been allocated to launch an Anti-Racism Strategy and National Action Plan on Combatting Hate is a positive step, however advocates have consistently said that more is needed to address the deeply embedded racism in Canada’s systems and the rising rates of hatred we are all bearing witness to in our communities.

Important to note here is that misogyny is also a form of hate, and must be addressed in order to prevent brutal gendered attacks like the Montreal Massacre, the Toronto Van Attack, the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting and Canada’s rising rates of femicide and filicide.

Funding for Black Researchers

Budget 2022 promises $40.0 million over five years and $9.7 million to the federal granting councils to support targeted scholarships and fellowships for promising Black student researchers. This funding is critical to support Black researchers and developing research on marginalized Black communities. It is important for the federal granting council to not only consist of diverse members who represent various backgrounds, but that the recipients are diverse as well. This will ensure research is created that is diverse, intersectional, and reflects the lived realities of Canadians.

Women at Work

Sick Days

Missing from the Budget 2022 was any mention of paid sick days, and how the lack of them particularly affects women who make up the majority of the work force in the childcare sector, long-term care sector, and most other caring professions.

Union Training and Innovation Program

Budget 2022 proposes $84.2 million over four years to support 3,500 apprentices per year from underrepresented communities (women, newcomers, persons with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, and racialized Canadians) to access good-quality and high-paying jobs in the trade industry through the Union Training and Innovation Program. This is a great initiative that can lead to women’s economic development, and we look forward to the relevant communities being easily able to access the program. 

Menstrual Equity Fund

Budget 2022 proposes to provide $25 million over two years, starting in 2022-23, for Women and Gender Equality Canada to establish a national pilot project for a Menstrual Equity Fund that will help make menstrual products available to those in need.

Over two years, Women and Gender Equality Canada will be provided $25 million to establish and pilot a Menstrual Equity Fund that will provide menstrual products to marginalized women, girls and gender diverse peoples. This project is critical in eliminating barriers to education and participation for women and girls. We look forward to the project roll-out and learning of the ways these investments will be accessible to all marginalized people who are not adequately supported by the healthcare system.

Addressing Mis/Disinformation

Budget 2022 has allocated an investment of $10 million over five years to combat disinformation in order to protect Canada’s democracy. We recognize the immense potential of mis- and disinformation for real-life harmful effects, especially on frequently targeted populations such as BIPOC, LGBTQ2S+, and religious minority communities, and applaud this investment.

Budget 2022 acknowledges that there has been a rise in anti-democratic ideology in concurrence with a rise in misinformation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing geopolitical tensions. However, the budget fails to acknowledge how anti-democratic ideology is directly connected to misogyny and other anti-gender equality ideology – and the proof of this is right next door. We are disappointed that the Budget did not acknowledge the ongoing movement to restrict reproductive rights and freedoms in the USA, nor propose action to combat similar misinformation campaigns about reproductive rights in Canada.

Supporting Charities

Budget 2022 greatly lacks sustainable investments to support the charity sector. While the funding for the Performance Art and Heritage sector is welcomed, there is no mention of the need to provide the charitable sector with sustained, core funding to do their important work.

In short, project funding is destroying the charitable sector. Organizations must spend the bulk of their time writing project grants, and then reporting back on those grants in tedious ways that kill us softly. Moreover, project funding forces organizations to carry out their projects in siloed ways and limits the possibilities of salary increases for our overworked and underpaid staff members. We strongly advocate for sustained, core funding for the charitable sector, as well as simplified grant applications and reporting requirements that do not drain smaller, grassroots organizations of their time and resources.

After all, it is the charitable sector doing the work of lifting up communities and supporting marginalized people to participate in the economy, and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

International: Responding to the War in Ukraine

Budget 2022 proposes to invest $111 million over five years to implement two new immigration streams for Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion.

While we commend Canada’s commitment to supporting Ukraine during the Russian invasion, we were concerned at the lack of attention paid to Ukrainian women, girls and gender diverse people, and the issue of wartime sexual violence. Indeed, while the Statement and Impacts Report on Gender, Diversity, and Quality of Life for the 2022 Budget states that more women will benefit from the new immigration streams, there is an urgent need for funding for local organizations in Ukraine to address sexual violence and support survivors.

