Highlighting GBV Prevention & Equity at Toronto’s SAFE TO Consultations

to keep toronto safe, we need to prevent gbv and trafficking

In March 2021, Aura Freedom was invited to participate in the City of Toronto’s Safe TO Consultations for both the gender-based violence sector and the counter-human trafficking sector.

As always, we brought an intersectional feminist voice to the consultations and advocated for the City of Toronto to prioritize equity-advancing education, projects and policies that prevent gender-based violence and trafficking, not just respond to it. We also discussed how gender-based violence leads to many other issues affecting Toronto, like homelessness, housing and food insecurity, poverty, addiction, crime and more. 

Stay tuned for the final report on those consultations, which has not yet been released. 

Aura Freedom’s Analysis of the 2021 Federal Budget

our analysis of the 2021 federal budget through the lenses of GBV & equity

On Monday April 19th, Chrystia Freeland, the first-ever woman to hold the title of Federal Minister of Finance, released the Federal Budget for 2021-2022. Women are mentioned often in Budget 2021-22, which sees a plan for universal child care, historic investments for Indigenous and Black communities, and funding for a long-awaited National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence.

This is Aura Freedom’s analysis of Budget 2021-2022, through the lenses of gender-based violence eradication, equity, and intersectional feminism.


The star of the Budget show was definitely child care, and we know we were not alone when we celebrated the announcement of $30 billion over five years to build a high-quality, affordable and accessible early learning and child care system across Canada. The investment will allow for a 50% reduction in fees by the end of 2022, with the end goal of $10 a day for families across the country.

Quality and affordable child care is key to the health and well-being of everyone living in Canada. Women are responsible for the majority of child care in Canada and often must leave the work force because of high child care fees. When we consider gender-based violence, we know that a safe and healthy child care environment for children living in homes with domestic violence is key to their mental and physical health and protection.

If implemented, the positive effects of a $10/day child care system on mothers, families, children, communities, (society as a whole!) are immeasurable.

This is the proactive and smart investing that sees countries thrive.

This is the way we honour, respect, and support working class mothers, marginalized mothers, single mothers, racialized and Indigenous women, LGBTQ2S+ parents, newcomers, and more.

We applaud this investment and will be here to hold the government accountable to ensure this promise is realized.



 $2.2 billion over 5 years and $160.9 million ongoing was announced for a National Action Plan in response to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’ Calls to Justice, as well as the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

We applaud this hearty investment into what we see as Canada’s greatest shame: the ongoing genocide of violence against Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit peoples. Implementation will be key and we know that promises have been made time and again – but time is up.

We would like to relay what our Indigenous partners have told us on numerous occasions – including during our community consultations for the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence – which is that any funding or plans for Indigenous communities must be Indigenous-designed and Indigenous-led, with Indigenous communities at the table well before funding is released so that they are involved and in the driver’s seat from the start.

We look forward to the day when Indigenous women can finally see justice and peace restored to their communities and when they can finally live free from violence and exploitation. Until then, we will be here supporting and advocating in every way we can.


As advocates of the urgent need for a National Action Plan to end the national emergency that is gender-based violence, we welcome the $600 million to finally begin to put this long overdue plan into place and have provided a detailed breakdown and analysis of this section of the Budget.

We are happy and encouraged to see GBV prevention mentioned in this section of the Budget, but it still seems that frontline response is being prioritized when it comes to gender-based violence.

According to the Budget, the government “is moving forward on developing a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, focusing on ensuring that anyone facing gender-based violence has reliable and timely access to protection and services, no matter where they live.”

But, the National Action Plan is to end gender-based violence, not solely respond to it. And the only way to end the violence is to prevent it. 

In Relentless Resilience, our Beijing +25 report on gender-based violence in Canada released in 2020, we raise the alarm about the lack of funding for GBV prevention and recommend more robust investments in this area.

This doesn’t mean that life-saving frontline agencies are funded less – it means that prevention initiatives are funded just as much. Proper investments in prevention will mean that Canada’s GBV sector can finally stop chasing its own tail and cycles of violence will be disrupted.

Every day, my colleagues in domestic violence shelters see two women leave their facilities and another three show up.

In an open letter penned to Dr. Theresa Tam in 2020, Heidi Illingworth, Federal Ombudswoman for Victims of Crime, implored Canada’s chief public health officer to include violence-prevention in the federal recovery response, saying it’s “critical” that resources be directed at preventing behaviours that lead to intimate partner violence, sexual violence and child abuse. Considering domestic violence alone costs Canadians billions of dollars per year, the economics point to prevention.

