How did you become involved in the movement against human trafficking?
I had what some would very rightly call a ridiculous fear of getting bored in the summer months between my undergrad and postgrad studies, so I gave myself a few projects. Having seen ‘Amazing Grace’, a film about the life and work of abolitionist William Wilberforce, I added researching slavery to my list of summer activities – which also included learning to enjoy running. Sadly, I have yet to tick that one off.
This project was based on the assumption that slavery was a thing of the past; I quickly found out there are more slaves today than there ever have been and was gripped by this new unveiled reality. I couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t turn away from it.
I spent the guts of the following year researching the global picture of slavery: its various forms, the experience of victimhood, models of prevention and aftercare. I then moved back to Northern Ireland where the counter-trafficking movement was in its birthing stage and have been involved in that since then.
What draws you to support and advocate for people enslaved by traffickers?
When people who were once trafficked are rescued and out of the hands of traffickers, they often recount the days and years spent in slavery as being worse than what they imagined death to be like. That reality is something that I can’t even begin to imagine, but is something I now know about, albeit from an external perspective.
The first modern day slave’s story I heard was that of Long Pross. Her story is real, and when I heard it, it became a part of my own. Wilberforce is quoted as having said, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Once we know, we are responsible. The reality faced by fellow members of the human race is something to which we must face up; we have the means to end their misery. I firmly believe that when you see something wrong, you should take stock of the tools in your hands and use them to work towards change. That is all that can be done, but that is how things are done.
Is there a thought process that you would say most marks your work in anti-human trafficking?
Cherry Smiley tells a powerful story of a group of women walking by a river one evening. One of them spots a baby floating down the river on its back and runs in to save it. The women realise then that there are others floating towards them as well, and they form a rescue chain through which the babies are lifted out of the river, dried off, fed, and over time, taught to swim so that they are out of harm’s way. One day, one of the women strides into the river and begins to make her way upstream. When the others question the sense in this, she simply says that she is going to find out why – why the babies are in the river, who is putting them there. To tackle slavery, we must ask the same question. Why are people enslaved? Why do people enslave others?
At the root of human trafficking and exploitation is the belief that humanity can and should be commodified, that human beings are worthless in any other sense but for financial gain; this is the belief we must address in order to change the culture we have today that essentially cradles human trafficking. Law, rescue and rehabilitation are all vital in abolition. However, we could rescue all of today’s trafficking victims and prosecute all of today’s traffickers but unless we change the culture, it will continue to happen.
What does your work involve?
It is by re-injecting a sense of human worth, and value into culture, that we will reach the goal of abolition. This is the angle that my work most often takes on in examining cultural trends and phenomena such as pornography, the sexualisation of childhood and objectification in the media. I work with others in banning harmful content in the music and fashion industries, promoting healthy views of men, women and children in the media, researching the links between popular content consumed by the general public and social issues such as prostitution and human trafficking.
I found my voice in this when I became involved with Melinda Tankard Reist, Sharon Haywood and Pia Guerrero in campaigning for a Jay-Z/Kanye West video riddled with dead/drugged/decapitated women and children, hypersexualised shots and violent imagery and language to be banned. After a couple of months of campaigning, MTV and Universal agreed not to show it and it was then that I realised that it is the voice of ordinary people who take the time to know and to speak that can, and does, change things.
I also believe that awareness leads to action, which then leads to change. Because of this, I spend a lot of time raising awareness in various contexts – businesses, schools, communities, faith groups. I am always reminded of the importance of this when I think of Katja’s story. A victim of sex trafficking in Greece, Katja had fallen and broken her leg. She was taken to hospital and once she had received medical attention, sent straight back to the brothel she was enslaved in. Had her doctor, her nurse, or a hospital porter known what signs to look out for, her slavery may have ended a little sooner. That doctor, nurse, porter, teacher, sales assistant, bus passenger, hotel receptionist might be in one of the groups I talk to.
And of course, we must engage with the law and policies surrounding the issues. I am involved in lobbying for change in legislation and in bringing the topic into the public square.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking?
It is imperative for any legal system that human trafficking and using a trafficked person be serious offences. We are pushing for this from various sides in Northern Ireland at present. For example, anyone found to have used a trafficked person for sex here faces a £1,000 fine; we are asking for imprisonment and for the criminal’s name to be placed on the sex offenders’ register. We are also looking at the punishment for trafficking people; we have only had three convictions in NI so far, and the sentences have been minimal. This isn’t good enough. It is integral to counter-trafficking initiatives that would-be traffickers are deterred from trafficking by the clear message that trafficking is taken seriously by our legal system and punished accordingly.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
I have found that there is always an aspect of slavery that most grips people, perhaps it is child sex trafficking, or maybe it is forced labour. Maybe slavery in your own locality is what grabs your attention, or maybe you are deeply concerned at its expression further afield. Find out and make the most of the information you have access to.
Next, use the knowledge you acquire and spread it amongst your circle of influence – your social sphere, friends, colleagues, contacts. There are still people who do not know of the existence of modern day slavery. This enables trafficking to go on.
Challenge culture: when and where you are aware of the worth of human beings being downplayed or stripped, take a stand. Whether it be in everyday conversation or in the public square, use your voice.
Finally, the abolitionist community has room for you. You might be a legal mind, a primary school teacher, a counsellor, an author – whatever it is you do or have expertise in, the complexity of slavery calls for a rich and diverse taskforce against it. You are invited to be a part of it.
Recommended websites/further reading:
Northern Ireland’s No More Traffik campaign: http://www.nomoretraffik.com
My website: http://www.gemmaruthwilson.com