In the remotest part of France in a place that could be described as picture perfect, my colleague and I were introduced to the wonderful and incredibly generous Melanie Pledger and Sharon Bott, who were eager to take us through training that is of huge benefit to Invisible Traffick GB.
There was no such thing as a polite getting-to-know you period, more of a hold-your-nose and dive in scenario, as we jumped headfirst into the Light Up Programme. We were unsure what to expect and apprehensive that the programme would be ‘out there’. And yes it was, it was amazing.
It was so simple and yet so powerful that my vocabulary lets me down. Did I find myself? Yes. Did I already know this stuff? Yes. Mel and Sharon took me on a journey to remember who I am.
Invisible Traffick GB work with survivors of sexual exploitation through human trafficking and the work is difficult to say the least. Light Up gave me an insight into my own strength and I am so excited to show this light to everyone around me. The programme is now set to become a vital part of our organisation for both volunteers and survivors and I am counting the days until I can complete the Activators Course and start helping others to remember who they are too.
In France we met two other women working extremely hard to aid victims of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation and refugees. They too were ‘lighting up’ and were excited to meet us. These wonderful and inspiring women, Emma Crews and Roni Sidwick, are ‘sisters in arms’ in the fight to offer real and meaningful help to people far less fortunate than themselves, and we found we were almost falling over ourselves to share thoughts, experiences and opinions.
What did we find? We found like-minded women of enormous strength and power, full of bravery, humour and compassion. We found a shared sense of outrage and righteous indignation at the plight of so many women (and men), and a mutual passion for our causes.
Emma is the manager of an organisation called Les Ami-e-s Des Femmes de la Libération/On s’en bat les clitos? (The Friends of the Women of the Liberation / we fight the clitos?). She began telling me about some of the challenges she faced in France.
Do you know that in France thousands of women suffer from forced prostitution? Including hundreds of minors, sometimes under the age of 14? These women are victims of human trafficking, most are circumcised, victims of forced marriages. Most of the women that Emma works with are from West Africa, primarily Nigeria.
She explained that most of the women have been through female genital mutilation (FGM) and that she felt not enough was being done to highlight the problem.
Emma stated that the university where she works has a phallic statue of a penis and that it drew lots of attention. “Wouldn’t it be great,” she said, “if we had a statue of a clitoris to draw attention to the plight of these women? It could be a talking point and bring the issue into the media.”
Immediately I phoned my husband in the UK and had the peculiar conversation of, “Ya know you’re an engineer and that you’ve made lots of things, including sculptures and can make anything out of stainless steel?” “Yeah,” he said. “Well do you think you could make a 6ft Clitoris?” “Are you drunk?” was his reply. And then I told him what it was all about and what these women were going through. He knows I’m a bit ‘out there’ when it comes to supporting women who have been trafficked and he agreed.
We set to work. Emma and I were in constant communication about what the statue would look like, what the inspiration would be. She set to work in getting in touch with the head of Poitiers University to gain permission for the statue.
Matthew based the design on a 3D image of a clitoris and began making sketches of how this concept could be made using stainless steel.
The initial idea was that the sculpture would be 5ft high and 4ft wide, made entirely of stainless steel which draws feelings of knives used for performing FGM. It would have a boxy mechanical look to represent the moving part of a machine, that if removed would cause the machine to malfunction. We didn’t want the sculpture to be vulgar in anyway and wanted to show the beauty of the female body, whilst intriguing onlookers and prompting them to wonder, “What is this sculpture? And why is it here?”
Matthew studied as an engineer and ‘served his time’ at Sulzer pumps in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He is self-employed and has worked in the food and drink industry as a pipe fitter for the last 30 years. He has always been creative and began a hobby of making sculptures out of stainless steel several years ago.
Matthew researched FGM and started really feeling the enormity of the issue the women face. He started to make sketches of his idea.
Emma continued to fill out form after form for the University. They really wanted a ‘thread to needle’ account of what was coming to be placed in the grounds of their campus.
They eventually agreed to the initial plans and the actual making of the sculpture began.
The local press in France got hold of the story and Emma wrote a piece about why the statue was so important in the fight against human trafficking and bringing attention to FGM.
A date was set for 25th November 2017, which is The International day against violence to women. The statue would be put in place on the 24th with the inauguration the following day.
From a chance conversation in Mel Pledgers’ garden, this was all becoming real and actually going to happen. We were all very excited.
Emma had also arranged a ‘clitoris’ party for the evening of the big launch. It was all surreal.
Work began and the sculpture started taking shape. Plans were drawn up about the logistics of getting the piece over to France and all the boring bits of detail discussed and finalised.
By the end of November everything had gone to plan and the sculpture was in place. A reporter from BBC radio Leeds came to interview us and wanted to know about how this all came about and what the two organisations were doing to combat human trafficking. It’s been a fantastic adventure and for such an amazing cause. If we can get people talking about these issues then we believe that we are half way there in putting an end to this heinous crime.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the work that a group of ‘normal’ people get involved in.
We’ve had fun making the sculpture and planning the event and the conversations we’ve had have started off as comical and ended in raising awareness.
The world is full of light and goodness and sometimes this light casts shadows to show up the evil. We believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to stand against evil such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation.