"An empowered survivor makes traffickers vulnerable"
Malaika Oringo from Uganda is the founder and CEO of Footprint to Freedom
, a survivor-led organization that believes the only way to eradicate human trafficking is by giving survivors a voice and the opportunity to lead. She is also a member of the International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC). For the past 17 years, Malaika has been intensively involved in the fight against human trafficking, as a representative of the Salvation Army at the EU Affairs Office in Brussels and more recently as a global consultant on anti-human trafficking efforts. She campaigns for victims' rights and works to strengthen survivor inclusion and engagement in decision-making processes. Malaika has a special interest in her home country Uganda and in the neighbouring countries of Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania and also in Burundi. Her East Africa Programme
supports survivors of human trafficking who have returned home to reclaim their lives and raises awareness of human trafficking among vulnerable communities.
This is her story.
I decided to enter this field because I'm passionate about fighting for social justice and standing up for those who cannot speak for themselves. I feel it's my calling.
Being a survivor of human trafficking gave me more reason to advocate on behalf of survivors especially after getting my freedom almost 17 years ago.
I realized that freedom is more than the moment of exiting from slavery, freedom is rather an ongoing journey and a process which requires continuous support from all stakeholders including survivor leaders.
Moreover, I joined this field because I believe my freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom of others. I use my experience to promote best practices, to bridge policy gaps and offer services to educate, inspire and empower.
I'm not a stereotypical survivor, because I'm not defined by my victim's past, but instead I carry my victim's scares as a badge of honour, as an inspiration to other survivors that there is life at the end of the tunnel.
I turned a bad experience into something positive. Today, I'm using the pain from my past to lead others out of exploitation. I've given my invisible scars a place where it no longer hurts and have turned the pain into wisdom.
It's almost 17 years now since my exploitation ended. I can say that there's no ending date for recovery, the healing journey is a process. Nevertheless, mentally, I don't suffer as much. Physically, I'm healthier than ever before, spiritually, I still have triggers and bad dreams, but I wake up knowing I'm safe.
When I was 15, I was living in Kampala and my mother died. I needed support and went to find a family member at a camp for displaced people. A man approached me. It was obvious I was new to the camp and wasn't sure where to go.
The man was white, a European. He was dressed like an aid worker and carrying a bible.
I told him my story, and he said there were people in his country who would help me go to school.
I was naïve, I believed him. I had even prayed to God to help me and thought this man was my saviour. I needed to trust someone. He even told me not to tell anyone, because he only had a place for one person and if others knew about this opportunity, they would want to come too.
He got me a passport and we went by car to Kenya then flew to Luxembourg. I was very excited. At the airport, he handed me over to two men and two women and I never saw him again. We then went by car to Amsterdam.
I realized I'd been deceived when the pimp who the trafficker sold me to said that I am 'his property' and I 'owe him a lot of money'. I was exploited for around a year.
I became very sick, and since the traffickers did not take me to hospital, they dumped me on a roadside in winter with no jacket. I was found and placed in a safe house for minors.
The support was short-lived. Just like in most countries, the duration of the assistance offered is linked to the ongoing trafficking investigation. When it stopped the support stopped too. This sudden removal of rights, support, and legal discrimination exposed me to re-victimization and gender-based violence.
The trafficker was never convicted. I was rushed into the process of victim identification and didn't get enough time to reflect. I was in a shock, I blamed myself and I didn't identify myself as a victim, because I didn't understand what human trafficking was.
I had no rights to medical care, accommodation, and schooling for over 10 years. This left me on the verge of being re-trafficked. I faced stigma and loneliness.
When I was 18, I had to leave the accommodation for minors and was helped by the church. I started speaking out about my experience and at one event when I was 19, I said that all I wanted was to go school.
I was approached by a Dean of a private university and he offered me a scholarship. I was supported further by some other teachers and the church. Today I have a bachelors and a master's degree.
Countries should strengthen support for victims and provide long-term support for survivors there's no quick fix to recovery. A lot of survivors must deal with the aftermaths of their exploitation without sufficient help.
My surviving experience also made me realize that survivors are speaking, but they are not being heard. There are gaps in how survivors are positioned in the anti-human trafficking field.
Survivors are being re-exploited because to most organizations they're a currency for donations and for marketing. So, survivors are reduced to being just the story and dehumanized in the process.
The United Nations should foster survivor engagement and inclusion among its Member States in research, policy, and integration intervention decisions.
Most human trafficking legislation is passed without hearing from those people who have actually been impacted by the crime.
We can't talk about partnership, collaboration, and policies as fundamental international frameworks to combat human trafficking without including survivor leaders as stakeholders.
I can acknowledge that in recent years, progress has been made to include survivors. But, it's still quite unusual for the voices of survivors to feature significantly in international trafficking debates.
Yet survivors' voices are very vital in establishing effective anti-trafficking strategies that address prosecution, protection, and prevention
The survivor's narrative is significant in crafting the right policies and practices because survivors know first-hand how human traffickers operate and which strategies they use to bond victims to slavery.
Survivors know about the traffickers' recruitment strategies, their grooming practices, their violent tendencies, their weaknesses, their mentality, the tactics they use to escape the law.
Survivors should be at every decision-making table from the community level to national and international levels. They should hold equal powers in making decisions on how to combat trafficking and how to serve and support those victimized by it.
Survivor scholarships should be provided so survivors can have success in careers of their choice. There should be safe housing and trauma-informed services, access to safe employment. Without these, survivors of human trafficking remain vulnerable to the cycle of exploitation.
For organizations working directly with survivors, be aware of tokenism inclusion of survivors. Find ways better ways to engage survivors as partners in your organization with paid positions.
More needs to be done to address human trafficking as a form of gender-based violence. I fell prey to human trafficking because of the demand for gender-specific exploitation, driven by male exertion of power and control over women and the fascination of sexually exploiting young girls.
To date women and girls are being trafficked for: sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, "contractual" marriage to mention a few. These listed purposes of trafficking are typical gender-stereotypes of work and often driven by male desire to control over women, thereby increasing their risk of gender-based violence.
My message to victims of human trafficking is this: what words describe who you are beyond the trauma you have experienced?
Focus on finding that person. I believe survivors can heal. It might take some time but there is life at the end of the tunnel and remember you are not defined by your traumatic experience you can rise above it and reclaim your purpose.
Be careful in the way you share your story, so that you won't be re-traumatized, and when you are psychologically and emotionally ready to speak up or advocate, I urge you to turn your experience into wisdom. I know, today that if I had not done anything with my trauma, my purpose would have been misguided. Dare to dream, find your purpose, claim it.
Survivors are so much more than the trauma they've endured. We can't undermine how badly human trafficking affects victims. I'm proud to be able to be in a position that allows me to create change.