She’s the image you’ve seen in media and advocacy campaigns: small, doe-eyed, scared – perhaps illuminated under a red light clutching a teddy bear. She’s been kidnapped, lured by or fallen prey to sex traffickers, or sold by her family into commercial sexual exploitation and/or prostitution. She needs your help. She needs to be rescued, saved…freed.
Meet the perfect human trafficking victim.
“Perfect” should not be conflated with statistically likely. Much like their counterparts in intimate partner violence, rape, and child abuse, perfect victims play to the ideal – the most deserving of help. Girl children are perceived to be vulnerable, helpless, relatable, captured by an outside force; they are politically digestible and, cynically, fund-able. They are not easily confused with “guilty migrants” (see Wendy Chapkis, pg 119) or adults employed in the murky world of voluntary sex work.
Critical caveat: we are well-aware that child sexual exploitation/child sex trafficking are very real problems that require complex needs assessments, interventions, care provisions and prevention strategies; but why have advocates (and the media) perpetuated this one dimensional perception of human trafficking – where the hell are all the other trafficked people?
Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are not gender specific; more to the point, there isn’t one face of human trafficking. Worldwide, groups experience trafficking in forced marriage, domestic servitude, forced labor (such as in agriculture, construction, fishing), forced begging, and as child soldiers – to name a few. Even if we accept what we’re told at face value – that human trafficking is primarily comprised of sex trafficking and that sex trafficking primarily affects women – our job as researchers, activists and service providers working with groups that have been severely marginalized and/or underrepresented should not be to advocate for those that appear most popular (even if that includes trafficking in and of itself, at the expense of broader concerns about labor exploitation).
Understandably, NGOs may be limited in their capacity and/or expertise to address all forms of human trafficking equally – particularly if they are not a human trafficking focused NGO. As a result, they may choose to strategically target their outreach, intervention and advocacy efforts to specific groups of trafficked persons. For instance, an NGO concerned with labor exploitation broadly may see cases of human trafficking, but may not be able to meet the need of children. Ideally, situations such as these would render collaboration within the sector. However, as a sector, we must remain cautious about reinforcing narrowly focused “perfect victim” constructs. Doing so potentially risks excluding individuals falling outside of this normative framework from seeking assistance; it creates problems not only for self-identification, but may color the perceptions of those assisting in intervention. Self-identification as “trafficked” or “exploited” is, in itself, difficult enough. Seeking assistance may be further complicated when outreach efforts and service provision are only equipped to handle (or recognize) a very specific type of exploitation.
In addition, these messages may create an uphill battle for those aiming to eradicate/prevent all forms of trafficking and miss a trick in developing strategic policy change alongside sustainable funding initiatives. Stereotyped victim narratives and images send a very specific message the public at large, policymakers and funders. Arguably, this results in narrowly constraining public perceptions, policy outputs as well as funding created for research and service provision; posing a danger of prioritizing one kind of exploitation over another. In other words, if sex trafficked little girls are perceived to be the faces of trafficking, any national human trafficking law might be written to exclude anyone experiencing trafficking outside the sex trade and, as the government is itself a funder, restrict future funding to all forms of trafficking, reducing NGO capacity to address multiple needs – not to mention the impact on research.
Moreover, we need to remain cognizant about conflating situations of vulnerability and notions of agency in our messages. Continuing in the realm of prostitution: sex workers may enter the sex trade voluntarily, either at home or abroad; i.e., they may consent to sex work, but not to sexual exploitation or abuse. Also, due to the nature of a criminalized sex trade and/or situations of trafficking, sex workers (including minors) may commit crimes – related or not to the status of being exploited – such as immigration offenses, public solicitation, pimping or even becoming traffickers themselves. These situations do not make individuals less deserving of assistance, if sought. (It also does not imply that all sex workers are criminals/migrants/migrant criminals, etc). The NGO community at large should consider whether or not they are prepared to handle complex needs of “un-perfect victims”, particularly those who may have needs intersecting with, for example, intimate partner violence or organized crime. Service providers should evaluate their capacity to assess risk and manage the needs of all types of trafficked persons.
On the topic of language, as it would be highly pejorative to say one has “rescued” women experiencing intimate partner violence, so would it be to claim that one has “saved/freed/rescued” trafficked persons. As Laura Agustin says, “it is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing and feel emotional about it.” Instead, developing best practice necessitates building local (hopefully survivor-led) expertise, applying a victim-centered approach, and monitoring and evaluating organizational outputs critically.
In the context of a vastly under-developed landscape, frontline service providers and researchers should continue to shed light on the forms of human trafficking in Singapore. Restrictive narratives about victimology undermine populations needing to be served and fail to capture the broad dimensions of trafficking, including those elements we’ve yet to uncover. It is our hope that any subsequent public campaign would be supported by frontline service providers and informed by research to avoid reinforcing existing assumptions about what trafficking – and trafficked persons – might look like.