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In the Booth with Ruth – Michelle Sweeney, Anti-Human Trafficking Activist

Michelle Sweeney

How did you become involved in the movement against human trafficking?

I was listening to a late night radio show one night in November 2011. I had never heard of human trafficking before and as I listened to the content of the show, I quickly found out that not only did human trafficking happen in our world today but that it happened in the city I lived in. As I continued to listen to the show, they explained how everyday people could help in this area by raising awareness in their communities.

That was it, in that moment, I was convicted that I should be doing something about this but not really knowing where to start, I decided to look it up on the internet and do some reading on it.

A couple of days later, I decided to start a petition asking for greater preventative measures to be put into place in the UK, and a few other things like zero tolerance of human trafficking in hotels and to stop advertising in local papers. As I said, I was passionate about helping this issue but I was new to all of it. I had never done a petition before, but quickly realised how I could improve on it if I ever did one again, for instance, concentrating on one area instead of a few. However, the petition did help me to meet like-minded people because as I passed the petition around networking sites, I soon began to talk with others who knew more about human trafficking than me. I spoke to one man, who is considered a friend now, and he suggested some reading material and he also put the idea into my head about starting an ACT group up with STOP THE TRAFFIK in my city. This is how it started for me, a bit of courage to put myself out there and talk to others, ask questions, and the encouragement from my newfound friends helped me to take those first few steps.

The next thing I did was approach my church on the subject and as it turned out, they have a mission project that works with trafficking victims. It is called the Freedom Project, set up in 2010 to help young girls, women, and boys who have had their freedom taken away from them and find themselves being used and brutally exploited by what is termed as sex trafficking. In October 2012, a team of us ran the Coventry half marathon to raise funds for this project; it was a privilege to be able to get my hands dirty. With my church, I also do outreach work every week with an organisation called Embrace. I have had training in areas of human trafficking and other areas to enable me to go out and volunteer with the team. Embrace is a charity that works with vulnerable women in prostitution. Embrace believe that every woman can live a free, fulfilled and purposeful life, and Embrace stands with them in it and journeys them into freedom.

I contacted STOP THE TRAFFIK and volunteered to take part in the GIFT box campaign that was launched at the 2012 Olympic Games. Again, I had to turn up for some training from them and I have also taken part in some workshops that they put on for us. If you don’t know what the GIFT box campaign was then I’ll quickly tell you. STOP THE TRAFFIK had a number of giant boxes made. On the outside, it was welcoming and looked like a gift and on the inside, it had stories of human trafficking victims and what happened to them. These boxes were placed around London during the Olympics for the public to see. As a volunteer, our job was to speak with the public about human trafficking and invite them for a look inside the box.

I also decided to start my own ACT group here in Coventry. Anyone can do this – just contact STOP THE TRAFFIK. I now have four members in my group and we have so far done a talk to year ten students in a local school, and this January, we are set to do the taxi campaign, which basically entails us going around our local taxi drivers and informing them what human trafficking is, what to look out for and how they can report it, as taxi drivers transport human trafficking victims from place to place without even knowing, so they could potentially play an important part in reporting it. In the space of a year, I have learnt so much but know there is a lot more to learn. I am very passionate about this cause and I will continue to do all I can.

What draws you to support and advocate for people enslaved by traffickers?

This is simple for me. I have a heart for justice. I cannot bear the thought of others exploiting people for their own selfish gain, plus the fact that the pain and terror the victims have to face is just pure evil and wrong. Knowing that it happens and the suffering that is forced on them breaks my heart. These children, women and men are human beings. Their lives are just as precious as anybody else’s. They may not be able to scream for help but I can for them, so I am going to. I am a mother of two daughters and the fact is anyone can become a victim of human trafficking. If it were my daughters out there, I would hope other people would care about them. The victims are someone’s child, someone’s mother, sister… How can I not care about that?

What does your work involve?

Everything I have done so far has been on a volunteer basis. I had to go looking and get out there to keep making the steps to get involved. At present, the work I am doing is with my community ACT group and with the charity, Embrace. The idea of the ACT group is to create awareness in my city and we do this with the organisation STOP THE TRAFFIK. STOP THE TRAFFIK have resources on their website for members to download and use, like posters, campaign ideas etc. Last year, they ran some workshops for members to attend. So, for instance, I attended a ‘how to fundraise’ workshop.

