Content Warning: We will be discussing human trafficking as well as child abuse and trauma.
What I wanted to inspire within the community is we will rise above, but we can do this as a community.
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Rhonelle Bruder is a human trafficking survivor, a founder, a human rights advocate, a consultant as well as a motivational speaker. She advocates and offers education on human trafficking and gender-based violence prevention in both public and private sectors. You may have also seen her speak and advocate on several news outlets. She's doing so much work for the survivors and the community. She is the founder of @projectirise which is a survivor-led, community-based nonprofit with a mission to educate and empower survivors of human trafficking.
SWY: Can you please introduce yourself to us?
RB: Yes, and thank you thank me for having me on today. I am the founder and executive director of Project iRise. We are a survivor-led community organization. We provide education, empowerment, and training for survivors of human trafficking and those at risk. Our real focus is on creating education and employment opportunities for survivors.
SWY: What was your childhood experience like? Can you explain what vulnerabilities you had as a child that created a higher risk for trafficking?
RB: Yeah, I would say, a relatively normal childhood, I had sort of middle-class upbringing, two-parent home, but at the same time, I was adopted. I'm obviously a black woman, but I grew up and I was adopted by a white family. I grew up in a very small conservative town, where being different wasn't exactly appreciated at the time when I was younger. So, I experienced a lot of bullying. I experienced a lot of other things. I experienced that feeling of not belonging, not fitting in and I didn't have the language at that time at that age to be able to speak or even ask for help. So, a lot of that was just really internalized. Those are some of the factors that made me vulnerable. So, my mental health and that lack of sense of belonging and community. Then when I was a teenager, when I was 16, I ran away from home. I was dealing with a great deal of anxiety and depression. I ended up in downtown Toronto and very shortly after ended up homeless. So now I'm experiencing homelessness. This probably would have been one of the greatest factors that increased the risk of me being exploited or at risk of exploitation because a young person that does not have a connection, that does not have a trusted adult in their life, and so homeless is a high target for traffickers and exploiters.
SWY: Can you explain what human trafficking and child exploitation are? How common are these situations and can you provide some examples for us?
RB: Human trafficking in Canada is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transferring, concealing, or exercising control of a person against their will. In Canada, sex trafficking or sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking. This involves the use of manipulation, control fraud to force someone into forming sex acts against their will. What we see here in my work is very much involved in sex trafficking, which is that 95% of victims are women and girls. So, this is a crime that overwhelmingly impacts women. Also, I believe that 75% of victims are under the age of 25. We're seeing an average age of 17 for someone being exploited and trafficked in this country. So I think a lot of people still have a lot of misconceptions about trafficking, that it's happening somewhere else, it's foreign people brought into this country. They're kind of confusing trafficking, and smuggling, which are two totally separate things. But human trafficking is happening in Canada, and it's happening to young children. I think particularly right now, with COVID-19, a lot of people young people being at home and online, if anything that has increased that risk, because being online, being on social media, tik tok, Instagram, all these apps that we use, every single day, this is where traffickers are going to engage and connect with young people. One thing I want to add about the last statement was I had said that 97% of victims are women and girls but these are coming from police-reported data. So this is the statistic we have. So we know that boys and men are being targeted and being exploited, we just don't have the accurate data that tells us how many, particularly the in with boys and men within the LGBTQ plus community are at high risk. So, I think that's important, because when we talk about trafficking and when I talk about it, I often use the gender language of girls and women and her and she, and that is the predominant case but we do want to acknowledge this does happen to men and boys.
SWY: Can you explain what makes it so hard for victims to escape their traffickers? and when they do, what challenges do they face to rebuilding their lives?
