Survivor Inclusion in Anti-Trafficking Work

(Originally Published on

What is survivor inclusion?

January is human trafficking awareness month. During this time, we as a global community focus on raising awareness for the dire situation faced by survivors and communities threatened by exploitation, trafficking, and slavery around the world.

Over the last few years, the calls for meaningful inclusion of survivors’ perspectives and the inclusion of survivors in leadership positions have increased. But what does that mean?

What is the ideal framework for including the perspectives and lived experiences of survivors and communities at risk as we determine the future path of the movement?

If we consider the various elements of the anti-trafficking community working to end exploitation and trafficking, is it possible to visualize the extent to which survivor perspectives and the lived experiences of survivors and communities at risk are currently included in the movement?

Since the anti-trafficking movement features significant diversity in beliefs, values, and practices, it is difficult to understand the current level of survivor inclusion across the industry.

My understanding (based on observation, not academic research) of the current levels of survivor inclusion and the weight of their influence is illustrated in the graphic below.

The best-case scenario for survivor inclusion in this model is reflected in the graphic below.

Within an ideal adoption of this framework, the experiences of survivors and the needs of communities at risk receive equal weight in the design of programs alongside other factors like academic research, public policy, NGO practices, and practitioner knowledge. Chances are, we have not actually reached this level of inclusion across the anti-trafficking movement.

While we as a movement have definitely made progress toward inclusion, the following questions must be asked.

  • Is the scaling of this model/dynamic going to lead to a more significant number and percentage of successful outcomes for survivors?
  • Is this the ideal framework for including and prioritizing the needs and perspectives of survivors and communities at risk?

These graphics illustrate that survivor and community voices are usually dis-integrated from those of other voices, even when they are of equal weight. But not all voices should be given equal weight. Survivor and community voices should be integral to the perspectives of all other sectors.

In other words, academic evidence is essential but if it is not rooted in the lived experiences of survivors and communities then it remains merely theoretical. Practitioner knowledge may be based on years of practice but unless it addresses the expressed needs of the specific survivors and/or communities a practitioner is serving then it is neutral at best and harmful at worst.

Research that prioritizes understanding the experiences of survivors and communities threatened by exploitation is just beginning to be published in meaningful amounts. Survivor perspectives are far from the dominant voice in the sector.

Let’s return to the original question posed above.

What is the ideal framework for including the perspectives and lived experiences of survivors and communities at risk in determining the future path of the movement?

I propose that in an ideal world, the role of survivor and community voices in determining best practices and the future path of the movement is best represented by the diagram below.

Venn Diagram of the ideal framework for survivor inclusion and communities at risk in the anti-trafficking sector.

Within this framework, academic evidence, public policy, practitioner knowledge, and NGO practice all function within the confines of a complex understanding of survivor experiences, both pre-exploitation and post-exploitation, and the needs of communities at risk of being exploited, trafficked or enslaved.

If these elements of knowledge, policy, and practice operate independently of the experiences of survivors and local communities, they are less likely to meet the felt needs of these groups and lead to successful outcomes.

Our target for success cannot be to simply remove a person from their exploitative situation and hope for a successful outcome. To effectively improve the circumstances of survivors, we must understand the circumstances that resulted in their exploitation and what they believe they need to be successful in their recovery and reintegration. The same is true for communities threatened by exploitation. We need to listen to them and understand what they believe are the most significant risk factors that lead to exploitation.

In both cases, academic research, NGO practices, specialized care, and social support practices are most relevant and most effective within a complex understanding of the specific context where they are being applied. That complex understanding must be localized and based on the lived experiences of the people and communities that are affected.

In an ideal world, centering survivor and local communities’ experiences is an all-encompassing shift in approach and priority of how we in the anti-trafficking movement think about and address exploitation, trafficking, and slavery.

It impacts our understanding of how much (or how little) we know and demands that we apply what we (think we) know in collaboration with survivors and communities at risk.

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