Fighting to end human trafficking: a story of survival

Rayanne Irving was drawn into sex trafficking at age of 16 and spent six months in the streets of Vancouver working as a prostitute and being raped. (Credit: Rayanne Irving)

You may have already seen the faces on the trams of Geneva, part of a campaign launched by Youth Underground, a Swiss-based non-profit organisation, to raise awareness of young victims during a month dedicated to campaigns against human trafficking. Rayanne Irving spent six months on the streets of Vancouver, one of those victims of traffickers. Based in Canada, she shared her story over video with Geneva Solutions.

“All I ever wanted as a child was to get lost in the meadows and ride the wings of fairy tales. But life had other plans for me. The evil of others has stolen more than its fair share of my innocence.”

At 34, Rayanne Irving can finally say she is a survivor of human trafficking. She spent six months as a teenager, forced to work for street gangs and pimps. Today she works as a performance horse trainer, a childhood passion that has also been therapeutic and helped her recover. But her work also brings back painful memories. Raised on a farm in Langley, Canada, horses have always been an escape from her childhood demons. A child of Indiginous parents, she watched her Iroquoi father struggle with a drug addiction and leave her mother to be the sole provider.

“Four years ago, when presented with the word ‘groomed’, my thoughts would flow towards my career as a performance horse trainer,” she said. “Then, like a shot, [the words would hit me]: Grooming, human trafficking, the sex slave trade…At the age of 16, I myself had been thoroughly ‘groomed’ by a street gang into a prostitute.”

Descent into hell. Rayanne had to leave behind the family farm, together with her horses and cowboy boots, after her father neglected her on too many occasions to get high. Fostered to family members who did not pay attention to her, she says she lost all sense of stability in her life.

“The lack of love left me susceptible to gang life. When I was approached by a bunch of cunning street kids who knew how to befriend me, giving me what I wanted, which was attention, love and a safe place to sleep at night, I didn't have any defenses. That was essentially how I was drawn into sex trafficking.”

Gangs were rife in Vancouver and in 1998, the streets were bloody from drug wars. She says her then boyfriend not only raped her but then drugged and shared her with his friends. It was not difficult to convince a young girl who knew nothing about sex or how to recognise abuse, to parade night after night on the hard streets of East Side Hastings, she said. A female recruiter took advantage of the violence that had shaped her childhood and sexuality, and expertly groomed her, she recalls.

Six months of street life. Rayanne tried to escape but stayed in the area. Her second pimp was even worse. He kept her in a basement and tortured her “with the threat of death, dismemberment, rape and the possibility of being sold to another one”.

“He would make nooses in front of me, and heat up hot knives waving them in my face during his drug-fuelled interrogations.”

She would again escape only to fall into the hands of another pimp, with no less than five of them raping and beating her until near-death, she said. When Rayanne finally understood she needed to get out or she was going to be killed, she called an outreach worker who had given her his card and helped her leave the area and remove herself from the whole environment, the gangs, the friends and the family.

A long way to heal. It took a long time for Rayanne to heal and decide to share her story to Youth Underground, three years back. “Had an organisation like Youth Underground been around in the 1990s when there was not a lot of conversation around sex and sex trafficking was thought as prostitution, my relationship with my family would have been different and a lot of assumptions that were made that I had been a hooker would have been avoided,” she said.

She claims that a few other organisations even exploited her story to raise funds. When she turned to doctors to get care she was denied any help and told not to talk about her experience, she says. After she was tested for STDs and HIV, she was sent away. She turned to a friend who abused her, tying her to a four-poster bed for a whole day, she recalls. This is when she began smoking heroin. During eight months she did not know any better than to  “deaden her agony”.

Rayanne spent 15 years believing her sexual servitude was her own doing.

“I remember looking in the mirror, days after the first time that my boyfriend not only raped me, but then drugged me and shared me with his friends; my war wounds, the bruises around my neck, across my back and rib cage...all began to fade. And as they receded, it became easier and easier to convince myself it had been my fault, that I was being overly dramatic, and virginity wasn't a big deal. That moment in the mirror became the tip of the iceberg.”

The tools of a survivor. Her childhood dream of becoming a horse performer definitely aided her healing journey, she says. Rayanne also became a Muay Thai kickboxing fighter and studied stress-relief techniques. She now hopes to help other victims of sexual violence, abuse, exploitation and trafficking with a podcast, Focus Forward, and works in the summer for a risk youth camp for kids in Camino ranch.

“We have to educate our children but also heal ourselves as parents. We have to learn to have the hard conversations, share the traumas we have inherited. When we start to address the systemic oppression, racism, poverty, and our wounds, that’s when we will see a shift in the culture.”

A childhood passion, horses also helped Rayanne to overcome her trauma (Photo: Rayanne Irving)

She believes children need to be involved in discussions to help them recognise when or if somebody is attempting to exploit, hurt, manipulate or traffic them. Providing them with a platform gives them the power to talk when it occurs and the tools to become aware, allies and advocate for themselves and other children.

“Too many parents are in survival mode just trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage and minimise inappropriate gestures, even turning them into jokes and leaving their children in terrible places and prey to abuse.”

This is why Rayanne is a firm believer in self-empowerment. She was raised to be independent and self-reliant, leading her to seek out love but also knowing that she had to be her own hero.

“There are times in between the darkest of nights… when the little girl, my other self, holds my broken pieces together and they slowly mend with her encouragement. She loves me for every shape I have taken in her defense, every fault that has cracked but never shattered me.”