RB: There are many reasons and that make it challenging for someone to leave their trafficker, and I think one of them and the one that's maybe the hardest to understand and the most misunderstood is the relational part of trafficking. Often traffickers in particular within domestic sex trafficking that we see here in Canada they are presenting themselves as a boyfriend, as a friend to their victim. So, they're taking the time to get to know that person, they're asking them questions, they're learning about them, they're making them feel special, feel loved. They're building that relationship, and that trust and that bond. So, when that happens, that young person feels that this is a boyfriend. I've had victims all the time say this is my boyfriend, he's not a trafficker. He loves me, he's my boyfriend and that makes that much harder. Even if someone's hurting you, even if someone's exploiting you if you feel that you love them, or that they love you. There's a lot of manipulation, love mind games, a lot of just coercion happening for young people. Then there is something we call trauma bonding, where traffickers will cycle between that kind of loving, caring, kind of the grooming kind of personality, and then switch it off. Next thing you know they become violent or be very abusive, but they're cycling between that so they're not constantly always going to be violent and scary. Sometimes they're going to be nice. So it kind of keeps that victim just confused, not understanding what's happening. What am I doing to make this person react this way? If you think of it in the same way as we think of domestic violence, and we think of why domestic violence victims don't leave their husband or their partner when they're being abused because they believe that that person loves them. It's really hard to sort of break that emotional bond, that trauma bond that the victim has with their trafficker.
SWY: sometimes we say it's only these older men that are trying to traffic or it's only the older age group that are trying to lure young women in like you've just explained, but that's not the case, right? It could be, somebody even just slightly older or even the same age as you that are trying to lure others?
RB: What we see often too now, which I would say is different from when I was younger, where it was older men recruiting sort of luring young girls. Now we see it's happening in high school. So, you're seeing the traffickers the same age as the victim to 16-year-olds to 17-year-olds. I mean it's changed a lot in the last 20 years since when I was a kid. Now, again, you know, with the Internet and with social media, traffickers don't have to go and hang out at the Greyhound station at the bus stops, they don't have to go and hang out in front of the shelter and look for the girls that are at risk and vulnerable. They just go online.
SWY: What support and services did you use in your situation that works for you?
RB: Well, I mean, again, because my situation was 20 years ago, there wasn't the awareness. There wasn't the language. Human trafficking, to me, is new. I didn't hear about it until years later when I was my undergrad. That's the first time I actually even heard that word and was able to sort of connect it to my own experiences. So, for me and young women that experienced trafficking were exploited. If the girls were lucky enough to get out, then they just have to find a way to rebuild their life, but there was no support and there were no services. However, now there is. Now there are dedicated supports and services, there's housing, there's mental health, there's the physical health, there's really wraparound care services for survivors today, but there wasn't before.
SWY: you have this project called iRise, where did it start from? What does it mean to you and why is this organization important for the community?
RB: Project iRise really came from not only my own experiences in trying to rebuild my life, and the challenges that I face and the hurdles of going from being someone who was a high school dropout to going getting my GED, and then an undergrad and graduate school. That was not an easy process. But among other survivors I met in the community, when I was doing advocacy work, was many of them were still struggling. Many of them were 5 to 10 years out, but they were still struggling to rebuild their lives. They're still struggling to find really meaningful, sustainable employment. A lot of them were still living below the poverty line. So I realized that there was this gap. There wasn't enough of that long-term support for the survivor community. That's what Project iRise is about. It comes from the Maya Angelou poem, still I rise, one of my favorites. We rise, no matter what happens to us we rise. That's really what I wanted to sort of inspire within the community is we will rise above, but we can do this as a community. So that's our focus is creating opportunities, creating a sense of community and network for survivors, but really helping them build those skills. The skills that will help them be employable because that's really what you need. You need to be able to find and obtain a job in economic empowerment because without that, you're at such a higher risk of being re-exploited and re-victimized.
SWY: What programs and initiatives do you provide with Project iRise?
