As if it happened overnight, the #MeToo movement sprung from the ground and soon you wouldn’t be able to open any social media, consume any news, or go anywhere on the internet without seeing this hashtag and stories behing it. The origins of the movement date back to over a decade ago, when activist Tarana Burke first encouraged women of color to stand in solidarity behind the words as an act of defiance against sexual assault and rape culture. Fast forward to 2017, and #MeToo quickly became a rallying cry heard throughout Hollywood—first, because of the horrors committed by Harvey Weinstein, and soon because of the countless other celebrities who abused their power to sexually assault, intimidate, and control both their coworkers and subordinates.
The #MeToo movement was embraced by many women around the world. It was almost as if they were breathing a sigh of relief with the idea that maybe, after decades of suffering and silence, society was finally ready to have a serious conversation about how common sexual assault is. Whether in Hollywood or in a factory, these power dynamics and patterns of sexual exploitation were common in everyday life than many had ever imagined.
However, the movement seemed to be one which was structured in privilege and wealth. With A-list celebrities acting as the face of #MeToo, it left the voices of women working in blue-collar jobs, women of color, LGBTQ women, and women of lower socioeconomic classes relatively absent. In fact, the movement ignored the demographic which arguably faces sexual assault at the highest rates: sex workers and trafficked women and girls.
#MeToo Say Survivors: Human Rights, Gender & Trafficking in Human Beings
On the morning of March 15, 2018, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights hosted “#MeToo Say Survivors: Human Rights, Gender, and Trafficking in Human Beings” at the United Nations headquarters in New York. ROUND + SQUARE, alongside Equality Now's team, attended this event that addressed the question as to what can be done for sex trafficking victims in the age of #MeToo. The panel brought together activists and survivors from around the world to highlight how important it is to make sure that #MeToo doesn’t become a missed opportunity to address the crimes being committed against some of the world’s most vulnerable populations- economically disadvantaged women and girls.
“I regret I don’t see more men in this room to listen to the three of you,” UN Ambassador from Iceland, Einer Gunnarsson, and the moderator of the powerful panel, said to the victims sitting on the panel.
The panel was made of advocates such as Ingibjorg Gisladottir from Iceland’s Social Democratic Alliance, Dr. Purna Sen from UN Women, Yasmeen Hassan from Equality Now, and Taina Bien-Aime from Coalition Against Trafficking in Women; along with survivors, Autumn Burris, Shandra Woworuntu, Mickey Meji and Mira Sorvino. The conversation, although stemming from the #MeToo movement, extended into the cultural and political norms which are still prevalent around the world that enable these heinous crimes to continue.
“Survivors need to be the center of this movement, always.”—Mira Sorvino | Survivor
The diversity of the panelists allowed for the conversation to be dynamic, one where you could hear about #MeToo and sex trafficking from those who have experienced it, as well as those who help create the laws which try to deter and punish it. As survivor and advocate Autumn Burris explained, in order to discuss the legal commercial sex trade, you would first have to understand that “prostitution is #MeToo on steroids.” Despite the unique perspective each panelist shared, there were several concepts which seemed to hold true no matter which point of view you were coming at it from.
“Prostitution is one of the worst violence against women.”—Mickey Meji | Survivor
Firstly, the gender dynamics behind trafficking and assault cannot be denied. Although it is extremely important to remember that men and boys are also subjected to sexual assault and exploitation (and sadly, they have even lower rates of reporting these offenses when they do happen). However, this is an issue which overwhelming affects women and girls, and just like Dr. Perna Sen pointed out, 71% of victims in trafficking are women and girls.
Ingibjorg Gisladottir, as well as Shandra Woworuntu also touched upon the fact that the exploitation of women is a cycle of society’s misconceptions of womanhood, the opportunities they lack as well as their legal and economic restraints. In many cultures around the world, women are still seen as the second sex and lack the basic equality which their male counterparts receive. This view of women, fueled by degradation and desperation makes them particularly vulnerable to these assaults against their personhood.
"One incident of violence against women is one too many."—Autumn Burris | Survivor
One of the many remarkable and powerful moments throughout the panel was when a victim that was sitting in the audience shared her experience of being trafficked. She recalled that she was forced to get an abortion, and had to return to her work at the brothel only three hours after the procedure.
While hearing the stories shared by these fearless survivors, it was difficult to not become enraged and feel helpless. Such horrors had happened to so many women, over such a long-time span. We can’t help but wonder what could be done to help them, so that the cycle breaks and no more women and girls go through that. In addition to the legislation, which advocates diligently fight for, many of the experts expressed that in order to really address the fact that enough is enough, a cultural change is necessary.
"They took my dignity and freedom." “It’s never too late to seek justice.”—Shandra Woworuntu | Survivor
Several of the panelists referred back to what they called “The Nordic Model,” and how the only way to end this type of sexual abuse, is to end the demand for the commercial sex industry. The Nordic Model does what Burris refers to as “switching the script” where—instead of arresting and punishing girls for their abuse and trafficking—the law would punish the individual that bought the trafficked person or was looking to purchase sex in the first place. This, as the panelists explained, is the most efficient way to tackle the billion-dollar industry.
“The system does not work for women.”—Yasmeen Hassan | Equality Now
Equality Now's Yasmeen Hassan wears our Let's Make Equality Reality Cashmere Shawl
ROUND + SQUARE's founder and chief creative officer, Henriette Ernst, became friends with Yasmeen Hassan in the beginning of 2016. Inspired by the stories these women living horrifying realities, she decided to step up and make a difference the best way she knew how, using fashion, her talent, and passion. That summer, she started ROUND + SQUARE.
“Through my friendship with Yasmeen and our endless conversations about the horrors these women and girls, I felt that I had enough. There needs to be a change in fashion, they need to be more conscious about the supply chain. A lot of times, these big fashion companies don’t realize they’re pushing woman and girls into slavery and sex traffic.”— Henriette Ernst | Founder and Chief Creative Officer, ROUND + SQUARE
When an audience member asked what everyday advocates can do to support survivors, Ingibjorg put it best when she said:
"One of the most threatening parts of society today is indifference. We cannot be indifferent. We have to take a stand."
Let us all take a stand against all forms of violence and sexual abuse against women and girls.
“Women are the biggest consumers in fashion, but they’re also the most abused in and out of the industry. That’s why I started my own brand to make a difference and support women and girls. I’m not a lawyer like Yasmeen Hassan and her team, but I am part of a very powerful industry and I know I can make a change through fashion, while giving back and supporting Yasmeen Hassan's work.”— Henriette Ernst