This January, my group is taking on the taxi campaign. The idea is to inform the drivers what human trafficking is and ask them to display a ‘no human trafficking’ sticker in their taxi. We get the stickers by ordering them from STOP THE TRAFFIK. We do have to pay for them, so what we did beforehand was have a fundraiser. We chose to have a come to work in non-uniform day and charge a pound. We also made cakes and sold them. With the funds raised, we’ve ordered our stickers and now we’re all set to get out there campaigning.

With the charity, Embrace, we go out on a Sunday and Monday night in a team of four and we drive around the local red light area. The women know us now, so if they need us, they tend to flag us down. We offer the women hot and cold drinks, hygiene bags, and food such as batches, crisps, chocolate, and also condoms. And we offer friendship. We listen to them, we talk with them and we try to help them with their practical issues, for example Embrace can issue food bank vouchers to the women and we would always set them up with a different organisation in the area which may be more equipped to meet the women’s needs. Embrace also offer spiritual support for the women, so if they ask for it, we would pray with them also. This Christmas time the work involved us making up gift bags for the women. It was incredible to give gifts out and see what it meant to the women that use our services.

I also decided to set up an awareness page on Facebook. This involves me researching the latest news on human trafficking and posting it. And also the page was set up to give everyday people like me ideas on how they can help the issue in their community.

What legal improvements or changes would help abolish human trafficking?

This is an area that I could learn a lot more in, but one thing that I have come to understand is that the abolishment of human trafficking is complex. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. It is second only to drug trafficking and difficult to identify due to the hidden nature of the crime. Having said that though, there are areas where changes can happen, laws can be made and practiced, preventative measures can be put into place and lives can be saved.

One area that I believe can be improved is to have the issue of human trafficking taught in our schools as part as the curriculum. I believe that if we educate our young people in this area, it will help empower them to protect themselves against things like grooming, loverboys, applying for jobs, knowing the signs of human trafficking so that they can report it and knowing where to report it to. I think educating our young people in this area would be a positive step forward in the abolishment of human trafficking.

Another area I feel could be improved on is our frontline services such as the police, social workers, children’s care workers, teachers, nurses, doctors… Frontline staff are not being educated about human trafficking and the valuable role they play in the fight against it. It is worrying that some of these services will come across victims of human trafficking and not even know what signs to spot or how they would go about helping that person. I think training for the staff in this area should be compulsory.

Awareness is a key to ending this modern day slavery. The more people that know that not only does it exist, but it happens on their doorstep, the harder it will be for the traffickers to operate in their communities.

I also believe that the area of demand needs to be addressed, but again this is not simple, as different people have different ideas of what measures to put into place. But one thing is for sure, that if there is no demand then there would be no supply. I can give you an example: Sweden passed a law to tackle their human trafficking problem that targets the person who is purchasing sexual services, the demand side of things.

All men who are thinking about buying sex should bear in mind that it’s usually trafficking victims who are affected. I often wonder if the people buying sex would think differently if they knew that the people they were buying it from were in fact victims of human trafficking, if they knew that they were in fact raping a woman or maybe even a child, would they stop buying sex? So again, educating the men in our communities that slavery still exists in the form of sex trafficking might help end the demand side of the issue.

There are a lot of areas that can be improved on, or changes in the law that could be made, to help abolish human trafficking and it will not be one solution but a number of solutions working together. Different countries, cities and communities may need a different solution to the next, but one thing is for sure, that the more people fighting to abolish slavery, the harder it will be for it to thrive.

For anyone else that wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?

There are so many things that everyday people can do to help this issue. I understand that different people will have different family/work commitments and resources but people can still get involved if they want to.

Firstly, I would suggest that people read up on human trafficking. In January 2012, I read a book called Trafficked by Sophie Hayes. Reading this book soon opened up my eyes to the fact that things are not always what they seem. Sophie is from the UK and she is a well-educated woman. She was trafficked into the sex trade by a man who she considered to be her best friend. As she tells her story, Sophie brings to life that this could happen to anybody. Sophie managed to escape her ordeal and she is now the founder of the Sophie Hayes Foundation. She is determined to turn her experience into a positive one and works to help others like her who need hope and freedom. Sophie’s story has inspired me.

