Decolonizing Trafficking Responses: Reflections on Social Work Practice and Training
…as we commit our work to social and structural justice, we bear the responsibility to disrupt the singularity, (mis)representativeness, and othering in the dominant construction of knowledge. This task is neither easy nor comfortable but worthwhile (Hu, 2019, p. 435)
Trafficking evolved from slavery to take its current form in the present modern society. The violence the victims of trafficking endure points to the need to support, protect and uphold their rights and dignity effectively and timeously. The response also requires a critical practice framework that is holistic and social justice-centred (Botha & Warria, 2020). This is because race remains a troubling legacy of slavery and colonialism which continues to impact the lives of Black people globally. It also offers a compelling lens for viewing trafficking experiences (Constance-Huggins et al., 2022).
This paper highlights the complex intersection of trafficking and exploitation with systemic and layered colonial violence - recognized aspects which remains invisible within social work interventions. I then use this to suggest how select trafficking interventions in social work practice and education can be framed. This approach ensures that the greater economic and political motivations and implications as aligned with the individual, historical and socio-cultural factors lead to relevant knowledges and effective interventions. It supports Nonomura (2020) arguments that no single framework can address trafficking complexities, but critical awareness of the intersections is crucial to social workers as they reflect on the roles they play i.e., neutrality, concealing, revealing, or disrupting injustices.
I write this paper from the position of a Black African female-identifying survivor, though with current geographic and academic privilege. I did not live through the actual reality of colonization, in my home country, and my positionality does not make claim to that i.e., absolute understanding of colonization and trafficking. Like in the US and Canadian contexts, my social work training and trafficking practice experiences in South Africa often occurred in white, heteronormative social contexts or with colleagues who were taught under Apartheid. However, I hope that this piece may serve as a useful contribution to the ongoing task of identifying best practices when engaging with trafficked persons especially in the countries that were previously colonized. This does not promise to have exhausted potential decolonized interventions, rather I hope it will stir conversations into complexities aligned to trafficking, decoloniality and intersectionality nexus.
Reflections for social work practice and training
Social service providers are not faultless in the perpetuation of power imbalances between systems and victims, and in the dominant construction of the passive trafficking “victim” (Chikadzi & Warria, 2022; Constance-Huggins et al., 2022; Hu, 2019; Nonomura, 2020). Social workers as gatekeepers on how voices of victims are framed, supported, or distorted can be oppressive, foregrounders of -isms and leave discriminatory systems intact. In the politics of rescue, victims are spoken for and represented but not positioned as authorities on exploitation and trafficking, or that of their own lives. However, drawing from Crampton’s (2015) value of impermanence, taking the lead from victim’s voices, permits the social work engagement to be responsive, not to reinforce dominant victim stereotypes, and it highlights victim’s agency and healing efforts.
Eurocentric social work views, as routinely taught in many African social work schools, direct and impact the trafficking discourse and excludes the voices and perspectives of majority of the trafficked and exploited population. When the latter is respected, and invited to participate in the discourse without representation, then real changes happen. In 2021, the theme of World Day against Trafficking in Persons was “Victim’s voices lead the way”. The theme highlighted the significance of victims’ voices and the influence of survivor engagement. Victims’ lived experiences offer authentic understanding and familiarity of trafficking. They are the experts of their life stories to be told in their own way – a way that also reminds White social work practitioners and educators of the racism that persists in daily social processes (Constance-Huggins et al., 2022). Thus, social work post-trafficking success, depends on the active engagement by the victims/survivors (Botha & Warria, 2020; Crampton, 2015; Hu, 2019). Indeed,
Victim’s voices matter. Victims are a vital part of understanding the impact and best responses … Victims’ voices represent courage, fear, agency, frustration, scepticism, strength, and survival. Their varied experiences are meaningful towards informing, shaping, and designing responses and services, raising awareness, and shaping policy (Warria et al., 2021)
When victims access care programmes, they have knowledge that is premised on their lived experiences. However, the meanings derived from services provided is dependent on how the knowledge of their lived experiences are given recognition, respected, and included in the healing and recovery processes. Failure to acknowledge these experiences, by focusing on short term work, can lead to further shame, disconnection, isolation, and pre-mature exit from the trafficking programmes (Warria, 2020). Long-term trafficking interventions with strategic focus such as those intended to address structural changes and race relations and lead to economic freedom, gender equity, access to education and training, and address violence are more effective but few. The integration of races and genders on workspaces has not prevented racism or gender-based violence or inequalities from continuing. Like in many countries, the development of new legislation and amendments to older legislations targeting trafficking crimes and victim protection does not instantly contribute to shifts in behaviour (Warria, 2019; 2020). Meaningful and sustainable change happens with the adoption of a holistic multi-level approach, rooted in socio-cultural and historical contexts. The changes cannot be understood through frames that support the neutrality of the law but by those which draw attention to the race-influenced lived experiences (Constance-Huggins et al., 2022).
