A Voice of Dignity

Glendyne Gerrard gives direction to Defend Dignity, an initiative of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada (C&MA) to end commercial, sexual exploitation in Canada. Defend Dignity raises awareness through education and training on the issues of sexual exploitation and acts as a catalyst for churches and individuals to be part of the solution to this issue. Glendyne is married to Douglas and lives in Oakville, Ontario. She has three married children and seven grandchildren that bring her much joy. She and Doug were involved in pastoral ministry for 25 years prior to their current denominational work with The Christian and Missionary Alliance. 


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The vision of Defend Dignity is a powerful message that speaks of the inherent value of women and girls. Where were you in life when you first received this call to serve in such a capacity?

Where was I in life? That’s a good question. Well, I would say that there were two things that were happening at the same time or that I believe was being completely directed by the Lord. Initially, just in my own quiet times with God studying the Bible, I began to look at verses to do with justice and poor and marginalized people with new eyes.

I recognized through reading the word, that God had much more interest in that group of people than I seemed to have and I just knew I needed to change that. So I began to pray regularly the verse from Micah 6:8 “what does God require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with him”. As I began to pray that verse, I spoke out loud: “Okay, I understand I’m to act with justice, I understand I’m to show mercy, but who should this be for?” So that became my regular prayer. “Who are you leading me to do this for?”

At the time, we were living in a fairly affluent farming community in Southern Manitoba and I didn’t see people that I thought would fit this category. But shortly after that, we moved to the City of Regina and within a couple of weeks, I started to volunteer with our local city food bank and so it was there I was confronted with people that would fit that category. All those that scripture speaks of. It was there I met a prostitute for the first time.

In my professional life, I was the national women’s director for the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination of Canada and so shortly after all of this prayer time and being part of the food bank, we were being asked by the leadership here at the national office to consider a justice issue that affected women in Canada.

So that began my search to figure out and see where the Lord would direct us and it was through chatting with pastors and then eventually with a survivor of human trafficking and prostitution that I knew with great certainty that this was an issue I was praying for all this time. So that began a process of a big sharp learning curve. Studying the research and dialoguing as well with survivors ended up with us beginning the organization Defend Dignity because, at that point, it was sitting under the ministry of National Women. Within a year or two, it was moved out to function on its own.

So you were “prayed up” but did you have to wrestle with a lot of emotions and thoughts when you really grasped what you were getting into?

Oh definitely. I remember inviting a survivor to come and spend time with us at the National Women’s team to share her journey and story and she wisely said to me “I’ll only come on the condition that you’ll read everything that I send you in preparation for this.” Not realizing that these were some church ladies who really didn’t have a hot clue of what this issue looked like. So that was extremely wise on her part.

So for two solid weeks, I pored over documents and research and all sorts of material on what this issue looked like in Canada and I would say it was really at that point that I knew unequivocally that this was the issue that God was calling me to.

There were lots of tears shed as I recognized my own complacency and apathy in this. I was just completely ignorant of it and I think that personal apathy also began to push me as a church leader to ask “where has the church been in response to this issue?” as they were both tightly linked. Yes, there were lots of emotions, especially in those early days.

So maybe just tell us how this issue has affected you personally and has changed your life being Director of Women’s Ministry and now serving in this area.

Well, it has radically changed my life. I think if you’d had asked me eight years ago “what do you see yourself doing down the road?” I would’ve never have thought of this. So it has completely transformed how I look at what God expects of us related to justice issues. It certainly has broadened my understanding of not just the issue of sexual exploitation and human trafficking because they’re so tightly linked to the issues of poverty, oppression, of homelessness, and all of these kinds of social issues. They’re all pretty tightly linked, so it’s broadened my horizons there.

“This is all she knows; it’s all of her world….at the point at which she wants to leave, who’s going to employ her? How is she going to get a job that’s going to help her meet the needs of herself and her family?”

I also now work and walk alongside a whole different set of colleagues that I would never have worked with. It has put me into places outside the church a great deal. We’ve done a lot of advocacy work with government and then certainly with service providers all across the country. So it’s just radically changed those people who I now regularly see and dialogue and work with.

Could you shed some light on the circumstances that might leave a victim vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution?

Yes for sure. I think there are a lot of factors that make the girls, and I say girls purposely because this is a very gendered issue and while the number of young boys being exploited is rising, it’s still by far a gendered issue affecting younger girls and women.

Certainly, sexual abuse plays a huge role in multiple survivors. In fact, I don’t know any survivor that I’ve ever talked to who hasn’t had this as part of her experiences and some of the women said “this was all I was worth. This was all I was good for, to be valued for sexual abuse”. So that alone makes them vulnerable to further sexual abuse through human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Poverty, as I said, is a huge factor and certainly if it’s not a factor as to why she became vulnerable, it’s a factor as to why she stays there. So often on average in Canada, when a girl first becomes exploited she is 13 and a half years of age and so that often means that she doesn’t finish high school. This is all she knows; it’s all of her world. Very frequently, she’s going to have children so at the point at which she wants to leave, who’s going to employ her? How is she going to get a job that’s going to help her meet the needs of herself and her family?

I would say the most vulnerable persons in our country for sexual exploitation are certain indigenous women and girls because of colonialism and racism and all of those things like residential schools. All of the various factors that make indigenous people sort of this vulnerable sector, all apply to this area as well. In fact, they are overrepresented among those who are sexually exploited in Canada.

And then children in care. That’s another huge, huge risk factor. The fact that there is no stability at home, makes her very vulnerable. She is looking for love. She is looking for all of the things that she didn’t get in her home and that becomes another huge risk factor. Exploiters know that and they’re often trolling around group homes and so with many of the survivors I know, that played a hugely significant role in why they were exploited.

Could you tell me a little bit more about Bill C:36 and what it means for women today?

Sure. The actual name now because the bill has been passed is “The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act”. That’s the name of the legislation. We’ve heard that the justice minister is calling for consultation on this legislation so we’re sort of waiting and watching with interest to see what that would look like. We know that the pro-sex worker movement really doesn’t like that legislation, and I think primarily because in the legislation, buying sex is seen as a crime.

So as a sex purchaser, that means you’ll get a jail sentence or a fine depending on if this is your first or subsequent charge. So this is the piece the pro-sex movement is really not pleased about of course because this is their business right? It’s the piece, however, that we’re very pleased about because we believe unless you tackle the demand, you’re not going to change the supply chain. If we didn’t have men purchasing, we wouldn’t have women being sold. So we think it’s an essential piece of that particular piece of legislation.

For the advertising piece, it’s against the law to advertise and there is still all sorts of advertising happening. So we would love to see the government really clamp down on websites like backpage.com that had a bit of clamping down in the States, but that’s not the case here in Canada. There is still all sorts of advertisements that are happening online. So again, we’d like to see that stopped.

But for all the elements of the legislation that we’re really delighted with, there is one little provision that we’re not happy with. Nobody’s happy with it and that’s the piece that says: “women that are now selling close to school, churches, playgrounds can be charged”. That’s the only time that a woman can be charged. And while we don’t want anybody selling near those locations, we also think it’s clearly targeting a specific sector of prostituted people and that will be street-engaged people who are often heavily drug addicted, homeless and they are really doing survival sex. Most others would not choose those locations to sell, so we feel like we would be happy if that piece of legislation wasn’t there. In fact, no woman should be charged for providing sexual services. We really think that the onus needs to be on the purchaser.

Tell me a little bit more of how Defend Dignity delivers the message of hope that sexual exploitation can be abolished? What means of communication do you employ?

Lots of things. We actually focus on three “A” words. First is “Awareness” (and education). “Aid” and “Advocacy”. In terms of awareness, we do what we call an Information Forum which is an event that we’ve held—we’ve done about 35 of them—coast to coast with survivors in Canada. We’re connected with six different survivors who come along side and share their stories at our events. We liaise with local police and we have a local service provider in that sense participate. So basically we have a man from our team address the whole demand side. In fact, pornography fuels demand. And then we partner with Evangelical Fellowship of Canada with the director of Public Policy who talks about the legislation and where things are at federally with our laws, and then I conclude with “Action Steps” and then we end with a Q & A.

So we do those events wherever we’re asked to go. Also, I get asked to speak frequently in all sorts of places. We’ve put together a youth worker training package complete with video etc. We just finished launching that at six regional Canadian youth worker conference events and we’re sending it out and making it available to anyone who wants it.