Conclusion

Overall, while positive investments have been made, Budget 2022 lacked a human rights-based approach and a gender-informed, intersectional framework. Small ‘bits and bobs’ in the budget simply will not amount to the systemic change that is needed to eradicate gender-based violence and lift marginalized communities out of poverty.

For women in Canada who experience gender-based violence in their homes, every day is an emergency. Every day is life or death. For these women and their children, COVID-19 presented complex risks that went beyond the virus itself, and continues to affect their daily lives. These are the women who were not represented in Budget 2022.

Gender Equity Consultations for the City of Toronto

Gender Equity Consultations for the City of Toronto

In early 2022, Aura Freedom led multiple community consultations in partnership with Social Planning Toronto to inform the Gender Equity Strategy that will be implemented by the City of Toronto. 

We consulted with a number of community partners in Toronto to ensure that their lived experiences, research, and grassroots expertise on gender-based-violence and human trafficking are an integral part of the Gender Equity Strategy for the city. 

Our community partners highlighted various ways women, girls and gender diverse people face inequality, discrimination, violence and control in Toronto. Marginalized and racialized women and girls experience added layers of discrimination and barriers to support, as well as youth in care and ones battling mental health. Moreover, colonialism, systemic racism, and homo/transphobia have created intergenerational trauma within communities, which are then targeted by traffickers and exploiters. Indigenous, Black, and other racialized women, girls and youth often lack social support, leaving room for exploitation under the guise of love, community and a better life.

Through our community consultations, we also heard about the impact of gender-based violence and exploitation in communities, and how violence against women, girls and gender diverse people is affecting every aspect of life in Toronto, from housing and food security, to mental health and addiction, to education and the economy. Therefore, we must actively work to eradicate GBV not only to advance gender equity, but to restore health and prosperity to our communities. 

Gender-based violence is a human rights abuse, although never treated as such, and the right to live free from gender-based violence is enshrined in multiple international treaties and declarations. In order to implement a successful Gender Equity Strategy in Toronto, we strongly encourage the City of Toronto to zoom out, unpack societal power imbalances and inequities, and most importantly, employ a strong anti-GBV lens that is intersectional, survivor-centric, and trauma-informed.

We also recommend the Gender Equity Strategy be central to all other planning at the city level, and not simply an afterthought.

 

Stay tuned for our full report.

Canada’s Implementation of UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Protocols on Trafficking

Canada's Implementation of UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols: Civil Society Inputs

Aura Freedom was invited to share our views on Canada’s implementation and application of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and migrant smuggling as part of a national consultation with civil society conducted by the International Centre for Criminal Law Reform (ICCLR) of UBC.

As Canada is a party to the Convention and the aforementioned two protocols, the Government of Canada engaged in a self-assessment exercise as part of an international review process under the auspices of the United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Convention. The review was designed to assess countries’ responses to transnational organized crime through civil society inputs, and facilitate the exchange of lessons learned for future progress.

Click here for more information and to download the full publication.

COVID-19 Relief in Kolkata, India

COVID-19 Relief in Kolkata, India

In 2021, India was facing a humanitarian disaster due to COVID-19 that devastated already marginalized and disadvantaged communities.

Aura Freedom mobilized and is still mobilizing support for a community we know well.

Aura Freedom mobalized support for a community we know well. Aura Freedom’s beginnings were in South Asia and we have extensive experience implementing relief projects with local activists for women and communities.

To support families in India during COVID-19, we are working with our good friend Urmi Basu and her team at New Light Kolkata to support children and families in the Kalighat community of Kolkata. New Light provides shelter, food and education to children of Kalighat’s sex workers and survivors of human trafficking.

The Kalighat community is economically and socially disadvantaged. The children of Kalighat are at risk of exploitation at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Sex crimes against children in India increased in 2020 and social programs are vital, to say the least.

The support we receive from Canadians is crucial and life changing for so many. For example, support meant that New Light’s Soma Girls Home could remain open and provide a safe place where young girls from disadvantaged families receive education, nutritious food, safe lodging off the street, recreational activities and mentorship from community leaders. It also meant New Light’s other shelter for children at risk of human trafficking, Starfish Playschool, remained open during the height of the pandemic in Sonagachi, another red light district and the biggest one of Kolkata. This was important because many children in Sonagachi had limited supervision, inadequate nutrition, neglected health, and other social issues. 