RB: So we have two programs. We have our branding tattoo removal and what that is, is oftentimes traffickers will force or coerce the victim to get a branding tattoo. This will be oftentimes the trafficker's name, or $1 sign a symbol, or sometimes it's a gang symbol, things like that. After the victim has escaped, they'd left their trafficker and they're now a survivor. They still have this tattoo on their body and tattoo removal is very expensive. So most of these women, cannot afford the hundreds of hundreds of dollars that would take to remove that. Instead, they have to live with that for the rest of their life. You can imagine how traumatic that would be to have to wake up and see something on your body that will only bring you back to one of the worst experiences of your life. So we started our branding tattoo removal to provide a free service for survivors of trafficking, we connected with community support to help us do that. Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, we've had to kind of shift things a little bit. Things are off right now because everything's on lockdown, but once things get going again, and once the lockdown is over, we will start again with the branding remove a tattoo. Our second program is our survivor leadership program. We received funding from the ministries from the provincial government to run our cyber–Leadership Program. Really what that is, is bringing survivors together to be able to create workshops, create interactive opportunities for them to build those employable skills. I'm going to keep hammering that home because if you aren't able to have that meaningful and sustainable job you're just so much more at risk for being exploited. So really we want to create more survivor leaders in the community, people who can come out and be advocates, do what I'm doing. Talk, advocate, have a national platform out it because one thing that I often see within this space is that one or two survivors will be given an opportunity to speak and I'm one of those survivors. I'm very grateful to have that. I try to do my best for this work, but I also think it's important that we have diversity, and a variety of people speaking because I can only speak to sort of my lived experience in the identity that I live in, and the experiences that I have, I can speak from that. I think it's important that we have trans youth. We have our LGBTQ+, we have men, we have indigenous, we have people in the BIPOC. We have people from rural areas, all these different communities who can speak to their lived experiences because there's no one trafficking story. There's no one trafficking experience. So we really want to uplift and empower other survivors so they can come out and they can share their story if they want to, or if they don't want to. They want to do advocacy work. They want to work in research. They want to work in curriculum and design. They want to be the ones building these programs and services for the community. But to do that, they just need more support. So that's what we're trying to do.
SWY: How have the lockdowns impacted human trafficking and child exploitation? And in the comment we had a similar question, asking you to speak more about cyber-sex trafficking, especially because of COVID-19.
RB: Yeah, so I think a lot of people maybe thought, well, it's COVID-19, the kids are at home, they're safe. Nothing's happening. I mean, it's quite the opposite because they're at home because they're online and they're online for extended hours at a time, their entire life, their social life is online, right now schoolwork and everything. They're connecting with people, and they have access to people that they never would have before. It's actually quite easy for a trafficker to engage with a young person. It's simply just sending them a DM like hey beautiful, hey sexy, to something as simple as that started a conversation. Then there you go, getting the questions, really digging and trying to find out more about that young person finding out what is missing in their life? Where is that gap in their life? Are their parents going through a divorce? Are they're feeling maybe neglected? Are they being bullied at school? Are they having body image issues? You know, what is it that that person needs, that that trafficker can come in and fill that void and we're able to do that online. Someone I think, had mentioned sort of that cyber-sex exploitation. So even without meeting a victim in person, they can be trafficked and exploited because traffickers will often ask their victims to send them nude photos, videos, things like that. Now they have something that can use to extort them by saying I have this of you, if you don't do this and that for me, guess what? I'm going to put this online. I'm going to show you this and all your friends. I'm going to do all this. Oftentimes, of course, the young person feels that they have to do what the trafficker says so they will not reveal the videos and things like that. This is child sexual abuse material that is now something they can share online; they can sell it online. There's an increase in sites like only fans. I’m not saying that only fans is doing child sexual exploitation. There's a lot of adult sex workers on there but at the same time, that is another opportunity, another platform for That type of abuse and exploitation to happen.
fSWY: What are three supports that the community can provide for victims of human trafficking?
