‘Freedom Walk’ Aims to End Modern-day Slavery

September 5, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015
Gerry, Proud (Free-Them) Freedom Fighter, holds his self-made sign for the Freedom Walk. (Courtesy of Free-Them)

TORONTOThe average age is just 13 years old. To arrive at that number, there must be a large number of children under 13, because to find the average, all numbers in the pool are added together, and then divided by the quantity of numbers.

That’s how Shae Invidiata, founder of Free-Them, tells school children about the average age of girls forced into prostitution.

“At those ages, it is never a choice,” Invidiata says.

It’s not only a problem for foreign lands and impoverished nations; Canada also plays host to forced prostitution and other forms of human trafficking.

In 2003, Invidiata’s eyes were opened to a world of desperation during her advertising studies in Waikiki, Hawaii. She lived amid the blissful climes on so-called “Candy Lane” where prostituted women plied their trade.

A classmate was expelled from the university’s dance team for stripping. Within weeks, she was on the streets prostituting herself.

“Once you enter [prostitution], it’s extremely hard to get out. You don’t have the freedom that maybe you thought would be given to you, or you heard was possible,” Invidiata says.

Invidiata noticed human trafficking everywhere she moved in the years that followed, in the U.S., Australia, and Canada. There was even an ad on the classifieds website Craigslist, where a man in the U.S. offered a three-year-old for sex.

Two and a half years ago she started Free-Them, an organization that works to raise awareness and funds to end human trafficking. Free-Them now holds annual Freedom Walks in downtown Toronto.

“Human trafficking is a $32 billion dollar industry, greater than the profits of Nike, Google, and Starbucks combined,” states Free-Them’s website.

Common Scenario

Invidiata gives a common scenario, something that occurs right here in Canada. A 13-year-old girl, who may or may not come from a loving family, has a human trafficker pretending to be her boyfriend. Through coffee, movies, and shopping dates, he professes his love and wins her adoration

“I have a favour to ask of you,” the boyfriend may one day say. “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you,” he tells her, or “It kills me to ask you, but if you love me, then you will do this just one time.”

He may play off the girl’s guilty conscience and say, “I have no money. I spent it all on you, paying for your coffees, food, and clothing.”

And then, he asks her to give herself to a stranger.

It’s the beginning of a downward spiral of shame, guilt, and manipulation. “If you live with your parents, how are you going to tell [them] that you just let yourself go?” Invidiata says.

The pimp will take advantage and throw in threats like “If you don’t do this, well I have it filmed, I am going to put it all over Facebook or Youtube or give it to your parents,” or “If you don’t do this, I am going to tell the police what you did, because you are a minor and what you did is illegal.”

Second annual (Free-Them) Freedom Walkers, in front of Toronto's Court House, with over 500 walkers gathered that morning. (Courtesy of Free-Them)

Invidiata tells this story to high school students, to warn them about traffickers who act as their boyfriends.

Few Ways Out

For those trafficked into Canada, there are even fewer ways out. Human traffickers often threaten the prostituted immigrant’s family abroad where the pimp may have connections to organized crime.

Women and children comprise a shocking 80 percent of the trafficked, and 70 percent are put in the sex trade, according to research and statistics from the U.N., compiled by global organizations, NGOs, and law enforcement agencies.

Canada is a known source, transit, and destination country for sex trafficking, and a destination country for adult forced labour.

Invidiata says 70 percent of all human trafficking cases before the Canadian courts come from southwestern Ontario, from within the Golden Horseshoe region that includes Niagara, Peel, Toronto, and other cities.

Though it is less common in North America for toddlers to be trafficked, the numbers are large in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

“In places like China, where there is only the one-child policy, you can sell your baby girl for $2,000, $3,000. For families that don’t have money, that is a lot of money. Knowing that that girl’s destiny is to be raped for the rest of her life, their parents willingly do this,” Invidiata says.

“Some older girls are sacrificed for the sake of feeding the rest of the family. We actually know of cases like that over in Cambodia.”

Funding Prevention and Rescues

In the past 18 months, Walk With Me, one of Free-Them’s lead partners, has funded the rescue of over 130 girls, 89 percent of those being Canadians. Founder Timea E. Nagy survived being trafficked from Hungary over 10 years ago.

Walk With Me founder, Sex Trafficking Survivor and Front Line Worker Timea Nagy, and Survivor, Front Line Worker and Educator Katarina MacLeod. (Courtesy of Free-Them)

On Sept. 15, the third annual Free-Them Freedom Walk will set out at 9 a.m. from 100 Front Street West, with an expected 700 attending. The walk aims to raise awareness of human trafficking nationwide and globally.

Funds raised are used to prevent human trafficking and to rehabilitate and care for victims. The walk raised $25,000 in 2010 and $35,000 in 2011. This year, Free-Them hopes to raise $50,000.

The organization focuses on four key areas: prevention and education, rehabilitation and aftercare, rescue and law enforcement, and policy and government affairs.

Besides the walk, Free-Them also organizes events like the first-ever Cocktails For a Cause that took place in June in Toronto, a joint effort with Australia-based Project Futures Global.

The issue of human trafficking in Canada has attracted increasing attention from policymakers, thanks in part to the efforts of groups like Free-Them and MPs like Joy Smith, an advocate working to end human slavery.

Domestically, organizations working on the issue include Walk With Me Canada Victim Services, EVE Canada (Exploited Voices now Educating), and World Vision Canada. Internationally, groups include Not For Sale, Stop The Traffick, Hope For Justice, and many more.

Websites like chainstorereaction.com provide letters for the public to email to companies that utilize forced labour, urging them to investigate and stop their supply chains.

To report knowledge of human trafficking, contact your local police, Canadian Crime Stoppers at 1.800.222.TIPS (8477), or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre at 613-993-2325.

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