Here is what we know about the $600 million for the National Action Plan:

$200 million was proposed to enhance the capacity of organizations such as sexual assault centres, women’s shelters, and other organizations that provide critical and often life-saving services and supports for women, girls, LGBTQ2, and gender non-binary people experiencing violence. Moreover, $30 million was proposed to support crisis hotlines that are experiencing a rise in call volumes during the pandemic and 85.3 million was proposed to support free legal advice for survivors of GBV.

This is all good news. Frontline organizations are critical and their work saves lives. These investments are crucial to the health and well-being of women experiencing violence and their children.

But, we remind the government that gender-based violence is preventable. Femicide is preventable. Sexual exploitation is preventable.

In February 2021, Aura Freedom organized community consultations with the GBV sector on behalf of the Federal government to ask them what they would like to see in a national action plan to end gender-based violence. Over and over again, what we heard (including from frontline organizations) was the need to address the roots causes of GBV in order to prevent it, which include gender inequity, sexism, colonialism, systemic racism, homo/transphobia, ableism, classism, and more.

So, exactly how much will be dedicated to prevention in Budget 2021? It is still unclear, but it is considerably less than frontline response.

Prevention is explicitly mentioned in some areas, like the $50 million dedicated to Safer Relationships to prevent family violence and the $55 million dedicated to preventing violence against Indigenous women and Two Spirit peoples, which we applaud.

But if we do the math (see below), it looks like frontline response is being funded at least twice as much as prevention. If we include the Unclear category, it is upwards of three times as much.

Further comments regarding the National Action Plan investments outlined above:

Safer Relationships

Budget 2021 proposes $50 million over five years for the Public Health Agency of Canada to design and deliver interventions that promote safe relationships and prevent family violence, including intimate partner violence, child maltreatment, and elder abuse.

Although the details of this investment are not clear at the moment, we hope to see partnerships with and allocation of funding to community and feminist organizations that are already doing gender-based violence prevention work.

Gender-Based Violence Program

It seems that some prevention activities may fall under the Federal Gender-Based Violence Program, which is described as follows: Budget 2021 proposes to invest $105 million over five years, starting in 2021-22, for the Department for Women and Gender Equality to enhance its Gender-Based Violence Program. Funding will go to initiatives that engage men and boys. It will increase funding for initiatives to stop human trafficking, including support for at-risk populations and survivors. It will also provide support for testing and implementing best practices to address gender-based violence, with a focus on projects that could be scaled at the national level.

We don’t know how much of the $105 million will go to GBV/human trafficking prevention. In fact, supporting survivors who have already experienced violence is mentioned again in this section. As we expressed above, the idea is not to provide less funding to frontline GBV services, but to provide equal funding for GBV prevention initiatives so as to prevent future violence.

Indigenous Peoples

$55 million over five years will be invested for the Department for Women and Gender Equality to bolster the capacity of Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ organizations to provide gender-based violence prevention programming aimed at addressing the root causes of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. These investments are in addition to those outlined above for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

This is the type of funding that will eradicate gender-based violence and we desperately need more of it. We applaud this investment and look forward to more progressive funding like this in the future that centres root causes and equity as a way to end GBV.

Protections for Women and Children during Divorce or Separation

This progressive investment is why we do the work we do and this investment is a direct result of grassroots advocacy. Aura Freedom has been very vocal about the connection between Domestic Violence, Amber Alerts and Femicide/Filicide. We know that children’s lives are at risk during or after separation or divorce. Aura Freedom’s Relentless Resilience report and accompanying campaign feature frontline stories (view one here) from advocates that document cases of femicide and filicide during divorce or separation. We are heartened and encouraged to see support for women and children during divorce or separation, as this will prevent femicide and filicide from occurring. Budget 2021 proposes to provide $28.4 million over five years for Justice Canada to support supervision services for parenting time in cases of separation and divorce.

We celebrate this investment and support it whole-heartedly, so that we may never again see another Amber Alert like that of Riya Rajkumar, who was killed at the hands of her father on her 11th birthday. We can, and must, do better.

Support for Newcomers Experiencing Gender-Based Violence

$2 million over five years was announced for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to increase access to information and support for new Canadians facing family and gender-based violence, including enhancing the availability of anti-violence resources.

In our experience, newcomers who experience gender-based violence face multiple barriers to support, as well as systemic violence and discrimination. We see the amount of $2 million as quite low, as it works out to $400,000 per year for all of Canada.