RB: I think the most important support is the services that we do have available. We have lots of resources. I'm in Toronto, so I can speak mostly for Toronto and Ontario, as far as lots of wraparound care. So, there are mental health supports, because a victim of trauma, sexual violence will need mental health support, they'll be suffering from PTSD. There's physical health, I mean, someone who's being trafficked, may be being beaten by their trafficker every day, they may be beaten, physically abused by the clients that they have to see. I mean, there's a vast array of violence that can happen. So, making sure that those things are taken care of, make sure they have housing. Safe and secure housing is huge. Even just the basic needs, food, clothes, things like that. So there are a lot of services. We also have the Canadian Center to end Human Trafficking. They run the national hotline. So, somebody suspects that someone might be a victim of trafficking, or you see something that just doesn't feel right, we have a national hotline that you can call, and you can speak to someone, it's run 24/7. They also have a directory of all the services across Canada. Project iRise is in the directory, so you can look and you can see what programs are available based on your geographical location. We have that as far as one of their services. There are so many different services, it really depends. There are services that are specific to the indigenous community, there are services that would maybe focus more on boys and men. So, it's really important just to sort of look at what's out there. I would recommend going on something like Project iRise. Going on our website and we do have a bunch of resources as far as informational. So videos, documentaries, research reports, if someone just wants to learn more about trafficking and what it is, and then, of course, connecting with the National hotline.
SWY: Did you have any announcements to share about Project iRise?
RB: One really cool thing that happened was that I was selected as one of the Loyal Parents as one of worth as a part of their revenue growth program. This is their fifth anniversary of the program. They recognize and acknowledge 10 Canadian women this year for their work for their volunteerism to just make their community and the world a better place. So I was selected as one of the honorees for my work against human trafficking advocacy with Project iRise. So we were received a $10,000 donation from L'Oreal Paris, which is I know is amazing! We used it towards our programming, our survivor leadership, and creating more services for survivors. Of the now the 10 women were all sort of together for a contest with a national honoree. So Canada can vote Canada, you can vote for your national honoree, and whoever is selected will win an additional $10,000 for her charity. So we've already won 10, but now we have the opportunity to win an additional 10. So 20,000 in total, for Project iRise. Wow.
SWY: How can people vote for you?
RB: You can go on my page or Project iRise, you just click the link in the bio, they'll send you directly to the L’oreal Paris page. You'll see all our profiles, if you click on my profile, and then you just click on it, scroll down, it says vote and you can vote every day. One email per day.
Viewer comment: Is there anything special your organization is doing for human trafficking Awareness Day aside from raising awareness?
RB: We wanted to maybe put on a webinar or kind of do something like that. We're a small team, you know, we're 90% a volunteer team. So, I'm just so grateful to have such amazing volunteers. We had so many things on the go, particularly with our survivor Leadership Program, that we weren't able to plan, a webinar or anything like that. But there's a lot of stuff going on. I know myself, personally, I'll be doing a lot of talking about it. Again, advocating tomorrow about that, as well, all the other anti-trafficking agencies in Canada. We're not going to be doing anything particular this year, hopefully, next year, we will, it was just it was a timing thing. It was like we have so much to do, and it was like we and I don't like to do anything like 50%. So yeah, like unless we can do it 100%, we just didn't have the resources and the time. So fortunately stay online, there's going to be so much as far as information. There'll be stuff in the news, there'll be a lot of information on human trafficking, check out our site, go again, on this Canadian Federation human trafficking, there'll be a lot of stuff happening tomorrow. I feel like this day is so important because it acknowledges that this is happening in Canada, and we need a Canadian strategy to address this crime. I think for victims and survivors, we're moving forward to removing that stigma and that shame that so many victim’s survivors of any form of sexual violence oftentimes live with. So, I'm really grateful that we're going to have a national Awareness Day.
We want to thank Rhonelle for sharing her experience with us, and the expertise, information, and awareness about human trafficking. We also want to thank the audience for joining us in this conversation. I mean, this is what it's all about, talking with one another, discussing and sharing that awareness.
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