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Voices of human trafficking victims and survivors must be heard above all others to elicit change

View full article here: Daily Maverick

Victims’ voices matter. Victims are a vital part of understanding the impact and best responses to exploitation and human trafficking. Their lived experiences offer the most authentic understanding and familiarity of this life-changing criminal practice.

Ajwang’ Warria, Heather Dixon, Margaret Roper, Susan Marx, Mosagoaneng Leteane and Cynderella Chadambuka are researchers on a national counter-trafficking study in South Africa.

Every year, 30 July marks the call by the United Nations and member states as “World Day Against Trafficking in Persons” to raise awareness of trafficking in persons (TIP), but also to advocate for the victims of TIP.

Silence is a key enabler for perpetrators. If victims’ voices are not invited or allowed at the table, nothing changes and the violence goes on.

This year, the theme is “Victims’ voices lead the way”, aiming to put victims at the centre of the campaign. This highlights the significance of victims’ voices, the influence survivor engagement can have and ultimately advocates for victim empowerment.

In this article, the terms victim and survivor are used interchangeably — when researching trafficking in South Africa, the authors have also seen the important distinction raised of the “victim-survivor” continuum and the way in which we refer to victims.

“Victim” is an essential term as it indicates rights violations and that the individuals did not choose these circumstances and cannot and should not be blamed for the trafficking and subsequent events they have experienced. However, the term “victim” does also take away a sense of agency — and does not recognise their agency in seeking help and in escaping these harmful situations.

In our South African trafficking prevalence study, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the South African Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) as part of the Laser-Pulse initiative with Purdue University, some of the trafficked persons overtly expressed that they do not want their trafficking experiences to define the rest of their lives. In addition, they also indicated that they do not want to have excuses made for them, or be stuck with a “victim mindset or mentality”. However, some also expressed that as they are still in the process of healing — they do not quite feel “like survivors” yet. This indicates the need for more adequate terminology, and the recognition that trafficked persons exist on a continuum depending on where they are in their healing and recovery process.

Victims’ voices matter. Victims are a vital part of understanding the impact and best responses to exploitation and trafficking. With their consent and supported active participation, it can be possible for victims to advocate for holistic and sustainable change.

Prioritising the voices of victims and making sure their experiences and opinions contribute towards policy, advocacy and practice are crucial for an effective response to trafficking in South Africa and beyond. This is particularly important to prevent re-traumatisation, stigmatisation or re-victimisation as victims can be met with “ignorance or misunderstanding” as they try to seek help.

Victims’ lived experiences offer the most authentic understanding and familiarity of trafficking. Victims’ voices represent courage, fear, agency, frustration, scepticism, strength and survival. Their varied experiences are meaningful towards informing, shaping and designing responses and services, raising awareness and shaping policy.

Whether the issue is about prevention and early interventions, better protection mechanisms in aftercare facilities, follow-up after reintegration or researching interventions for persons convicted of trafficking and trafficking-related crimes — the perspective of victims is crucial.

Change is happening. In South Africa, Grizelda Grootboom (a trafficking survivor and author of the book Exit) and Mickey Meji (a sex trafficking survivor and founder of Kwanele Survivor Movement) are strong survivor advocates. Their lived experience-based ability to speak “truth to power” is creating waves for change. Their survivor advocacy is empowering and it allows us to see the individuals behind the label of “victim” or “survivor”.

Grizelda and Mickey are leading the way and providing the foundations for other victims to come forward too. However, this can only be possible on a widespread scale, if it is systematised, and embedded in response due to policy backing. It is therefore crucial that the first-hand knowledge of victims, beyond what “should happen” in response, are noted and taken into consideration for policy and practice amendments and operating procedures.

We all have much work to do to foster safe, sensitive and empowering environments for victims in our organisations and in our communities. Below are select examples of how we can ensure that victim voices lead the way:

  • Acknowledge that victim research is crucial in giving a voice to victims’ experiences and needs. It can enable us to fill in knowledge and skills gaps within counter-trafficking initiatives and effect change in legislation, practice and/or policy;

  • When setting a research agenda or an intervention, seek victim engagement respectfully and in a dignified manner eg when formulating goals through researcher-practitioner collaborations;

  • Research recruitment and selection protocols ought to respect the sensitivities and the healing stage and process of the victim;

  • Provide a safe environment where the victim does not feel more vulnerable, judged, belittled or discriminated against;

  • When designing data collection instruments and during the actual data collection, consider sensitivities and be aware of points of intersectionality such as gender, sexuality, race, religion, education and class;

  • Consider your positionality and how that might impact on your interaction with the victim;

  • The medium(s) provided for victims to voice their concerns and add input should be accessible, appropriate, and not cause more harm;

  • Victims need to be able to trust the people they report to. Victims could see a continuous lack of prosecutions of trafficking cases as an indication that they will not be believed;

  • We need to ensure that all voices of different victims, in varied expressions and at different times are heard;

  • We need to assist victims to build their confidence to report. This is because if their initial disclosure is met with negativity, it can result in them not seeking professional help or reporting their abuse;

  • Provide opportunities (including anonymously if required) for child victims to share or report their experiences of exploitation;

  • Practitioners can work with consenting victims to develop anonymous stories that can be shared publicly;

  • Organisations can engage communications and advocacy specialists to share victim stories in different ways, through various media to target different audiences;

  • Simply offer survivors a space to tell their stories, in their own words, and in their own way; and

  • Support survivor-led projects to raise awareness of trafficking, gather allies to listen, amplify survivors’ voices and co-create change with survivors.

Proposed interventions are flawed if they are not based on the experiences of the victims subjected to the exploitation. How can we know if an intervention to tackle trafficking is actually working if we are not engaging victims in the aftercare programmes? How can we tell if the trafficking situation is getting better in South Africa if we are only focusing on the perpetrator? In each of the response spheres, victims need to be listened to, heard, and their experiences and opinions should guide the way.

The voice of the victim can no longer be ignored. We need to shine a light on victims’ lived experiences — their voices are central to making a difference. DM

This work is made possible through support from USAID and the South African Department of Science and Innovation, as a supplement to a USAID Cooperative Agreement #7200AA18CA00009 (Laser-Pulse) to Purdue University. Contents reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of USAID or DSI.

By Ajwang’ Warria, Heather Dixon, Margaret Roper, Susan Marx, Mosagoaneng Leteane and Cynderella Chadambuka

29 July 2021

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