Women living with disabilities are not explicitly referenced in the investments outlined under the National Action Plan to End GBV. We look forward to hearing more about their inclusion in the Plan in the coming months.


To conclude our analysis of the investments allocated to the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence, we are pleased with the funding allocated to frontline organizations doing crucial work to support survivors. On the other hand, GBV prevention has fallen short. If we are to truly eradicate GBV, then Canada must prioritize the prevention of it. Just as urgent as domestic violence shelters and hotlines is the need to prevent the violence from happening at all; to prevent the trauma that rips through families and communities and costs Canada more in the long run.

No, we can’t “see” the impact of education and prevention happening in real-time. But the fact is, education saves lives, too.

We look forward to hearing more about how the $600+ million dollars for the National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence will be allocated to prevention activities that centre equity, including funding and support for grassroots feminist groups doing GBV prevention work and advancing the intersectional feminist movement.


Preventing Radicalization to Violence

This was by far the most surprising element of Budget 2021 for us. We applaud and welcome this progressive investment of $8.2 million over three years to increase support and research for frontline initiatives and programming that prevent and counter radicalization to violence, including violent misogyny. In our work, Aura Freedom often raises awareness about the connection between misogyny and GBV, and how mass murders like the Toronto Van Attack and the Nova Scotia Massacre are, in fact, hate crimes and directly related to misogynistic views of women.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

$45 million over three years was announced to fund community-based organizations that help make sexual and reproductive health care information and services more accessible for vulnerable populations.

How this rolls out will be important. We would like to see Indigenous midwifery services included in these investments, as well as interventions to address the ongoing forced sterilization of Indigenous women. We look forward to other marginalized women being supported through these investments, such as survivors of female genital mutilation and cutting who are not adequately supported by the healthcare system.

Sexual Violence and Misconduct in the Military

Budget 2021 proposes $236.2 million over five years to eliminate sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the military and support survivors. We applaud this investment as it will create more awareness of sexual violence in the military and break the stigma in a sector that is known to be silent on violence and discrimination. It is important to note that adequately funding GBV prevention in the National Action Plan to End GBV would also prevent violence in the military.

Gun Control

Research shows that femicide and filicide are more likely to occur when a firearm is present in a household where domestic violence or intimate partner violence occurs. We applaud the Budget 2021 proposal of $312 million over five years, with $41.4 million ongoing, to implement legislation to help protect Canadians from gun violence and to fight gun smuggling and trafficking.

Support for Black Communities

Budget 2021 proposed $200 million to help combat anti-Black racism and improve social and economic outcomes in Black communities. We applaud this investment and look forward to seeing the positive effects in the gender-based violence sector as we know one of the root causes of gender-based violence is systemic racism. We look forward to seeing Black communities leading these initiatives in the ways that best suit their communities.

LGBTQ2S+ Support

$15 million over three years was announced for LGBTQ2S+ community organizations supporting LGBTQ2S+ peoples, who often experience gender-based violence. This investment is simply not enough for the many LGBTQ2S+ groups across Canada, many of them doing ground-breaking work with little to no funding. Without proper investments, many grassroots organizations will be forced to close their doors forever, leaving the folks they support even more isolated.

Housing for Women/Children Experiencing Violence

There were various investments made for Housing for GBV survivors and their children, which we welcome with open arms. We applaud the following tailored approaches to Housing for GBV survivors, which will not only save lives, but create healthy and vibrant communities in the future.

 -$250 million in funding will be allocated to support the construction, repair, and operating costs of an estimated 560 units of transitional housing and shelter spaces for women and children fleeing violence.

-$1.5B will be for Rapid Housing to address urgent affordable housing with at least 25% going to women-focused housing projects.

-$315.4 million over seven years through the Canada Housing Benefit is to increase direct financial assistance for low-income women and children fleeing violence to help with their rent payments.

Non-Profit Sector

$400 million will be allocated to a Community Services Recovery Fund to help charities and non-profits better support the economic recovery in our communities. This type of funding can be a game changer for smaller, grassroots organizations and is crucial to the health of many communities. Indeed, the federal Emergency Community Support Fund allowed Aura Freedom to keep our own doors open during the pandemic. We hope to see more core funding supported as opposed to project funding, as well as simplified grant applications and reporting requirements that do not drain smaller organizations of their time and resources.