Thank you to everyone who supported this initiative. You can still donate below as our activities continue.

A New School in Nepal

A New School in Nepal

A brand new school for 250 children in Nepal and a dream come true.

The Shree Bhumimata secondary school was forced to close its doors after being badly damaged in the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

The school served more than 250 children from disadvantaged families in the community of Bethanchwok-4 Kavre, Nepal. Its students, most of them from the Tamang tribe, were forced to attend class in a temporary space which was crowded, cold and ill-equipped. Learning became more difficult, decreasing the quality of education.

Aura Freedom collaborated with our longtime local partners Maiti Nepal to begin the process of rebuilding the school over the course of 4 years. Maiti Nepal led the project locally as we worked with multiple partners, organizations and businesses to make the school a reality. 

Rebuilding the school was necessary to the education of 250 children in Bethanchwok-4 Kavre, reducing the number of children currently out of school in the village and decreasing the amount of school dropouts. Rebuilding the school was also crucial to increase the school attendance of girls in the area, which is key to combating gender-based violence, child marriage, human trafficking and increasing gender equality.

Over the course of more than 4 years – through countless site visits, needs assessments, planning meetings, and consultations with the local community (as well as government bureaucracy and red tape) – we are proud to announce that the Shree Bhumimata Secondary School was successfully rebuilt and reopened its beautiful new doors for the community in the Fall of 2020. 

Aura Freedom also worked with local leaders to create a set of recommendations and a training plan for the school to increase gender equality and prevent gender-based violence and gender discrimination at the school level and ensure the school is safe and welcoming to girls and all women staff. 

250 children now have a safe school in which to learn and further their education. 250 children now have access to an education that will help them escape child marriage, human trafficking, gender-based violence and poverty.

Education is the silver bullet to ending gender inequality, gender-based violence and human trafficking, and is integral in building a more just society. Aura Freedom believes that there is nothing more important than the education of children to build a more equal and peaceful society. After all, children grow up to be adults, and educated adults are more likely to lead healthy, happy and non-violent lives.

Browse through our photo gallery to view the school construction process

We’d like to thank ASF Nepal (Architecture Sans Frontiers – Architects Without Borders) and Todd Lorentz for their support and expertise on this project, as well as Hatch Civil Engineering who made a considerable donation to the project.

We’d also like to thank all our donors and supporters in Canada and around the world who made this school possible.

Grateful to our project partners and advisors:

Aura Freedom’s Analysis of the 2021 US State Dept TIP Report

Our Analysis of the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report

The U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report was published in June 2021, highlighting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on anti-trafficking efforts and focuses on building future and current efforts through an equity-building lens. 

The Pandemic

The report broke down human trafficking in the context of a global pandemic, in addition to the definitions commonly used in understanding human trafficking. It notes the exacerbation of new and old vulnerabilities caused by the economic and social distress generated by the pandemic – we recognize that this will need more research to confirm the exact effects and determine next steps for the future. The report also discusses the increase in forms of online sexual exploitation which has also been noted by Aura Freedom and partners in the beginning of the pandemic and connecting this issue to the recirculation of sensationalized and fabricated trafficking-related stories and mis/disinformation on social media platforms.

Due to governments across the world diverting resources and attention towards the pandemic, resulting in cuts to social supports and anti-trafficking efforts, systemic gaps and inequalities were exacerbated and impossible to ignore. The TIP Report notes these issues and calls for sustained collaboration among key anti-trafficking actors in the name of equity such as governments, civil society organizations, private sector, and survivor leaders. This is good, but it must also be noted that addressing inequities without grassroots inclusion will lead to the dog chasing its tail in vain.

Resilience

Interestingly, the report included a special focus on how anti-trafficking stakeholders adapted during the pandemic, including the resilience of survivor-led and survivor-informed innovations. This is indeed a positive aspect to highlight, however it could lead to an overdependence on the resilience of survivors and grassroots groups without lending proper support to ensure this resilience is sustainable. 

