Two Lanark County women are on a mission to raise $10,000 for an initiative to support survivors of sex trafficking, a problem they say is not exclusive to big cities.
"When I became more and more aware of [sex trafficking], I could see it more and more in our community, in Ottawa and Lanark County," said Laura Wilcox, who founded the Stir It Up Collective last year. "I started making connections more and more and realized that it's so insidious ... the luring, the brainwashing, the coercion."
It's a painful topic, and we're used to being comfortable. - Laura Wilcox
Wilcox said it's a misconception that sex trafficking only happens in larger cities, and said Ontario Provincial Police have told her they identified approximately 20 victims of sex trafficking in Lanark County in the last year alone.
But she said particularly in small-town Ontario, there can be a stigma surrounding issues such as sexual violence.
"It's a painful topic, and we're used to being comfortable," Wilcox said. "But if we want to heal, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable."
Dispelling myths about sex trafficking
Wilcox said she spends a lot of energy dispelling myths such as, "It doesn't happen in Lanark County or Ottawa or in our neighbourhoods, that it is people who are newcomers." In fact, 93 per cent of sex trafficking victims are Canadian-born, Wilcox said.
Social stigma, trauma and lack of targeted supports can often drive victims back to traffickers, said Wilcox.
The Stir It Up Collective aims to help survivors build career skills, access housing options and find employment in the community.
Since Wilcox began collecting donations to fund the initiative last July, she has raised $5,975, more than halfway toward her goal.
Stigma a barrier
Wilcox's colleague Melissa Kirk, a counsellor with Lanark County Mental Health, believes the stigma around sex trafficking could be a barrier to fundraising.
As a registered social worker, Kirk has worked with survivors of sex trafficking and said many victims already face barriers to education and employment, and are forced into sex work by poverty.
"They needed community and safe spaces and economic autonomy," Kirk said.
She's hoping the Stir It Up Collective can provide survivors with the support and resources they need to break that cycle.
To help, Kirk has decided to run a half-marathon on June 13, with the goal of raising another $2,100 for the initiative — $100 for each kilometre she runs.