Kenyan trafficking survivor hopes to inspire in new leadership role

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 18 January 2021 08:41 GMT

Kenyan trafficking survivor turned advocate Sophie Otiende poses for a photo. (Photograph by Matilde Simas)

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Kenyan survivor Sophie Otiende hopes her new role with an international anti-slavery fund will offer a rare source of inspiration

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Jan 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As many victims of human trafficking struggle to survive or seek help during the coronavirus pandemic, Kenyan survivor Sophie Otiende is hoping her new role with an international anti-slavery fund will offer a rare source of inspiration.

Having worked for many years with grassroots organisations in Kenya to support victims, Otiende has joined the board of directors at The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery (GFEMS).

Launched in 2015, the public-private partnership seeks to end modern slavery by making it economically unprofitable.

Otiende was enslaved at 13 by an uncle who offered to look out for her when she joined a new school. Instead he forced her to work as a housemaid and she was sexually abused in his home.

After nine months of exploitation, Otiende's mother took her home. She eventually finished her education before going on to university and volunteering with local NGOs during the holidays.

Otiende spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about her new leadership role - unique for a trafficking survivor - and how the anti-slavery movement can do much more for victims:

Q: Tell us about your journey from survivor to advocate

A: I am one of the few very lucky survivors of trafficking.

My family was a strong support system and it is due to them that I was able to recover from being trafficked as a child, go back to school and start my journey in community activism.

It is only when I joined the counter-trafficking movement that I knew that my experience was human trafficking.

I started volunteering with the Kenyan NGO Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART) in 2014 and then started working with them to build their protection department, mobilise for funds and create strategic partnerships.

Over the years, my goal was always to improve standards of care for survivors and ensure the movement was more inclusive for survivors to not only receive services but also lead.

In 2020, I was selected as an anti-trafficking "Hero" by the U.S. State Department for my advocacy and activism.

Q: Why is it important for survivors to have leadership positions in the anti-trafficking movement?

A: Survivors are the ones who are most affected by trafficking and it is only right that they lead in the process of fighting this crime. Otherwise who are we really fighting for?

Survivors bring unique perspectives - lived experience is  expertise. Yet there is a narrative of survivors being receivers of services rather than individuals that can participate fully in their process of recovery, and eventually to affect change.

This is mainly inspired by the saviour complex that the movement has perpetuated. So long as we feel the need to "rescue" survivors, we will always victimise them rather than see them as being able to lead.

We have many survivor practitioners but the movement still imagines that the only way they can participate is through telling their stories. They are constantly reminded that the only reason they are included is because they are survivors.

Victimhood is not the identity that survivors want to hold.  

Q: What do you hope to achieve in your role at GFEMS?

A: My hope is that my expertise and unique perspective grows the great work that GFEMS is already doing and provides inspiration for survivor engagement in their projects.

GFEMS is one of the leading donors in the anti-trafficking space and I hope this inspires other organizations to see that survivors can take up leadership roles and also hope that it inspires more survivors to want to participate in the movement.

In all of its work, GFEMS engages governments, civil society, and the private sector to build robust, sustainable programs to go after modern slavery from all angles.

My role on the board will be instrumental to building on this groundwork and ensuring that we continue to listen, learn, and fully incorporate survivor voices in everything we do.

This interview was shortened and edited for clarity.

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