Shifts in professional orientation are also required in recognizing that although anyone can be a victim of trafficking, and experience different forms of exploitation, the most affected groups are Black, indigenous and women of colour at the intersection(s) of racialized, gendered, and colonial oppression(s), marginalization, and discrimination(s). A social work curriculum that exposes students to the varying exploitation experiences of trafficked individuals encourages improved understanding of diversity, need identification and service provision. For example, trafficking security and/or risk assessments and therapeutic intervention ought to stress a person-centred approach which is aligned to the victim-survivor’s intersectional identities.
A recently concluded study on trafficking in South Africa, which the author was part of, found that many of the Black victims of trafficking identified had experienced violence, maltreatment and/or neglect prior to being trafficked. The findings indicated that such back life narratives made them (victims) pre-disposed to the trafficking perpetrators who take advantage and exploit systemic-generated gaps. To be progressive and transformative in social work theoretical and practical orientations when working with victims, means being critically aware and grounded in the intersectionalities. Thus, this calls for interventions that not only address structural factors but also those that intersect to increase trafficking risks. See example below from Gerassi and Nichols (2021) that bridges research to practice and uses an anti-oppressive, intersectional framework to address trauma:
… a social worker facilitating a support group of mixed-race, cisgender, heterosexual women survivors of trafficking must acknowledge the trauma of racism that has impacted the women of colour in the room. Group participants will have likely experienced sexism that is inherent in gender-based violence and state responses to it but acknowledging the intersectional role of racism is critical (pp. 31-32)
Extensive sex exploitation and trafficking literature focuses on women and often excludes other genders and race discussions. Social work training should also include teaching about criticism of the applicable theoretical frameworks especially liberal and radical feminism which tend to ignore notions of race, ethnicity, nationality, and certain gender identities in trafficking narratives.
Literature and imagery impact identification and risk assessments in social work, they are not reflective of what happens in communities, and they often do not assist in victim’s self-identification. Years ago, when working for a counter-trafficking organization, it was and still is common to see prevention and awareness raising trafficking campaign material depicting Black men as trafficking perpetrators and victims as white and female. Some trafficking indicators also depict classism and racism e.g., originating from foreign countries, not speaking a local language, appears weak and malnourished etc. These are stigmatizing assumptions which lead to exclusion of Black victims from the mainstream narratives, campaigns and service provision. Furthermore, use of visuals such as chains and shackles may distort and exclude the existence of race, power, violence, and oppression in trafficking. From a colonial hierarchical power structure into post-colonial societies, Black and Other females who are trafficked are stripped of their humanity, objectified, and perceived as incompetent and worthless.
This aligns to Steve Biko’s words that “the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” As noted by Gerrasi and Nichols (2021), the colour-evasive racism as a persistent categorical and discriminatory discourse does not consider these women and other populations (such as LGBTQ2S, disabled persons) who are trafficked, and the authors calls for trafficking advocacy addressing oppression through omission and pervasiveness of race and its sustained impact.
This reflective paper highlighted colonial legacies as contributing to trafficking risks, with the hope that it will inspire critical interventions. Indeed, an intersectional analysis of trafficking service provision within social work points to both challenges and opportunities whilst drawing critical attention to the underlying complex systems of violence.
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