International: Responding to the Rohingya Crisis

Budget 2021 proposes to allocate $288.3 million over three years to Global Affairs Canada to respond to the Rohingya crisis as part of Canada’s ongoing efforts to address the crisis in Myanmar. Many of us in the GBV sector have heard of the horrific sexual violence being used as a weapon of war against the Rohingya people and hope to see some of this funding allocated for local organizations working with survivors. Moreover, considering the recent actions of the Myanmar military against its own people, we applaud this investment to uphold human rights in Myanmar, along with the rights and safety of women and girls.

All in all, Budget 2021-2022 is a great start to feminist budgeting thanks to its investments in Indigenous communities, affordable child care, housing support for GBV survivors, and investments for a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. Of course, there is room for improvement. We are heartened at many of the investments made to respond to gender-based violence, and will continue to advocate for further grassroots support to prevent gender-based violence, advance equity, and empower women, girls and gender diverse peoples across Canada.

We can’t wait anymore.


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

Grassroots Consultations for a National Action Plan to End GBV

elevating grassroots voices to high level government to end gender-based violence

Aura Freedom’s Relentless Resilience report highlighted numerous grassroots voices and the voices of GBV survivors. It also outlined the urgent need for a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence.

In January 2021, the Government of Canada recognized the need for a National Action Plan, after years of advocacy from the women’s sector.

In February and March 2021 (in partnership with the Federal Government’s Office of Women and Gender Equality Canada and YWCA Canada), Aura Freedom held community consultations with grassroots gender-based violence organizations and survivors to hear more of their recommendations, suggestions and insight in regards to the National Action Plan.

Called the Community Engagement Initiative, this undertaking was “an opportunity for civil society and the Canadian government to help inform the country’s first National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence” and “influence action on gender-based violence for decades to come.”

Aura Freedom’s goals for these grassroots community consultations were clear:

– To have grassroots voices heard and respected.

– To achieve a country free of gender-based violence.

– To present concrete recommendations to the Government of Canada that will help empower our communities and change Canada and the world as we know it.

Stay tuned for our Summary Report from these consultations, to be published online soon. 

Freedom Needs Truth

freedom needs truth - an open letter endorsed by aura freedom

So many voices coming together!

Aura Freedom has been very vocal about the harms caused by sensational and untrue theories of human trafficking circulating on social media. 

Freedom Needs Truth is a coalition of organizers, including Aura Freedom, dedicated to fighting human trafficking, who are warning about the dangers posed by QAnon and Pizzagate thories of human trafficking.

On October 21, 2020, Freedom Needs Truth posted an open letter to the media, political parties, and policymakers in the USA.

Click HERE to read the letter and learn more. 

“The truth shall set you free.”

The Children of Pornhub-An Open Thank You Letter to Nicholas Kristoff

The Children of Pornhub – An Open Thank You Letter to Nicholas Kristof

Photo credit: Nicholas Kristof


I have followed the journalist Nicholas Kristof for years. As someone working to eradicate gender-based violence and exploitation, his writing has always spoken to me.

Never sensational.




His coverage of wartime sexual violence, human trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence inspired me to research these issues in different ways. In 2012, a good friend of mine (hi Katerina) put the book “Half the Sky” in my hands. This book, which Nicholas co-authored with his wife Cheryl WuDunn, became one of the most important reads of my life.

The pages of that book are still soaked with my tears and notes.

Half the Sky assisted me in my own grassroots research of gender-based violence and human trafficking, and even acted as a ‘map’ of sorts. I even traced Nicholas and Sheryl’s steps to Calcutta, India to find the alleyways that they were describing. These alleyways are where I met the amazing Urmi Basu and her team at New Light who work to end exploitation in the red light district of Kalighat.

That book was, in a way, a guiding light during my field work and study of violence against women from the frontline. From Italy, to Kenya, to India, to Nepal and back home to Canada, I sat and listened to the sobering stories of women, survivors and frontline workers working to end gender-based violence. And throughout many of those years, I carried the book Half the Sky with me wherever I went.

I am now saving the book for my daughter.

In 2013, I founded Aura Freedom International. Based in my hometown of Toronto, Aura Freedom works to end gender-based violence and exploitation through education, research, advocacy and survivor support. We are an intersectional, feminist organization and collaborate with many different grassroots organizations here in Toronto and beyond.

I cannot say enough about Nicholas’s work that not only uncovers injustice, but educates others on what they can do to be part of the change. As an investigative journalist, Nicholas is the real deal. And not because he’s won Pulitzer Prizes, but because I have been on the frontlines and I know what he writes to be true. To you Nicholas, I say thank you for the constant inspiration.