Lived Experience

A section in the report gave space for experts and those with lived experience to highlight special topics. This is a great practice in equity by showcasing other expertise and lived experience, and contributes to the growing dialogue of progress within the anti-trafficking sector. This is explored further in a separate section below.

Use of Survivor Experiences and Photographs

A stark contrast from the 2020 TIP Report is the inclusion of a disclaimer on the sharing of survivor experiences and pictures. The re-exploitation and re-traumatization of survivors through the use of sensationalized imagery in the anti-trafficking sphere has been well-noted – this practice of including survivors in the TIP report while staying mindful of their rights is a step towards progress that we hope many in the anti-trafficking field would appreciate and/or adopt into their practices.

Topics of Special Interest

This section gave space to discuss special topics ranging from navigating the unique complexities in familial trafficking to unifying trauma-informed practices, voices of survivor leadership, and the negative impacts of human trafficking misinformation. The importance of this section is clear – from centering survivor experiences to dispelling dangerous beliefs and misinformation campaigns, this section stands out and should be a permanent feature going forward.

In the article, The Role of the Financial Sector, Canada’s Project PROTECT and FINTRAC was highlighted. FINTRAC has been successful in disclosing suspicious transactions of money laundering to law enforcement to aid in their cases. Unfortunately, there is not a survivor equity lens in this analysis as it fails to mention that survivors of human trafficking lack support in rebuilding their credit scores after their traffickers use their financial information to take out credit cards and loans in their names.

A grassroots analysis would have benefited this report, to note the organizing efforts of grassroots women’s organizations who are currently advocating to expand the federal strategy to end gender-based violence to include financial and economic abuse. Economic abuse has been a barrier for survivors in leaving, accessing supports, and in their pursuit of a higher quality of life. Canada and its banks have failed to recognize this issue with regards to human trafficking, nor has it taken any steps to enacting policies to support survivors of economic abuse and human trafficking who have had their identities stolen and credits ruined.

Canada’s Ranking

Canada has received a Tier 1 ranking for fully meeting the minimum standards in its efforts towards elimination of trafficking despite not providing comprehensive data on investigations, prosecutions, and convictions. We do note that the recommendations to Canada provided in the TIP Report do align with some of our own calls to actions in Aura Freedom’s Relentless Resilience report, specifically increasing trauma-informed specialized services and shelter for all survivors.

Additionally, the TIP Report highlights the fact that Canada’s human trafficking definitions in the Criminal Code and Immigration and Refugee Protection Act diverge from international standards and there is inconsistent application (and understanding) of different manifestations of exploitation. This discrepancy has been noted by advocates and community organizations for quite some time. We would like to point out that this inconsistency does not align with the Canadian federal strategy and pillar of Empowerment. Empowerment cannot happen without clearly defining and addressing the effects and root causes of exploitation.

For context, the 5 pillars as outlined by the Canadian National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2019-2024 are: Empowerment, Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnerships.

In terms of Prevention, the report and past reports consistently show a lack of appropriate funding for grassroots prevention efforts rooted in equity-building and community empowerment. Unfortunately, prevention initiatives that focus on education from a grassroots perspective were sorely missing within Canada’s anti-trafficking efforts. The TIP report mentions the emergency funding of $100 million to combat gender-based violence during the pandemic, including $20 million allocated to Indigenous-led organizations and assumes that some of this funding has reached survivors of human trafficking – at this current moment, we cannot be sure of this statement but are hopeful that survivors were able to be supported.

The TIP Report notes that there were no reports in Canada of victims being criminalized for criminal acts traffickers compelled them to commit – this is not the case. Our colleagues have anecdotal evidence of the failure to recognize survivors of human trafficking within the criminal justice system, leading to their criminalization and/or deportation. This is an issue due to the fact that Canada’s data is mainly based on law enforcement activity that fails to illustrate the actual gravity of the issue of human trafficking and the many different lived experiences. This TIP report, and previous ones, ignore the reality that survivors of human trafficking and forced criminality face within the Canadian Justice System – thereby continuing the human trafficking cycle. 