We’re in the middle of producing a two-hour youth presentation/curriculum that should be ready this summer. Again, believing that we’ve got to focus on our youth because that’s the age they’re getting exploited for the first time. We also rely on video creation and all sorts of tools. Anything we can think of really to maximize awareness. We’ve got some paper tools too.

Then we have a survivor fund for the aid work we do. We give away 15% of our income every year directly to help survivors who are trying to get their feet back under them so those funds go towards things like education, moving expenses, furniture costs, you name it, we’ve helped cover it. And as I mentioned earlier, twice a year, we make that fund available. Churches or agencies apply on behalf of a survivor, so we actually send the money to the agency who in turn oversees how the survivor is using it.

And then we do a conference called “Reveal” which is meant to equip churches on how to come alongside survivor women in terms of mentoring and providing support. We work on this particular session with a number of survivors. We also do a lot of teaching on pornography because it is sexual exploitation and there’s such a tight link between it and other forms of sexual exploitation.

So we do that in the form of a few seminars at this Reveal event. We’ve got one for parents on parenting and porn. One on how pornography affects your relationships and one on why we believe it should be a public health crisis and ways in which we can see the public and government create a public health response to it.

Then we’re also working with indigenous women and girls as they’re the most exploited in this country. We’ve got a pilot project going called “Strengthening your Sisters” which is led by a First Nations’ woman on our team. We’re going to four reserves in the province of Saskatchewan to speak with women and hopefully with kids at school presentations to try to help reserves figure out how they can stop this crime. We want to be a catalyst for the reserves to take up ownership of this issue and figure out ways that they can come along side women. So we’ve got that under way as well.

And then our advocacy work means that we do work on Parliament Hill. That’s why we were part of the Justice Committee set of witnesses to speak about Bill-C36. We’re also doing work now with the Federal Health Committee. They look at pornography and its effects so we do that kind of work as well.

Do you find that churches are receptive to hosting the message and the organization or do you get hesitation from the churches?

No, our experience has been that they’re increasingly engaged. I really believe that God has turned a movement loose. Not just with us but with any group that is working across the country on this. And for the most part, I would say that churches want to be involved. But just like I was eight years ago, they didn’t really understand and know about the issue but once they began to see it and understand it, then they begin to figure out there is so much with which they can respond with so we’ve been delighted with that.

Have you been inspired by how God has changed the lives of the women you’ve come in contact with?

Well, certainly we get fantastic responses from our survivors’ fund. When we’re able to help a woman have so much money that she could go and get re-educated so that she has a job skill to completely turn her life around—that’s absolutely amazing. Or providing first and last month’s rent to somebody who has to relocate because their trafficker has just been released from jail. Or providing furnishings for a woman who’s said: “I need a new bed because this is the bed I’ve been exploited on for years and years”. All of those things certainly in that regard are huge and brings immediate impact and gratitude in response.

The advocacy work is long and hard. There is nothing quick about changing laws and policies, but ultimately we look at the new prostitution legislation and think we had a part to play in it. We hosted events. We got survivors to meet with MPs. We wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters. We did not have an immediate outcome for sure, but the outcome was a necessary one. I think approaching it from a justice side of view and tackling some of these root causes while it’s harder work, and it takes longer, ultimately leads to better, long-term results. It’s actually bringing an end to sexual exploitation. So all of those things have been delightful.

We’ve been getting really positive responses from other groups that we coalesce and collaborate with. Even our new Strengthening Our Sisters project. They had a meeting here with four reserves a week ago and they were just delighted that someone would take an interest in them and come alongside them. So some of these things also are not immediate, but we know they’re much needed.

I received an email last week from a fella who was at our New Brunswick event back in November and he directs all of the youth workers that are part of the Anglican Diocese in the province of New Brunswick and he said “Okay, we’re in. Your seminar completely changed our thinking on this, and we just recognized that we have to be an active part of the solution in this province. So we want more help”. So those kinds of emails. Those are just really delightful, and we feel like we’re doing the right stuff.

But I don’t know that I need to have women telling me how we’re helping them. I just know that this is what God wants us to do.

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The Assistants

This interview was conducted on behalf of Speak The Words by Nicky Schleihauf of The Assistants. (www.theassistants.ca)

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