For 13 years, I have been championing the fight against the abuse and exploitation of children in Canada and globally, and have learned through my experience w/ some of the most marginalized children, that education is our most powerful preventative weapon. It is cross-cutting, leading to eco growth and the eradication of poverty; improving health and gender equality; and promoting inclusion and social cohesion; participatory citizenship and leadership; and sustainable peace. Yet, 58 M children of primary school age and 69 M children of secondary school age are out of school, and 130 M cannot read/write a single sentence after four years in school.
My success with Air Canada sparked Canada’s CST movement, and was also the influencing factor for the government, nonprofits, airport authorities, consulates, the travel/tourism industry, and law enforcement to collaborate for the first time in 2010, to initiate the first-ever multifaceted nation-wide campaign against CST. In pursuance, OneChild collaborated with child protection actors such as UNICEF Canada, the International Bureau for Children’s Rights, Plan Canada and the Government of Canada in conceptualizing, planning, and executing the campaign. As the lead for OneChild, I worked diligently with them to reach out to the travel/ tourism industry and host forums across Canada to sensitize them to the issue and increase inter-sectoral coordination; held consultations with youth; developed billboards, brochures, magazine inserts, and met with airlines, airports, tour operators, travel agencies, consulates, travel clinics, and tourism schools to ensure direct dissemination of the campaign material, which reached millions.
In an effort to offer young Canadians the opportunity to have their voices heard in the fight to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), I initiated an innovative public education campaign to persuade Air Canada to screen a youth-produced in-flight distinguished itself for providing tens of thousands of youth—including survivors and at-risk youth—with knowledge, skills, tools, opportunities to be co-leaders in the fight against CSEC. OneChild offers PSA that would warn against the legal, social, and humanitarian consequences of traveling for the purposes of CSEC. The campaign was youth-led, and required the circulation of a petition, garnering letters of support from law enforcement and other organizations, presentations in which I drew from my travels in Sri Lanka, and rallying a group of seasoned young activists to star in and produce the PSAs. In 2005, our efforts were rewarded when Air Canada agreed to our request and began screening two in-flight videos on domestic and international flights to a
viewership of over 22 million passengers- a video that has been used by law enforcement agencies and schools; and a campaign that has been hailed as a best practice by the World Tourism Organization’s Task Force for the Protection of Children in Tourism.
My pioneering youth campaign was solely responsible for the Canadian private sector’s first engagement on CST, and sparked Canada’s CST movement, influencing youth, government, law enforcement, travel/tourism, NGOs to collaborate for the first-ever nation-wide campaign raising awareness of
Canada’s extraterritorial legislation, reaching millions.
As a child, my experience in Sri Lanka was the only case when my potential to contribute meaningfully was valued. Frustration was mounting, and after speaking with child survivors in Sri Lanka who expressed their desire to be decision-makers in matters that affect them, I knew I had to act. Speaking with them had left
an indelible mark on me, and taught me a valuable lesson: freedom is more than the absence of exploitation; it’s also having a voice and being listened to.
Outraged, I refused to wait for the next person to act .They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Mine began with a quest for answers. In the coming months, I seized every free moment to research child exploitation and issues such as working children, child soldiers, and children on the streets. But eventually I grew exhausted with my sources. I knew that if I wanted to speak
out on behalf of exploited children, and move other young people to join me, I would need personal stories.
I could only accomplish this by meeting the children behind the facts and figures, hearing their tragic stories of exploitation and abuse, seeing their lives, and asking how young people could help. At 17, I borrowed funds, and took a hiatus of 3.5 months from school, and embarked on a trip to Sri Lanka,
to investigate the flourishing child sex industry ( with almost 40,000 children in prostitution) to conduct an independent investigation. With a camera in tow (sometimes concealed), I made visits to the slums, garbage dumps, streets, and factories known to employ children, and conducted interviews (sometimes at
great risk, under the watchful eyes of perpetrators), with a range of individuals- from exploited children, their families to child advocates, law enforcement, and senior state officials.
It was June, 2001. I was 16 years-old at the time and sitting in my Grade 10 Civics class, rolling my eyes, because we’d been assigned another project, when the weather was warming up and exams and summer break were just around the corner. Begrudgingly, I dragged myself to my local library, and started
leafing through a book. But I didn’t make it past the first few pages, when staring back at me where the words…
On a stage, lit by spotlights, were boys in a line, kids probably twelve to sixteen years old. They were
nothing but skimpy white thongs, a number pinned to each … A boy was ordered like a customer would order a drink, brought to the table by the manager to be checked out.