Last week, Nicholas did us all a great service.

Last week, Nicholas used his huge platform (the New York Times) to publish a story about rape videos and child exploitation being monetized on Pornhub. In my work, I have supported survivors who have had their images on Pornhub (among other sites) and I know how life shattering that experience was for them. One of the survivors I support ended up admitting herself to a mental health facility because her abuser still had images and video of her and was threatening to post them. Pornhub gets 3.5 billion visits a month, which is even more than Amazon. In Nicholas’s article, he calls upon Canadian leadership to look into this issue since Pornhub is Canadian-owned, calling on Justin Trudeau himself for action.

Here’s an excerpt of the article, which is also linked below.

Yet there’s another side of the company: Its site is infested with rape videos. It monetizes child rapes, revenge pornography, spy cam videos of women showering, racist and misogynist content, and footage of women being asphyxiated in plastic bags. A search for “girls under18” (no space) or “14yo” leads in each case to more than 100,000 videos. Most aren’t of children being assaulted, but too many are.

After a 15-year-old girl went missing in Florida, her mother found her on Pornhub — in 58 sex videos. Sexual assaults on a 14-year-old California girl were posted on Pornhub and were reported to the authorities not by the company but by a classmate who saw the videos. In each case, offenders were arrested for the assaults, but Pornhub escaped responsibility for sharing the videos and profiting from them.

Those working with Aura Freedom know that we are an organization that supports all women, including sex workers and those working in the pornography industry.

But, as Nicholas states in his article, this is not about pornography – this is about rape.

Rape videos of kids are being shown on Pornhub.

Unconscious women are being raped on Pornhub.

Revenge videos from abusers are being uploaded to Pornhub.

Folks are watching these videos and becoming desensitized to violence and rape. Moreover, youth are consuming this content and forming skewed perceptions of what consensual sex looks like. Anyone working to dismantle the patriarchal structures in place that allow gender-based violence to thrive knows that these videos directly contribute to violence, misogyny, rape culture and slut shaming.

Silencing the survivors who have been exploited on Pornhub does a disservice to all survivors.

Much like Aura Freedom, Nicholas Kristof has spoken out against the QAnon theories and other misperceptions of human trafficking circulating on social media and the damaging effect they have to survivors and those working with them. He is by no means a journalist who perpetuates moral panics and this is why his article has been received so well by so many.

So Nicholas, from so many of us working in the GBV sector, we thank you. Thank you for your courage, your honesty, and your humanity. We are so grateful.


In solidarity,

Marissa Kokkoros

Executive Director, Aura Freedom International


Link to Nicholas Kristof’s article – The Children of Pornhub: 

Link to Globe & Mail article on the subject with comments by Aura Freedom:

The 2020 Traffcking in Persons Report is out – and it misses the mark.

the 2020 trafficking in persons report is out - and it misses the mark

The US State Department’s TIP Report has been a useful tool for the past 20 years in global efforts to end human trafficking.

However, it is in dire need of an evolution.

The report must consider new criteria when “ranking” countries other than prosecutions and convictions. Overall, there is a huge focus on a country’s legislation and less on the systemic issues that actually contribute to human trafficking like gender inequality, systemic racism/discrimination, colonialism, homophobia, capitalism and more.

What drives people to migrate unsafely? To seek out a better life even when there are red flags? What makes a person more vulnerable to a trafficker? Why are Indigenous women particularly targeted in Canada and what narratives make it okay to ignore their disappearances? What do gender norms have to do with the sex trafficking of women and girls? Why are the most marginalized people the ones who are being trafficked the most worldwide?

These are the questions that must be analyzed and understood to truly rank a country on their efforts to end human trafficking.

In terms of country rankings (Tier 1 being the best and Tier 3 being the worst), USA has placed themselves in Tier 1 again – despite discriminatory and harmful immigration policies that are contributing to increased vulnerability of migrant workers and further silencing those who are currently being exploited. Would you seek out support as a trafficking victim if there was a risk you would be detained or have your children separated from you and held in cages?

Canada is also in Tier 1, with little mention of systemic issues in Canada that create environments of INEQUITY – which is where exploitation thrives. The Canadian section focuses more on the Canadian Criminal Code and less on human rights. Sadly, there was nothing mentioned about the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, despite the report’s numerous mentions of the connections between Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and human trafficking.

