By Saater Brenda Ikpaahindi
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to work with the less privileged of society. My childlike ideas at the time centred around building an orphanage or adopting several children and living happily ever after. While my other childlike fantasies and utopian dreams fell to pieces, my deep desire to work with vulnerable children never waned.
About five years ago, I was privileged to work for a UK-based organisation that supports children trafficked from Africa. I remember the first time I was asked to sit in on an assessment with a newly referred child who just escaped from the shackles of her trafficker. I think I was more nervous than the young person who sat across the room from me. She looked normal enough and didn’t seem to have any visible scars of the circumstances and abuse she had been exposed to (far from my thoughts of victims of trafficking or abuse crying uncontrollably). But as she sat across the room from my colleague and me, she told us of the life she had lived, how she had been exploited, the challenges she had faced and the problems that had driven her to become a victim of trafficking.
For many survivors of human trafficking, the story is no different. The economic situation in their home countries leaves them susceptible to unscrupulous individuals who are ready to exploit their vulnerabilities. The promise of a better life in a big city or foreign land and a fictitious land flowing with milk and honey - the land where all dreams are made - serve as a huge pull for unsuspecting and ignorant victims. Traffickers promise young bendable minds an escape from their current situation and paint a vivid picture of success and prosperity.
Unfortunately, this life, is often rife with nights without food, beatings, loss of family contact in their home countries, repeated rape, being passed around different men for the purpose of sex or relatives and family friends for the purpose of labour, denied education, free movement, and their voices silenced. Victims are sometimes imprisoned and criminalised for lack of proper identification or linked to criminal activities which affect their mental and psychological wellbeing.
After the assessment, as a newbie, I remember asking my colleague how she managed to do this on a daily basis. How she managed to hear these stories and remain sane. I felt depressed and at the same time guilty. How many children had I passed by, who could be victims of trafficking? Why was I feeling worse than the person who had recounted her story when this was not about me? What could I do to help? Was I ever going to get used to hearing these stories and can I really continue in this line of work? These questions boggled my mind for weeks.
But over the years, as I worked with these survivors of child trafficking, who despite being adults, sometimes behaved like children trapped in a time capsule and as they began to heal, open up, trust and confide in me, I knew in that moment that I was beginning to fulfil my childhood dreams.
Child survivors of human trafficking inspire me. Most of them have been through untold hardships, suffering and exploitation which affects their daily functioning. Yet, they find the will to live, the strength to rise above their past, the tenacity to trust again and they dare to believe that their tomorrow will be better than their yesterday.
I have had the opportunity of working with some of the bravest young people I have ever met, who once victims are survivors of some of the worst forms of abuse. Some have gone on to get degrees, get married, have children and some are now advocates for children trapped in similar situations by sharing their stories in the hope that they will help rescue other children from exploitation. These children have left an indelible mark in my heart and I’m persuaded that more needs to be done by individuals, Civil Society Organisations and state agents in putting an end to modern slavery, one of the worst forms of abuse and human rights violations of our time.