Cheryl Perera’s OneChild Seeks To Break The Chains Of Child Sex Slavery

By Steve McLean 12/6/11 |

Cheryl Perera with at-risk Brazilian children
Cheryl Perera with at-risk Brazilian children
Toronto's Cheryl Perera was appalled when she learned about the child sex trade in Bangkok, Thailand during a high school civics class. But she soon turned her disgust into action as she convinced her parents and school principal to allow her to go to Sri Lanka on her own for three-and-a-half months when she was 17 so she could see what was happening first-hand with child sex slaves, and ended up going undercover in a sting operation to arrest a sexual predator.

"I was able to put myself in the shoes of a child," Perera, now 26, told after a recent presentation at Toronto's Upper Canada College. "And even for that short time, I was able to understand what it's like to have your childhood commodified. That gave me a whole new resolve to do even more."

Perera founded OneChild, an organization to inspire youth to take action against child sex slavery, in 2005. That was the year she also launched a successful petition campaign that convinced Air Canada to show an in-flight video to sensitize passengers to the social, humanitarian and legal consequences of engaging in child sex tourism. More than 22 million people have now viewed that low-budget video created by OneChild.

It's estimated that 1.2 million children around the world are sold into slavery every year, and that two million children are involved in the global sex trade. It's perhaps most prevalent in Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and Brazil, but goes on in North America as well.

"We want to make sure that people know that kids are trafficked into Canada and out of Canada," says Perera. "Then we'd like to start work on an actual project to help children who have been trafficked in Canada."

OneChild raised $187,000 to build two rehabilitation centres for victims of the child sex trade in the Philippines, and more awareness is being created through its four-step "Break the Chains" program that individuals or groups can complete in five consecutive weekdays.

OneChild is doing remarkable things considering that it's an entirely volunteer-run organization headquartered at Perera's Markham, Ont. home, where her mother Trixie now dedicates all of her time to the cause. They are applying for registered charity status, but Free The Children issues tax receipts on its behalf to those who wish to make donations.

Perera usually travels to investigate child sex trade hot spots during the summer and flies to Switzerland, where she's completing her master's degree in children's rights at the University of Fribourg, half-a-dozen times a year. She spends much of the rest of her time lobbying and making presentations at schools -- sometimes as many as four in a day -- as the focus of OneChild's outreach is on students from grade seven to university level.

Cheryl Perera prepares to go undercover
Cheryl Perera prepares to go undercover
"We're willing to talk to anybody who is willing to listen to us, from inner city schools to private schools to anybody," says Perera.

Perera - dressed all in black, including her "Break The Chains" T-shirt -- gave a polished yet passionate presentation full of both enthusiasm and sobering stories and statistics at Upper Canada College. That dedication to the cause was just as evident during the post-presentation interview for about a new campaign to deglamourize the image of the pimp in popular culture.

"We want guys to think twice about the whole idea of pimping and walking around on Halloween with a pimp hat and a pimp cane, and these music videos where men are draped with women," explains Perera. "It's not as it seems."

OneChild collaborates with such like-minded international organizations as PREDA Foundation and Ending Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, as well as Plan Canada and the Montreal-based International Bureau for Children's Rights.

"Bad things happen when good people do nothing," says Perera. "We believe in working in solidarity with others. In the end, we want to present this as a united front. More people, more power.

"We really need to put pressure on our own government and other governments to stop this trafficking and be more proactive and close the gaps and loopholes in legislation that allow these people to keep operating like this. Then there's fundraising and supporting the kids who have been exploited and supporting those projects, organizations and frontline workers in prevention issues and rehabilitation issues so we can help those kids rebuild their lives.

"Those kids have been abused and, if we don't intervene, they can grow up to become abusers themselves and start pimping out their own brothers and sisters. The cycle will just continue. It needs to be cut. It comes down to awareness, advocacy and providing support in terms of finances."

Perera will continue to focus on growing OneChild once she finishes her master's degree, but says she could someday see herself working with other admirable organizations like Save The Children or UNICEF.

"I know I'll always work in the field of child protection and protecting the most vulnerable and exploited children, whether it's prostitution or child soldiers or child labourers."

International Conference on Child Rights
Cheryl Perera serves on a panel at the International Conference on Child Rights, commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the United Nation's adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child

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