If we are to truly eradicate human trafficking, we must aim to address the root causes of exploitation and advance equity and dignity for all. It’s the only way. Aura Freedom recommends exploring a new way to rank countries that prioritizes human rights, equity and support for survivors.

Read the 2020 TIP Report here:

Gender justice and racial justice go hand in hand. There is no other way.

gender justice and racial justice go hand in hand. there is no other way.

Renewing our Commitment to Racial Justice

Aura Freedom stands against all forms of racism and colonialism.
In our quest to eradicate gender-based violence, we work hard to highlight how systemic racism and colonialism harm Indigenous women, Black women and other women of colour and contribute to increased rates of violence and immense community trauma. As an organization, we believe that the way to change the world is to achieve true equity.
Our efforts to end gender-based violence and advance gender equality go hand-in-hand with dismantling racist and colonial structures.
There is no other way.
Black lives matter. Aura Freedom stands with the Black women on our team and Board of Directors. They matter and we will always fight for them.

Aura Freedom stands against all forms of violence and we recognize the painful impact and intergenerational trauma that years of police brutality have had on Black and Indigenous communities in Canada and worldwide. We acknowledge how extremely difficult and exhausting the past weeks, months and years have been for Black and Indigenous folks (including our own team members) and we will continue to advocate for you and educate others on the impact of systemic racism. 
We hear you, we see you, we love you.
All of our advocacy, awareness and education efforts are created based on the needs and challenges of marginalized women, including Indigenous women, Black women, other women of colour, girls/ youth, women with disabilities, economically and socially marginalized women, migrant women, trans folks and gender diverse folks. Our team members have completed numerous anti-oppression trainings to ensure that we all understand, acknowledge, respect and prioritize the needs of these communities. These trainings will continue.

Every day, Aura Freedom acknowledges the existence of systemic racism and colonialism in Canada and around the world and we will continue to support and stand with everyone affected. We will continue to actively evolve our processes, communications and content to advance the ongoing movement for racial justice and gender justice worldwide. We are committed to listening, learning and showing compassion in the face of inequality and indifference.

In solidarity and with brave love in our hearts,
The Aura Freedom Team

Exploitation doesn’t stop for a pandemic.

exploitation doesn't stop for a pandemic.

May 2020: What does COVID-19 mean to women currently being trafficked, or to survivors who are seeking services?

As an organization addressing human trafficking in Canada and beyond, we knew that COVID-19 would have devastating effects on trafficked women and girls*.

*Please note the following article refers to trafficked women and children in the sex trade, not consenting sex workers. As an organization, Aura Freedom supports sex trafficking survivors and therefore this article focuses on this form of trafficking. However, we acknowledge other forms of trafficking that continue in Canada during COVID-19 such as labour trafficking, domestic servitude, forced marriage and organ trafficking.  

Traffickers and exploiters don’t stop for a pandemic. Their goal is crystal clear: to make money upon the backs of vulnerable and marginalized people. Traffickers are also extremely creative when navigating new waters and adapt their businesses to flourish under any circumstances.

So, what does the COVID crisis mean for sex trafficking survivors in Toronto? 

While some organizations in Toronto are witnessing an eerie silence from human trafficking survivors, others have seen no change in the demand for their services. Those of us in the human trafficking sector know that the exploitation has not stopped. In fact, the increased isolation due to COVID-19 means that survivors are even more at risk of violence and youth are more vulnerable to being recruited and groomed online.

Anecdotally, accounts from our own team and from our community partners tell us that the sex trade has most likely seen a dip in business due to the risk of COVID infection, which often means more pressure and violence from traffickers if girls and women don’t make their quotas.

It also means that it’s more difficult for traffickers to recruit and groom new people, making it even harder for those already under the trafficker’s control to get away. For clients still purchasing sex despite the pandemic, trafficked persons do not have the luxury of being able to refuse them or screen them beforehand, resulting in a risk of infection.

Many hotels have shut down, which means that those who were being exploited in hotel rooms have been moved to hidden places like trap houses and are even more isolated. This could partly explain the silence. 

From the frontline, we know that emergency housing for survivors leaving exploitative situations is even harder to come by, and food insecurity is increasing. Trauma is also running high as the lockdown means survivors are more isolated than ever and sessions with support workers have changed format and frequency.  

Here are some accounts from a few of our fellow members of the Toronto Counter Human Trafficking Network, who are working on the ground in Toronto and beyond to support survivors of trafficking during this extremely difficult time. 