In August 2012, myself, my husband and my daughters ran a 5k fun run to raise funds for the Sophie Hayes Foundation and we had a lot of fun doing it too.

Another book I would like to suggest is one that was suggested to me when I started out – it’s called Half the Sky: How to Change the World by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn. This book is full of inspiring stories and it tackles areas that make people vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking. In the back of the book is also a list of grassroots projects and organisations that people may be interested in. So yes, become informed.

One way that people can get active is to research what anti human trafficking organisations/charities they have in their local areas and find out if they need funds or volunteers. A great way to help the issue of human trafficking is to support an established organisation/charity. There are many ways that people can fundraise for their chosen charity, so get out there and have fun with it at the same time as making a difference.

I would highly recommend getting in touch with STOP THE TRAFFIK. They are passionate about doing all they can to help end human trafficking. Whether you are an individual or a group of people, there are lots of resources on their web page that you can download, print, copy and use. Resources include things like posters, campaign ideas, fundraiser ideas, gift tags etc. If you are wanting to join a community ACT group you can go on their site and see what groups are in your area. If they haven’t any groups in your area, then maybe you might like to start one up. If you get in contact with the staff at STOP THE TRAFFIK, they will help you to do this. Do not be discouraged if it takes a bit of time to get your group moving, as this certainly was the case for me. While I was waiting for people to join my group (which is now our group), I got on with some things I could do alone, like post info leaflets through letterboxes.

Something that everyone can do is strike up a conversation; do your family and friends know that slavery still exists and that it is happening right under their noses? Simple and effective, awareness empowers people to act.

Help spread the word, use your social network sites to create awareness of human trafficking.

Send a letter to a major consumer brand requesting that they use materials that are slavery-free.

Write to your local MP about the issue.

There are a number of films/documentaries going around to watch about the issue. Maybe have a showing of one in your home or local community centre, or go with a group of friends to see one. I know of one called Not My Life and another called The Price of Sex.

Another way to help and get involved would be to change where you spend your money; change the demand in your local supermarkets by buying fair-trade/slavery free products. You could simply make a few changes like buying fair-trade cotton, fruit, coffee, tea, chocolate. If everyone did this, it would make a huge difference.

An important to thing people could do is to know the signs of human trafficking and know where to report it. In the UK, there are a few numbers to call. I keep these in my phone.

If you think someone is in imminent danger call 999.

If you want to report something anonymously call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

If you are a victim in need of support call the Salvation Army on 020 7367 4500.

For advice and information call UK Trafficking Centre on 0114 252 3891.

One thing that people should not do is put themselves at risk, as the people who commit these crimes are dangerous.

What are your plans for the future?

Myself and the others in the Coventry ACT group plan to do more talks at schools to students of all ages. With the younger students, we will use the chocolate industry. I will keep volunteering for Embrace and after that, all I know is that I will do all I can in my life to help abolish this horrific crime.

My hope for further along in the future is that I will be able to meet and work with the victims themselves. If I turn out to have something to offer in terms of restoring the victims’ lives on a practical level then I would jump at the chance to be that source of hope.

This issue is heartbreaking and it can feel overwhelming at times, but I will continue to see the beauty and hope in life, and I always try to remember something I got told which was this: Do not concentrate on the enormity of the issue, but take one day at a time, saving one life, then the next, then the next, then the next…

Recommended websites/books/films etc:

http://www.thea21campaign.org A21 stands for Abolishing Slavery in the 21st Century.

http://www.unseenuk.org Working towards the eradication of modern slavery wherever it is found, providing survivors with safety, hope and choice.

http://www.sophiehayesfoundation.org The mission at the Sophie Hayes Foundation is to raise awareness about, and support survivors of, human trafficking and modern day slavery.

http://www.stopthetraffik.org  STOP THE TRAFFIK is a global movement of individuals, communities and organisations fighting to prevent human trafficking around the world. A good port of call for information about community action, resources and advice.

www.williamwilberforce.org.uk Provides frontline practical support for women coming out of situations of trafficking.

http://www.love146.org  Love146 works toward the abolition of child trafficking and exploitation through prevention and aftercare.

http://www.antislavery.org  World’s oldest human rights organisation, dedicated to ending all forms of modern slavery around the world.

http://www.ecpat.org.uk  ECPAT UK is a leading children’s rights organisation campaigning against the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children.

http://www.somaly.org The Somaly Mam Foundation is a non-profit public charity committed to ending slavery.

http://www.hopeforjustice.org.uk  Hope for Justice is an anti-human trafficking organisation rescuing and assisting victims of modern-day slavery, supporting the prosecution of traffickers and campaigning to protect victims.

http://www.embrace-uk.org   A charity working with vulnerable women with life controlling issues. They believe that every woman can live a free, fulfilled and purposeful life if they choose to believe it. Embrace believes it, stands with them in it and journeys them into Freedom.

http://www.thenoproject.org  THE NO PROJECT is an independent anti slavery public awareness initiative that focuses on the role of demand for human trafficking and specifically targets awareness through dance, music, the arts, education and social media.

Shop

http://www.heavensattic.co.uk  An online gift & accessories social enterprise business funding anti-human trafficking charities. Every purchase you make, contributes to the fight against slavery.

Books

TRAFFICKED by Sophie Hayes

HALF THE SKY: HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn

STOP THE TRAFFIK: PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE BOUGHT AND SOLD by Steve Chalke

THE ROAD OF LOST INNOCENCE by Somaly Mam

Films

http://www.priceofsex.org The Price of Sex is a feature-length documentary about young Eastern European women who’ve been drawn into a netherworld of sex trafficking and abuse.

http://notmylife.org Not My Life is a documentary film about global human trafficking, a modern-day phenomenon that affects millions of children, women, and men in every part of the world.

http://www.NefariousDocumentary.com Nefarious is a critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary on the global sex trade. Millions of women and children around the world are increasingly becoming the expendable pawns of the demand for illicit sex.

http://www.mydangerousloverboy.com My Dangerous Loverboy, created by filmmaker Virginia Heath, is a breakthrough campaign that will raise awareness of the internal sex trafficking of vulnerable young girls into the sex trade.

About Ruth Jacobs (297 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

16 Comments on In the Booth with Ruth – Michelle Sweeney, Anti-Human Trafficking Activist

  1. Reblogged this on Soul Destruction – London Call Girl Diary & Book and commented:

    Anti-human trafficking activist, Michelle Sweeney, is in the booth for the first in the special series of interviews scheduled for January, which is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Michelle’s interview is educational and practical, as well as touching and inspirational, as she takes us through her own personal journey.

  2. Brilliant. Ruth, you are changing the world, raising consciousness and campaigning tirelessly to end human trafficking and sex slavery. Bravo!

  3. Reblogged this on Bipolar For Life and commented:
    Ruth Jacobs’ interview with Michelle Sweeney, anti-human trafficking activist, gives us a roadmap for becoming activists against human trafficking and sex slavery.

  4. It is incredibly sad that this is becoming one of the most profitable activities for organised crime worldwide. Glad to see posts like this and so many organisations raising awareness and taking up the fight.

    My 8 yo daughter ran a lemonade stall last weekend to raise money for Bloom (a training organisation to help survivors and at risk women in Cambodia). She has no comprehension of the brutality these girls and women are subjected to, but knows that their lives are not as good as hers and wanted to help. So proud of her!

  5. Reblogged this on Crossover at Eagles Point and commented:
    Very informative interview with excellent information and insights regarding the realities of human trafficking in England (and around the world). It is everywhere. It just looks very different in different countries, and some (like England and the US) have more legal industries for trafficking to camouflage itself or operate within.

  6. This is a vital issue. People don’t realize slavery still exists, but it does with a modern model designed to hide the ugly truth. Ruth, I commend you on bringing human trafficking to the forefront with this interview. Michelle, kudos for your efforts and compassion. I have saved this post URL and will be tweeting it daily indefinitely.

  7. Thanks for your excellent work to educate people about the harms of prostitution and sex trafficking, and to inspire other activists to get involved! It’s a pleasure to share your very helpful efforts with others.🙂 ~ AntiPornography.org

  8. Reblogged this on niallslynn and commented:
    Human trafficking is just about the most miserable condition that afflicts us today. Freedom from slavery is the foremost human right.

  9. Thank you very much.

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  1. In the Booth with Ruth – Michelle Sweeney, Anti-Human Trafficking Activist « Anti-Pornography Activist Blog – by AntiPornography.org
  2. Human Trafficking Awareness month – Ruth Jacobs Interviews « Scottish Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation

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