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'Survivor Voice' is more than public speaking: How 8.7 Network members support survivors' voices

By Rebecca Bosy, Communications and Media Intern, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)

COVID-19 has drastically exacerbated vulnerabilities to contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking. Armed conflicts, including the recent war in Ukraine, have also driven displacement, further fuelling exploitation. At least 1 out of 150 people in the Commonwealth are living in conditions of modern slavery.

The voices of survivors of contemporary forms of slavery and human trafficking hold immense power and can help us as we innovate and respond to these challenges. By sharing their experiences and insight, survivors can prevent others from falling victim to the same traps, can advise on new relevant legislation, can inspire practical policy change, and can influence decision-makers at local, national, and global levels. To establish an effective, victim-centred approach to slavery and trafficking, it is essential that we listen to, and learn from, survivors.

On 31 March 2022, the Commonwealth 8.7 Network hosted the webinar ‘Survivor Voice’, the first in a series of Survivor Empowerment Workshops. Commonwealth 8.7 Network members Sally Irwin, founder of the Freedom Hub in Australia, and Sophie Muriuki, clinical psychologist at Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) in Kenya, shared their insights and expertise on how to meaningfully mainstream the voices of survivors throughout the work of civil society organisations, their internal decision making, and their external advocacy.

Survivors of human trafficking can experience stigmatisation, receive inadequate support, and/or face revictimisation. The Freedom Hub offers long-term care to survivors of human trafficking. At its Survivor School, survivors learn life skills and receive mentoring, support and professional care. When speaking on models for survivor leadership and voice, Sally Irwin emphasised that what we think of as “survivor voice” is not just about public speaking. “Survivors need to feel safe and listened to,” she said, adding that it is vital that survivors learn how to share their thoughts and experiences in safe settings before they engage in any kind of public speaking.

Survivors lending their voices and sharing their stories with the media is something for which the Freedom Hub gets regular requests. Ms Irwin recalls a survivor, who had been out of slavery and trafficking circumstances for many years, freezing shortly before stepping on a stage to speak publicly about their experiences. “Suddenly I was a victim again,” the survivor told Ms Irwin. “I was straight back there. And I don’t want to be there.”

The Freedom Hub recognises that trauma is complex and multifaceted, and even if survivors themselves consider ‘recovered’, retraumatisation may occur, no matter how well survivors have prepared or how many healthy coping mechanisms they have at their disposal. As such, the Freedom Hub also focuses on other ways beyond public advocacy through which survivors can share their voice and influence. In 2021, the organisation launched its Survivor Advisory Board, which provides survivors who have been through significant recovery processes, a medium by which they can engage with the media, academia, and the Australian government anonymously and on their terms. Here, survivors – who have been out of slavery circumstances for more than ten years – have the opportunity to make statements and answer media interview questions, as well as comment on and input into government policy. Currently there are 10 survivors on the Board who are effectively advising the Australian government on modern slavery and border control policies.

Sophie Muriuki, is a clinical psychologist at HAART, a Kenyan organisation that works with local partners and volunteers across four thematic areas: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. It works with survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking from both abroad and internally in Kenya, utilising a trauma-informed and victim-centred approach to encourage healing and rehabilitation. Ms Muriuki shared how trauma-informed approaches support and amplify survivors’ voices.

Trauma-informed services incorporate an understanding of the impact violence and psychological trauma has on the lives of survivors. Ms Muriuki explained that in trauma-informed therapy, clients themselves drive the process. “There is no textbook approach to it. We must understand where each and every client is coming from, and think outside the box, adapting the therapy to each individual, letting them decide what is best.” She also emphasised the importance of considering survivors’ lives outside of the psychological trauma. Are they eating and sleeping? Do they have a stable and secure income? What are they worried about regarding their near future? Clients’ immediate needs must take precedence, and they are responded to first.

Ms Muriuki suggested that to better prepare survivors who wish to speak out publicly, trauma-informed care-givers can arrange mock media events, where staff play the role of journalists. This can be vital for survivors to decide which approach works best for them – formal or informal, recorded or not, whether it involves cameras, and in which setting the interview will take place. It is important to always practise caution and identify triggers. Survivors also need to be aware of how the media may sensationalise stories about human trafficking, and that they may not be prepared for what lies ahead. She emphasised that there are other ways for survivors to contribute to change, if a media event is not the best option for them.

Survivor voice can mean many things – from driving influencing government policy, to public awareness raising, to ensuring that survivors feel safe enough to step forward in a healing process with a qualified psychologist, to sharing experiences with other survivors, or educating people at risk. In any case, it is vital to always ensure survivors have the information and capacity to make informed decisions – about their care, about sharing their experiences, and about engaging with the media and with policymakers.

CHRI hosted the second event in this series on 27 April 2022, which focused on Sustainable Survivor Empowerment. There will be a final Survivor Empowerment Workshops on 17 May 2022. Please get in touch if you would like to partake, we would love to see you there!

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