Melissa Compton – Human Trafficking Navigator at Native Child and Family Services of Toronto (Bekaadendang Project) “As an anti-human trafficking navigator during this time of COVID, I am seeing a lot of unknowns. Many of our clients are silent or not making contact. It’s very concerning. Many of our community members don’t have access to cell phones or even the Internet, so our efforts to reach out have been quite a struggle. The need for housing has been amplified and so trying to remove community members from very abusive situations has also been a struggle.

Culturally, although many knowledge-keepers have stepped up and are utilizing online platforms and doing phone appointments, most of our clients don’t have access to online forums. Moreover, those being exploited have someone who dictates what they can view, what they can participate in and when and how long they can use the phones.”

Michele Anderson – Human Trafficking Advocate at Covenant House Toronto
Covenant House has reported that the demand for their services has remained the same. Their case workers and advocates are working around the clock to support survivors (and their families) remotely and their human trafficking crisis beds are active. The demand for housing is at an all-time high and Covenant House is working with Toronto Public Health to ensure COVID-19 social distancing measures are adhered to in their facilities. 

Trafficking survivors who are pregnant are experiencing anxiety and fear as many hospital protocols have changed, including how many people can support mothers during labour.

One of the most troubling developments is the bail release of offenders due to COVID-19. Numerous dangerous offenders who have been accused of human trafficking and horrific violence are now out on bail, which is causing extreme distress and anxiety for the survivors they exploited. High-level safety planning is necessary in these cases, as well as moving survivors and constantly coordinating to keep them safe.

Luis Alberto Mata – FCJ Refugee Centre
“Labour trafficking and exploitation is still happening,” says Luis. “Migrant workers are key to guaranteeing food security in Ontario and other Canadian provinces. Thousands of workers with no immigration status continue working on farms, in factories and in cleaning services in very precarious conditions. That is why our migrant worker mobile project is still doing outreach.”

According to FCJ, many migrant workers are not being provided any safety measures with regards to COVID-19 and are at risk of infection.

Bridget Perrier – First Nations Survivor of Trafficking and Co-Founder of Sex Trade 101 
According to Bridget, women with addictions are having an extremely hard time. “Addictions don’t stop for a pandemic,” she says. “So, there is more dependence on traffickers and pimps who provide women with drugs and women who use drugs have fewer places to reach out to for support.”

Bridget says that traffickers will be using more violence as the women they exploit aren’t able to bring in the same amount of money due to the pandemic.
“Food security is currently an even bigger issue for survivors and gift cards for food are still a great way to support them. Access to housing was an issue before COVID-19, and now things are even worse. A survivor that I am supporting recently had no choice but to stay with her trafficker because there was just nowhere else to go.”

Bridget also brings up the important point that not all survivors are ok with staying in a hotel, as a lot of their exploitation happened in hotels. Therefore, service providers who are now using hotel rooms to house women must be aware of this and handle those cases accordingly.

Kathryn Gibbons – Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Services of Halton
“One of the primary concerns for survivors accessing our services has been securing forms of safe housing, especially for survivors who have recently exited correctional facilities. Additionally, for survivors who are living in shelters, many of the pandemic response measures that are necessary to combat the spread of COVID, like lockdown rules that ban folks from leaving the shelter, can be incredibly re-traumatizing for survivors of human trafficking as they recreate hyper-controlled environments. Due to the economic fallout surrounding COVID-19, access to food is also a primary concern.”

A Call to Action

As an organization, Aura Freedom would like to highlight that human rights must be guaranteed at all times for all people, especially the most marginalized and disenfranchised – who are more vulnerable during emergencies like pandemics.

To understand sex trafficking in a more simplistic manner, we need to first understand it as exploitation and a form of gender-based violence. Human trafficking is indeed a crime, but more importantly, it is a human rights abuse that thrives in conditions of inequity.

Therefore, in order to address human trafficking during COVID-19, governments must address the inequalities that exist on all levels that allow gender-based violence and sexual exploitation to continue and thrive. 

COVID-19 is new. Gender-based violence isn’t.

covid-19 is new. gender-based violence isn't

For women around the world who experience violence in their homes, every day is an emergency. Every day is life or death. For these women and their children, the COVID-19 crisis presents complex health risks that go beyond the disease itself. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently called the global surge in domestic violence due to country lockdowns “horrifying.”

He’s right.

The truth is, gender-based violence (GBV) has always been horrifying. But now, with governments mandating social distancing and self-isolation, countless women and girls are even more isolated as they are asked to remain in the very place that is the most dangerous for them: Home.

