Physicians Against Sex Trafficking
Sex-trafficking is a huge underground problem in Canada. It is impossible to know the true number of women and girls who are trafficked across North America. According to Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking. It is estimated that 2.45 million people are being trafficked at any given time world wide. Dr. Kathee Andrews shares a story of one instance and what physicians can do to combat sex-trafficking in their communities.
Recently, a 15-year old patient of mine and her friend were invited to a party by a 16-year old classmate. She lied to her parents about this party, after all it was the first time she was ever invited to a party in a condo in downtown Toronto! When she didn’t arrive home at curfew and didn’t return texts or calls, her mom tracked her general location using the “find my phone app“ on the cell phone. Several hours later, with the help of police, the two 15-year olds were found drugged and raped by 3 men in their 20’s in a Toronto high rise. It turns out that the 16-year old classmate’s “boyfriend“ had been previously charged with sex trafficking.
This is not an unusual story. Sex traffickers in Canada do not usually come in the form of terrifying looking old men who grab children in white vans off the street . The 16 year old classmate, a female, had already been a victim of trafficking herself, but saw herself as the “girlfriend“. She is now trapped, through drugs, gifts, affection, and violence and is now the accomplice, gaining the trust of others to bring them in. As the Toronto Police told this family, they are truly one of the rare LUCKY ones to have their daughter back. In most cases the police are not brought in to intervene at such an early stage.
Sadly , this is NOT an unusual story in Canada where local sex trafficking is a modern form of slavery for thousands of women and children, and to a lesser extent for men. While it transcends all social groups there are those who are more vulnerable:
• People living in poverty,
• Victims of physical or sexual abuse,
• Individuals with developmental delays,
• Children in the foster care system,
• Members of LGBT community,
• People with substance abuse issues, and
• Indigenous women and children.
These individuals are often lured into abusive situations with promises of parties, gifts, affection or drugs but become quickly trapped by verbal coercion, psychological abuse and threats, and physical violence. The average age when someone is first trafficked is between 13-17 years old, and they can remain trapped for many years! These women and children often endure extreme sexual abuse and frequent beatings. They are trafficked throughout major Canadian cities and moved frequently to avoid detection. Frequently, young victims are “sold” by their pimps and moved to another city, however some remain tapped within their home city.
Although trafficking statistics are difficult to quantify it has been suggested that up to 90% of sex trafficking in Canada is, in fact, local, happening to Canadian women and children. In western Canada the indigenous population is particularly vulnerable.
Canada also has a global sex trafficking issue particularly from Cambodia and some eastern European countries. In the cases of foreign trafficked women the situation is often even more desperate because the pimps or “owners“ usually take away their legal immigration documentation or make promises of immigration papers and never produces them. The victims are left feeling fearful of being deported if they leave or seek assistance.
In 2012, Canada unveiled its National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, but we continue to lag far behind other developed nations such as the US, Sweden, Belgium and Italy in our fight against this crisis.
The short and long term health implications of sex trafficking on children and women include severe psychological trauma, PTSD, depression, chronic low self esteem, drug addiction, STIs, gynaecological issues, malnutrition, as well as a myriad of traumas related to physical abuse and beatings.
What can we do as physicians?
• Educate ourselves and our co-workers so that we can recognized trafficked persons. It is estimated that 80% of trafficked individuals come into contact with a health care professional at some point during captivity.
• Become educated and trained to provide medical treatment and counselling to trafficked women and children at least at the point of contact. If interested, become trained to the the long term psychological effects of trauma.
• Help support education to at-risk children in schools to inform them of dangers of internet scams, and social interactions that seem attractive, but may lead to controlling, dangerous predators.
• Advocate - Medical Students can consider joining the Canadian Alliance of Medical Students Against Human Trafficking Alliance of Medical Students Against Human Trafficking. This group has a very active facebook group which advocates for education for medical students in this area.
• Support local NGOs and not for profit organizations that provide counselling, shelter, emergency and addiction services as well as education to trafficked individuals.
• The Toronto Branch of FMWC is planning a workshop on sex trafficking. Please stay tuned.
Dr. Kathee Andrews, MD MCFP NCMP
National President, Federation of Medical Women of Canada
References and Further Reading:
Government of Canada, National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, 2012
Ontario Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services, Ontario’s Strategy to End Human Trafficking
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre
Guido Guberman and Emma Herrington, Canadian Federation of Medical Students, Educating Pre-Clerkship Medical Students About Human Trafficking, 2016.
Perrin, Benjamin, Invisible Chains, PenguinPublishing, Toronto , ON, Canada. 2010.