In times of adversity, realising we are not alone can be a truly empowering and inspiring thing; and the mere knowledge that there are others who share in our suffering is often quite liberating. It is no wonder, then, that solidarity – in terms of communal struggle and a community of experience or purpose – is usually a catalyst for action. And that is what Ally’s story is about: solidarity for survival.

Ally, now a 27-year-old public speaker, activist and mother, at age 16 suffered sexual exploitation at the hands of a notorious Internet sexual predator in her homeland of Canada. At the time, as with most teenagers, Ally was struggling with issues of identity and with family, so the Internet became a place of solace – where she could connect anonymously with strangers and receive the kind of attention she felt was lacking in her day-to-day life.

Yet the Internet, although useful in many regards, can also be a dark and dangerous place. Over the course of a few months, lonely Ally was lured into an online relationship with an innocent-seeming young man who showered her with attentiveness and kindness. It would turn out that he lived close to her Grandmother’s house and one evening, against her better judgment, Ally decided to honour an invitation. She went to Mark’s place, but the fateful visit ended with Ally getting sexually assaulted.

A couple days after the assault, Mark resurfaced, telling Ally that if she went to the police he would “share pictures of her with the world” – and so she remain silent. For many months after, Ally was terrorised by her abuser – he blackmailed her, stalked her online, harassed her and hacked into her computer. She went an entire year living in shame, alone with her stifling secret. Depression set in and Ally became suicidal, which led to her abusing drugs and engaging in other self-destructive behaviour.

At work one morning, about a year after the worst night of her life, Ally opened the newspaper to find the face of her tormenter plastered all over the front page. He had apparently been caught and was being charged with multiple counts of online sexual assault, blackmail, child pornography and many other crimes. It was at this point that Ally realised she was not the only one who had been victimised and who was forced to live with the fear, shame and stigma that comes with being sexually violated.

She immediately decided that it was time to act. “Knowing he had been caught meant that I could be believed”, Ally says. As the only victim the predator had physically touched, Ally knew that her testimony would be crucial and instrumental in his prosecution. She went to the police. For the next two years, Ally would go from trial to trial in an attempt to help put the dangerous predator behind bars and get justice for his innocent victims.

Her offender was eventually imprisoned, albeit only for a few years. In the couple years it took before Ally was able to get a semblance of justice for the violent crime committed against her and many other children, Ally became an unrelenting advocate against child exploitation and abuse. Using her personal experience as an example, she began advising law enforcement officers in Canada, specifically those who worked on cases of online child sexual exploitation. She has spoken at a number of major conferences, including at the Canadian Parliament on a bill to protect citizens from online exploitation.

The knowledge that others have and continue to endure the pain she suffered serves as a daily motivation for Ally. She now gives talks at schools, counselling young people on issues of sexual violence, online exploitation and abuse. In her view,

being a survivor is about learning to cope.

I am a survivor because I am still here,

Ally says, in reference to the numerous other victims who have taken their own lives as a consequence of abuse and exploitation. “It is hard to be a survivor”, she says, because “I put so much effort into it and people”, although she readily admits that she won’t have it any other way.

An undoubtedly driven person, Ally believes that “you need to have some sort of passion in life. I have a passion to live.” She would like to become a law enforcement officer in the near future, and has already started working towards this. She wants to be an officer who works directly with young people and is passionate about “eliminating the stigma” that results from being sexually violated.

Ally is committed to creating a better world, especially now that she has a daughter, stating that she

hopes the world [her daughter] grows up in is safe for her and people around her.

Ally also wants societies to “begin considering the economic impacts” of sexual violence and exploitation, specifically in terms of the cost to taxpayers of jail time for perpetrators and therapy for both victims and offenders. She wants communities to begin engaging in conversation around the creation of more effective ways of dealing with the problem, as opposed to “throwing a band-aid on it”.

Ally regards the upcoming Global Survivors Forum organised by the ECPAT International network in collaboration with the Council of Europe (CoE) as a potential “opportunity for change and progress”, and welcomes the prospect of engaging with lawmakers. She hopes the deliberations will spark a genuine interest on the part of decision makers in eliminating this global epidemic, and is excited to share her ideas and knowledge with the other survivors, experts and activists.