Published in the Bristol Globe - June 2013
MARYSE SUGIRA and REBECCA MEGSON turn the spotlight on Bristol women who are determined to challenge the despicable treatment faced by many women worldwide
ST Valentine’s Day will never be the same again. This year it saw the start of One Billion Rising, a global campaign against gender-based domestic violence.
It is the latest manifestation of a move dating back to 1998 when a group of women in New York declared 14 February V-Day, for Victory and Vagina as well as Valentine. The idea was to highlight all forms of sexual violence including rape, incest and female genital mutilation.
In Bristol the gauntlet was taken up by Jodi Ahmed who organised ‘flash mobs’ around the city to raise awareness about the number of women hurt and killed by husbands and partners.
“One in four women have been violated in some way,” says Jodi. “You can easily name four close friends, it could be your mum, sisters, aunties, daughters.”
There were big demonstrations across the world, but Jodi was disappointed at poor coverage by the UK media, and appalled to see that when the issue was debated in Parliament only about five MPs were present.
“There is a high percentage of people thinking that domestic violence is something that should not be spoken about,” she says. “But it is not a private matter. Women who have experience domestic violence are frightened, and few speak out when they have been victims.
“There is a lot you can do to support a friend in that situation. Try to restore and increase their self-confidence and self-esteem so they can stand up against domestic violence themselves.”
There is another silent group of women and children in our midst. The police estimate there may be as many as 75 houses in Bristol in which women, and some men, are trafficked for sex.
Gillian Douglas of Bristol City Council’s Safer Bristol project says the true extent of trafficking in the city is unknown. The victims are extremely vulnerable and unlikely to identify themselves. They fear not only their traffickers, but the risk of deportation if identified to the authorities. Some have take great risks to start a new life in Britain.
Frequently they are told they have incurred massive debts for their transport, and to pay them off they are forced into various forms of exploitation. Some are required to guard cannabis farms. Avon & Somerset police found 676 such farms in 2012 alone.
As a major transport hub, with an airport, two mainline railway stations and major roads in all directions, Bristol is an ideal gateway for the traffickers. The international trade in people is estimated to be worth more than £20billion, on a par with drug smuggling and the arms trade. In effect it means there are more slaves in the world today than ever before, and one in eight are in Europe.
There have only been four police investigations locally, but several women have now devoted their lives to the issue. Working in an orphanage in Ukraine, Kate Garbers was horrified to discover that many of the children would end up trafficked into the sex trade. Back in Bristol she set up Unseen, which provides a safe house and support for trafficked women.
Jan Martin is another Bristolian who feels passionately about this sickening trade. She set up a group called Bristol Anti-Sex Trafficking in 2012. “I just can’t be a bystander,” she says. “Even if it takes the rest of my life to change things for just one person, I have to do it.”
Trish Davidson was recovering from a serious illness when she first heard about these modern forms of slavery while attending a talk at her church.
“I was shocked to discover that slavery goes on today, right here in Bristol,” she says. “I felt a calling. I had to get involved and do something about it.”
Trish set up Unchosen, an anti-trafficking charity to promote awareness through film campaigns. “I was incredibly impressed with film as a medium for getting a difficult, challenging message across,” she said.
A filmmaking competition run by Unchosen will screen its winning entries during Anti-Slavery Week in October.
Jan Martin’s group have held some dramatic ‘happenings’ including painting a mural and holding a demonstration opposite one of the city’s many massage parlours – often a front for prostitution.
Thanks to these women and their supporters, the city council now has an anti-trafficking officer to galvanise authorities and rescue agencies to work together.
Meanwhile Jodi Ahmed and her friends hope to put together a scheme which will allow them to go into schools to talk about domestic violence. As she says, the future is the the hands of the new generation.