Labour Trafficking and Migrant Workers

A prioritized recommendation for Canada was to “increase proactive identification of victims, particularly male victims and forced labour victims, through screening among vulnerable populations and proactive outreach and assistance to migrant workers.” Canada’s current efforts to date with regards to addressing human trafficking have overwhelmingly focused on sexual exploitation, not forced labour. This is in contrast to a long history of migrant workers visiting and working in Canada to ensure its economic progress – Canada has historically failed to provide proper supports for migrant workers, thus leaving them more susceptible to human trafficking and exploitation. 

During the pandemic, the report notes that the Canadian government continued to fund migrant work support centres, initiatives, and networks. Including allocating a small amount of $4.71 million in emergency funding to support migrant workers during the pandemic and starting an initiative that allowed migrant workers in an abusive employment situation to apply for an open work permit – a great step forward in allowing migrant workers to change employers while still keeping their status.

Indeed, as noted in our Relentless Resilience report, the legal status of migrant workers is dependent on employers, which makes for the perfect conditions for exploitation and violence. This is mainly due to a lack of awareness of their rights as a migrant and employee, paired with systemic issues like racism, xenophobia and gender inequality. While other smaller changes were created to support migrant workers stranded in Canada during the pandemic, such as extending the time for foreign nationals to renew their temporary immigration status, there is no data as to how many people used these initiatives or supports. Given that Canada does not currently have a federal outreach strategy to connect with migrant workers in a culturally-sensitive and supportive manner, it may be safe to conclude that this is a barrier to access of services and may translate into less people taking advantage of these supports and initiatives. 

Migrant workers in Canada’s biggest barrier to support is their varied immigration statuses – whether they have the Temporary Foreign Work Permit or are undocumented. A legal avenue to becoming citizens or at least to permanent residence has been underlined by grassroots activists and survivors as a key component to the recovery journey – however this is still lacking in Canada.

The Trafficking of Indigenous Peoples in Canada

Cases of state-sponsored human trafficking was discussed, but left out Canada’s genocidal policies against Indigenous Peoples. Particularly, the TIP Report failed to fully devote attention to historical and ongoing practices of child apprehension of Indigenous children within the child welfare system. While the TIP Report has consistently noted for the past few years that youth in the child welfare system are at high risk of exploitation, it fails to note this in an intersectional manner and the deliberate actions of past and present Canadian governments. It is a fact that must be analyzed through a systemic approach, especially since 52% of children in foster care are Indigenous Indigenous, but account for only 7.7% of Canada’s child population.

For centuries, Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples have been murdered and have gone missing with little or no support from the Canadian government. In 2015, the Government of Canada finally announced a National Inquiry into the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit peoples (MMIWGT2S). In the end, the National Inquiry concluded that the murders and disappearances of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people in Canada amounts to genocide. The connection between MMIWGT2S and human trafficking has been noted by numerous Indigenous women’s organizations – from pipeline man camps and their direct connection to the sexual exploitation of Indigenous women, to the many women and girls from northern Inuit communities who are lured to Southern cities under the guise of a better life. The Native Women’s Association of Canada released a Fact Sheet in 2018 showing that Indigenous women and girls make up only 4% of the population, but 50% of human trafficking survivors. The 2021 TIP report briefly mentions instances where the system fails to properly support survivors in their healing and justice journeys, but fails to include a present and historical systemic analysis on the trafficking of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples in Canada.

Our final grade for Canada would be: Work in Progress

A Note on Resilience

The concept of resilience was discussed in the report, even if briefly, showcasing the power of survivor leaders to organize for their communities in response to the pandemic. We will always applaud survivors and their resilience – resilience built in community, support, and radical love. We hope that governments and private stakeholders who are quick to celebrate resilience understand their role in supporting – not depending upon – this resilience. Resilience must be understood as a system response to trauma; it must be understood as a host of protective factors that come together against other risk factors of human trafficking. The performance of celebrating resiliency without truly understanding the science behind it will only create more harm. 

Resilience without support, without community, cannot be sustainable, nor can it be Relentless.