Grassroots feminist organizations knew what was coming. For some women, the lockdowns would mean increased frequency and severity of the violence they endure. For others, it would mean experiencing violence for the first time. Fear, anxiety, and economic pressure amount to increased household stress, with women bearing the brunt of that stress while trapped with abusive household members. Moreover, with schools, workplaces, restaurants, and community programs closed, women and their children have fewer places to turn to for refuge. 

In China, police in Jianli County in southern Hubei province reported three times the number of domestic violence incidents in February compared to the same time last year. In France, police have reported a 30% increase in domestic violence and Spain saw an 18% increase in calls to its domestic violence emergency line in the first two weeks of lockdown. Now, we are hearing similar patterns from our community partners on the ground in Canada. 

Gender-based violence is preventable 

Governments could have never predicted the impact of COVID-19, but they certainly could have predicted the spike in GBV that would come with it.  After all, gender-based violence is not a new phenomenon and there isn’t a country in the world that is free from it.  

Before COVID-19 was even deemed a threat in Canada, I called gender-based violence a ‘national emergency’ for Canadian women in Aura Freedom’s Beijing +25 report entitled Relentless Resilience, released in early 2020. I was not being dramatic.  

Many of my colleagues around the world would say the same thing about GBV in their own countries. According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women globally will experience violence in her lifetime. 137 women are killed every day by an intimate partner or family member. That’s 50,000 women killed per year, globally. Pandemic proportions, one might say. 

Marginalized women are at an even higher risk of GBV, including Indigenous women, racialized women, women living with disabilities, women living in poverty, rural women, migrant women, single mothers, and others facing inequities. 

So, if we already know that GBV is an urgent issue in every country and studies around the world have shown that women and girls are even more vulnerable during emergencies, then why weren’t countries prepared for these surges in domestic violence? 

For governments to effectively prevent GBV during times of emergency, they must be actively preventing GBV at all times. Moreover, plans to address gender-based violence in times of emergency must precede national measures like lockdowns to avoid what is happening around the world right now. 

The problem is that in many countries, women’s organizations, domestic violence shelters, and sexual assault centers are hanging by a thread at the best of times. Chronically underfunded and overworked, grassroots organizations addressing GBV rarely receive what they need, even though they are doing some of the most important work in the world.  And now, they are up against even more.  

Immediate gendered responses are needed, but so are long-term solutions 

When responding to global health crises, it is imperative to do so with women and girls at the forefront. This doesn’t just mean considering women, who comprise 70% of the global healthcare workforce. It means bringing them to the table, listening to them, and employing them to create sensitive and powerful responses that will not only flatten curves but tend to the unique needs of women and girls during uncertain times. Partnerships and collaborations across sectors are key and funding for grassroots organizations responding to GBV must be adequate at all times – not just during emergencies. 

The current global trend of increased domestic violence during COVID-19 lockdowns also points to a dire need for long–term solutions that reach beyond this pandemic. Education to tackle the root causes of gender-based violence must be prioritized by leaders. Gender inequality, misogyny, systemic racism, colonialism, ableism, homophobia, and harmful gender norms must be addressed to create an equal world that is finally free of gender-based violence.  

This will take long-term, robust investments, and proactive planning. It will take courage, resilience, and patience. And although governments might not be able to ‘see’ the changes happening in real-time, it is the only way to truly end the violence for good. 

In a world that has collectively mobilized to respond to COVID-19, from finding a vaccine to softening the blow to the economy, can we not mobilize in the same way for the millions of women and girls who have experienced violence at pandemic rates for centuries? 

 Of course, we can. All that is needed is political will.  

 Ending GBV will benefit everyone 

 When women and girls are healthy and safe, their families and communities thrive.  When countries consider the rights of women and girls a national priority, those countries flourish.  

  • Ending GBV will bring the world increased health, wealth, peace, and climate justice.  
  • Ending GBV will help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.  
  • Ending GBV can help get our post-COVID world back on track.  

 When will women and girls matter enough?  Gender-based violence is a global pandemic.  Act accordingly. 

Written by Aura Freedom’s Executive Director Marissa Kokkoros for Women Deliver 

See original article here:

Ontario Government Human Trafficking Roundtables

Ontario Government Human Trafficking Roundtables

In 2019, Aura Freedom participated in a series of roundtables with the Ontario Provincial Government to inform their new strategy to address human trafficking in the province. As usual, we made sure to advocate for the most marginalized groups and for the strategy to address gender inequality, colonialism, and other root causes of sexual exploitation.