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Redefining Survivor Empowerment

By Robyn Philips, Director of Operations, Human Trafficking Foundation

I can't tell you what survivor empowerment means to a survivor of human trafficking, but from my own learnings, survivor empowerment means recognising survivors of trafficking as more than their lived experience.

Organisations often risk defining people who have experienced human trafficking by their victimhood, and, as such, may overlook the skills and interests, past achievements and future goals that an individual has. As the sector moves more towards co-working with people with lived experience, we must remember that everyone has more to say than their story.

Recently I was an observer in a meeting with a social worker, a university student, an aspiring midwife, and a former teacher who all had lived experience of human trafficking and were participants in a consultation run by an organisation looking to hear from survivors for a report they were working on.

Despite providing a list of questions to prepare for, these questions weren’t asked, and instead the consultants were asked to say why they were there. Some of the consultants answered the question at face value – ‘I’m in the room today to contribute to the consultation’. Others answered by recounting their experience of human trafficking.

There may have been consultants in the room who told their story because they felt empowered by doing so. Telling one’s story can be a cathartic experience, giving someone an opportunity to control their own narrative. But it can also be a draining experience, especially if one has had to tell their story multiple times, and can lead to dissociation and reliving of trauma. It can also be triggering for those sharing the space who may have had similar experiences.

My concern is if the consultants recounted their story, not because they wanted to, but because they felt it was expected of them. People who work in this space who have a learnt, rather than lived experience, of human trafficking have a responsibility to change this notion and empower survivors to know they have more to contribute than their story. By inviting consultants to talk from their experience about what is working in the current system and the processes they would put in place to make a change, consultants are recognised for their unique perspective and can meaningfully shape the response to human trafficking.

A member of the Lived Experience Advisory Panel once told us that for them to take part in a consultation, they want more than just remuneration. They need to know that their input has been valued and tangible action is going to come from it.

The Human Trafficking Foundation has learnt so much, and continues to learn and adapt our approach, through working with the Lived Experience Advisory Panel. In the UK, anti-trafficking organisations are behind other sectors in working alongside people with lived experience. It may take time to get it right, and we need to acknowledge and be patient with this; we can learn and adapt together. Lived experience is not a resource or data to be extracted, and it’s much more than recounting one’s story. If your organisation is looking to work with people with lived experience, the first question to ask yourself is Why? If you struggle to answer this, then perhaps consider how the organisation views lived experience, reflect on the power dynamics at play and how these can be rebalanced, and how co-working could benefit consultants with lived experience as well as the organisation. Tick-box exercises aren’t empowering for anyone.

Robyn Phillips is Director of Operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation which provides administrative support to the Lived Experience Advisory Panel (LEAP), established to ensure the expertise of those with lived-experience is embedded in the work of the anti-trafficking sector. The LEAP is made up of independent consultants who co-work on commissioned projects and training requests from the sector.

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