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Fostering Survivor Empowerment and Collective Action

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

By Winnie Mutevu, Advocacy and Partnerships Development Manager and Dorothee Hasskamp, Technical advisor, HAART Kenya

A year ago, a group of Kenyan businesswomen, entrepreneurs, employees and parents - most of them women - came together in a park in Nairobi. They met in a lush green environment to exchange ideas on how to strengthen the movement against human trafficking based on their own experiences. They had been invited by the Kenyan NGO Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) to assemble and brainstorm their own ideas, needs and vision for countering human trafficking, a crime they all survived through. Since that first meeting, HAART has continued to support this group of ‘survivor advocates’, as the activists chose to call themselves. The experience demonstrated that supporting survivors through direct assistance in accordance with their individual needs goes a long way in their self-empowerment. It also proves the great synergies that can be drawn from enabling networking among survivors. However, building such networks requires material resources, particularly in the form of adequate funding. Unfortunately, funding ends with the end of service provision, and as a result survivors are reduced to sharing their experience over and over again. Opportunities like the Survivor Leadership Programme open up a horizon that can change the way advocacy is put into practice, and make the anti trafficking movement truly inclusive.

The Survivor Leadership Programme which was built on trust that had grown over a longer cooperation between organisation and participants, offering safety and provision to survivors of trafficking, often shortly after their escape or rescue, is at the core of what the organisation does. Most participants from that inaugural meeting had previously received economic empowerment training and financial support to start their own business of choice. For those who wished, psychosocial support or therapy were available. Often, as part of the programme, basic needs are covered during the first few months, including medical care, rent or shelter, food, and school fees for children of survivors. It is, of course, a happy day to look forward to when this support is no longer needed, but it also limits interactions between the organisation and survivors.

“Before we started this programme, our ways would part at the end of the direct assistance”, reflects Mercy Otieno who is leading HAART’s Protection Department and is in charge of the Survivor Leadership Program. “Once participants successfully settled in their daily lives and did not experience major setbacks, we would hardly meet again. With the Survivor Leadership Program, we witness how the people we met in a situation of great distress, now flourish in their lives, many of them full of energy and willing to dedicate themselves to protecting other victims. Staying connected with them beyond mere service provision gives inspiration and hope to our team as well.”

While the significance of economic empowerment is widely agreed by survivors and communities, many find it harder to accept psychological support. However, those who do, emphasise its lasting value. Two members of the group affirm that without therapy, they probably would not be active as survivor advocates today.

"The psychological therapy I received from HAART made it possible for me to accept what I have been through. I know that it was not my fault that I was trafficked and that I am not to be judged negatively by society. Today I can speak about my experience of human trafficking without going back to trauma. It is as if with every time that I speak about it, I can release a bit more of it”, reports Mercy, one of the survivor advocates. Margaret, a beauty professional and advocate, shares her thoughts, “When I meet a victim of exploitation or violence, I speak to her and, based on my own experience, I recommend that she go to therapy. Many victims do not want to see a therapist. But it really helped me so I tell her to try it …”

Since that first meeting, the group has come up with a list of capacity building needs that the organisation supports them with, partly from their own internal expertise, with some requiring help from external experts - something that also echoes back to the organisation. Security issues are among the top priorities of the group, and this inspired the organisation to seek updates from experts on this issue. The group has moved far beyond the widespread expectation of survivors to share their personal experiences. They comment and advise on policies and prevention measures, engage in research projects on human trafficking, facilitate awareness workshops, participate in international conferences, as well as grassroot events. And while all of them say that it is the personal experience that motivates them to join the counter trafficking movement and remain active, they have removed themselves from the pressure of expectation to share their experiences in public.

However, not all participants from the first meeting remained active in the programme. Some found it was not for them. And for others who were interested in staying on, economic difficulties meant they had to prioritise their own businesses. That the Survivor Leadership Program allows for financial recompensation and honoraries is a precondition for all survivor advocates to afford these activities over that last year. The survivor advocates have affirmed that HAARTs individually implemented, needs-based economic and psychosocial empowerment go a long way. If more of such initiatives can be offered, including increased donor awareness of the importance of programs and activities beyond service provision, as well as support for networking among survivors who are active against trafficking, to build their capacities for decisive roles in the movement, and to create more spaces for them in organisations, we will be able to form a movement that is more inclusive, (self-)empowering, and effective.

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