Following last month’s National Human Trafficking Awareness campaign, it’s helpful to take a closer look at how anti-trafficking advocates can responsibly promote public awareness on this issue. By learning from the flaws of the past and important lessons from parallel movements, public awareness campaigns for human trafficking have a real opportunity to inform public opinion and influence policy decisions on a local and national level.
First Do No Harm
The purpose of public awareness campaigns for human trafficking is to bring attention, compassion, and resources to the plight of trafficked persons. However, decisions about which aspects of the crime are portrayed versus which are left out can create critical misconceptions about the scope of human trafficking and the methods needed to combat it.
Even though national human trafficking legislation has been passed in many countries, human trafficking public awareness campaigns continue to shape the evolving attitudes, perceptions, and policies regarding trafficking. These awareness campaigns often perpetuate the common narrative of an “ideal” victim and a singular perpetrator, which can result in the reluctance of survivors to self-identify or the denial of services to those who do not fit this dominant narrative. The construction of the narrative or ‘problem’ of trafficking is a key factor in the development of the community or policy response to it.
For example, the construction of the singular offender narrative overlooks key systemic issues in societies and governments as well as the role of consumers in other industries. When we view organized criminals or people purchasing sex as the only groups responsible for the crime, and this narrow profile does not fit our own identity, then there is no need to scrutinize our own roles in the trafficking chain. This depiction allows us to “other” the problem. But when we demand cheap labor for cheap goods, we cannot separate ourselves as easily; our consumer demands may be part of the driving force in a trafficking chain.
Issues may also arise from campaigns that are so compelling that they drive a wrong, vigilante call to action. In these cases, the campaign’s audience may feel inspired to “rescue” or “save” victims on their own. This approach can endanger both the “rescuers” and the victims, as well as interfere with ongoing law enforcement investigations. Organizations that pursue public awareness campaigns must be acutely aware of these potential outcomes, and plan calls to action that discourage a well-intentioned public from taking matters into their own hands.
The Lived Experience of Human Trafficking Survivors
Human trafficking public awareness campaigns should always be grounded in the lived experiences of human trafficking survivors and oriented towards systemic solutions. Human trafficking is on the extreme end of a continuum of labor exploitation that affects vulnerable people. The strengths of campaigns aimed at promoting workers’ rights must be rooted in the leadership of workers and survivors of all forms of abuse along this continuum. Public awareness campaigns must recognize this and approach the issue with systemic causes in mind. Such root causes can include:
- Structural or interpersonal violence
- Gender identity
- Insecurity related to armed conflict
- Economic inequality
- Immigration policies
- Racial injustice
Promising practices to create and disseminate an effective public awareness campaign must include a survivor-centered approach. Survivors should be empowered to control their own narrative. Within the current narrative, survivors lack both control and consent over the public framing of their very personal, diverse experiences. Instead of rescuing a helpless victim, the narrative approach should move towards survivorship and how to support survivors.
Accessing Resource Networks
It is imperative for public awareness efforts to ensure that individuals know how to appropriately refer victims to the services they need. The Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking (CoNEHT) was formed in 2005 as a statewide collaborative of organizations that support the mission to provide a safe and appropriate response to human trafficking. LCHT manages the hotline and the associated CoNEHT Resource Directory, which is made up of hundreds of agencies across Colorado who engage in a variety of support services for victims of human trafficking. This type of resource network is critical to public engagement on the issue.
Promising practices for public awareness campaigns should also include reaching out to established community partners in parallel movements to create and disseminate the campaign. Effective community outreach will empower communities to be part of a coordinated response and connected to resources that already exist in the community and so that efforts are not duplicated but are instead strengthened.
Mobilize the Movement with Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking
LCHT’s Mobilize the Movement campaign engages communities, professionals, and survivors across Colorado to address gaps in the human trafficking response. Through intentional community organizing events, participants are organizing a response to the crime of human trafficking in their community using the research-informed Colorado Action Plan as a guide. Individuals also have the opportunity to engage in a new online platform called the Colorado Anti-Trafficking Exchange, set to launch this spring. Ultimately, the Mobilize the Movement campaign will inform a concerted effort to end human trafficking in Colorado and contribute to movements across the nation.