A Note on Conscious Writing 

We would like to point out that if the US TIP reports truly advocated for change and support for survivors of human trafficking, they would be more conscious of centering and advocating for human rights principles to be included in the analysis of tier rankings. The failure to include principles such as The Non-Punishment Principle of Human Trafficking, survivors’ rights to a dignified life is significantly diminished. It serves to question the true purpose of the US TIP reports – are we creating true systemic change or are we advocating for the bare minimum? 

 

Talija Končar is the Research and Policy Analyst at Aura Freedom

Ontario government to require all school boards implement an anti-sex trafficking strategy

Ontario Government Requires School Boards to Implement Anti-Sex Trafficking Strategy

“We need an intersectional approach that recognizes who is trafficked most in Ontario – girls, Indigenous and racialized youth, newcomers, youth in care, LGBTQ2S+ youth … any framework that does not center on them will ultimately fail.”

Our Executive Director Marissa Kokkoros provides commentary in this article by The Globe and Mail.

Ontario Mandates School Boards to Address Sex Trafficking

Ontario Mandates School Boards to Address Sex Trafficking

After years of advocacy from community organizations, activists and survivors, the Ontario government has announced a new policy framework mandating all school boards to have anti-human trafficking protocols in place to protect students.

Finally.

As long-time advocates that work with survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking, this announcement is a positive one. Indeed, we have been talking about the importance of including anti-human trafficking information in school curricula for years.

In fact, we think it’s just as important as Math, Science, Reading…you get the picture.

Community organizations know sex trafficking inside and out, and involving us at all levels will ensure that Ontario is actually preventing sex trafficking, and not simply talking about it.

Most cases of youth sexual exploitation look a lot like romantic relationships or friendships in the beginning stages – so it’s key to incorporate information on healthy relationships and consent.

Most importantly, human trafficking thrives in situations of inequity – where there is a power imbalance. Therefore, plans to address sexual exploitation must centre equity – gender equity, racial equity, and more. We need an intersectional approach that recognizes who is trafficked most in Ontario – girls, Indigenous and racialized youth, newcomers, youth in care, LGBTQ2S+ youth, and more. These are not catch phrases, these are the youth we see being exploited and any plan that does not centre them will ultimately fail.

The Framework is very thorough, mentioning marginalized groups like Indigenous and Black youth, and systemic issues like racism and communities targeted by the child welfare system. It is encouraging to see these inequities being outlined, but we want to stress the importance of having grassroots community organizations at the table throughout the entire process to ensure the needs of Indigenous and racialized students are met.

We also hope to see a further gender lens applied to the Framework. We know that although boys can be and are trafficked, the majority of survivors identify as girls. Details on this information was missing from the Framework, as was the importance of addressing unhealthy masculinity and misogyny – two huge drivers of sexual exploitation.

We look forward to smaller grassroots organizations in Ontario having a seat at the table during continued community consultations in the rollout of these plans. Although we may not have the budget needed to promote our work or make it sustainable, many grassroots groups are out there doing a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ in efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation and our voices are integral to the success of any plan.

Marissa Kokkoros is the Executive Director of Aura Freedom and author of Relentless Resilience

QUICK FACTS:

  • Aura Freedom has consulted at the Regional, Provincial and Federal levels of government in anti-trafficking efforts, ensuring an intersectional approach is not only considered, but centred. We are a member of several national and international coalitions addressing human trafficking around the world.
  • Aura Freedom was a key advisor to the York Region District School Board in creating their anti-sex trafficking protocol currently in place, as well as an advisor to White Ribbon in creating their digital resource for educators – both of which are mentioned in Ontario’s News Release.
  • We currently sit on numerous Advisory Committees for various initiatives addressing sexual exploitation in Ontario, including Victim Services Toronto, FCJ Refugee Centre, White Ribbon, and more.
  • On July 5th, we were given the Mayor’s Community Safety Award from the City of Toronto for our work preventing youth sexual exploitation and trafficking with our Peer Prevention Project
  • On November 25, 2021, Aura Freedom launched its Human Trafficking Info Hub. This grassroots hub of information and resources is part of our ongoing Relentless Resilience movement to end gender-based violence in Canada. The Info Hub – which currently focuses on sexual exploitation – is a culmination of Aura Freedom’s years of grassroots human trafficking prevention and survivor support, as well as continuous consultations with our community and colleagues.