Slavery is a powerful word, but it is the closest one to describe the present day underworld of human trafficking, which is targeted in a new hashtag campaign.

#ShesNotForSale is a campaign aimed at building awareness of how close to home sexual trafficking is, and also share real stories of survivors of prostitution and trafficking to better illustrate the effects of the ongoing tragedy.

Human trafficking is a fast-growing and under-reported crime that has reared its ugly head in York Region recently. In 2015 a Markham woman was arrested for luring young girls to work in the sex trade and essentially holding them as sex slaves. In 2014, 10 men were met with 120 charges relating to the forced service in the sex trade of more than 30, mostly underage women working out of hotels in York and Toronto. This included three underage girls from the Markham area. These “charismatic” pimps lured young “girl-next-door” targets with promises of riches and love only to be given drugs, abused, and sometimes sold as property.

This appalling scenario is the backdrop for a series of measures looking to bring the growing issue to light and curtail the abuse.

A May 27 event entitled #ShesNotForSale gathered eight groups dedicated to ending the practice, featuring Katarina McLeod, a survivor of kidnapping, abuse, addiction and human trafficking, who now serves as a trauma councillor. McLeod also works to raise awareness of what she calls “the truth behind this industry.”

A bill, called Saving the Girl Next Door Act 2016, introduced by Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Laurie Scott, is winding its way through provincial legislature seeks to bolster victim protection and invoke tough measures on predators. It also calls for a multi-jurisdictional task force to coordinate an effective offense and share information and best practices. Scott also calls for support from her municipal counterparts. A number of York municipalities have drafted declarations of support including Stouffville, where Ward 5 councillor Iain Lovatt forwarded a motion of support to council which was unanimously endorsed.

Also at the grassroots level fight against the scourge of human trafficking are a couple of events—including an information session at the Whitchurch-Stouffville Library June 16 at 7pm sponsored by the Women’s Support Network of York as well as the May 27 conference at Springvale Church.

One of the Springvale event organizers, Amber Tomkins, says she was inspired to help put together the conference after volunteering with Rahab Ministries, a group that will be at the conference and visits massage parlours and other venues looking to liberate children in the sex trade.

“We truly hope that this event brings awareness more than anything,” says Tomkins. “We believe that many people are completely unaware that this is happening in York Region and what the risks are to our own children and families.”

Citing statistics that show  90 per cent of Ontario trafficking victims are female, 96 per cent experience violent abuse and most are between 15 and 24, the conference organizers also note that to be effective, awareness must be met with action.

“We’ve also invited local organizations who are working to fight this issue, so that at the conclusion of the event those in attendance can speak to the representatives from these organizations and find out how they can get involved. We are hoping that this will become a bit of a ripple effect, where people are compelled to do something,” Tomkins says.

Everyone over 18 is invited to be informed at the no-cost event that will deliver “awareness, prayer, action.”

You can find more information at http://www.shesnotforsale.com/. Learn about Laurie Scott’s bill at http://lauriescottmpp.com/private-members-bills.