A common refrain in anti-trafficking is the need to raise survivor voices, pass the mic, and listen to those with lived experience. The survivor experience is necessary for crafting anti-trafficking policies and ensuring that aftercare services prioritize and meet survivors’ needs. However, we should remember that children can be survivors too. And thus far, their voices have not been brought into the discussion. Adults are, rightly so, concerned about protecting children from further trauma and try to protect them from these difficult conversations. That said, to prevent child trafficking, one must enter the world of the child and see things from their perspective. Including minors’ perspectives in anti-trafficking might be an essential part of ensuring policies and procedures are relevant to their needs.
In our experience working closely with children at risk, some of their needs might counter assumptions. Here are some possibilities:
On Minors’ Needs For Work
Some people argue that it’s not always exploitative when children engage in labor. Sometimes, children’s work has deep cultural roots, where children partake in the same labor as their families and gain valuable life experience while also contributing to their livelihoods. In Western nations, most parents allow their teenage children to work to gain job experience, earn spending money, and develop a sense of responsibility. These are valuable cultural norms too. That said, there is an argument that there’s a difference between doing light labor that supports the individual or the family’s various needs versus doing exploitative labor that’s detrimental to well-being. The difference might lay in the number of hours worked, fairness of compensation, and the child’s ability to agree to it freely. It also matters whether it interferes with education and thus consigns a child to a life of poverty because they had to drop out of school. It can be difficult to assess these situations from the outside–working closely with families, with sensitivity to the culture and their real-life needs and constraints, is key to determining which norms come from survival necessity and a form of coercion versus those which are freely chosen. It matters whether different choices would be made if more options were available.
On Psychological Pressures From Family
Family situations vary wildly, even within the communities in which we work. Some families are desperate for a chance to offer different opportunities for their children. Some use their children to fulfill their own needs, with little regard for the impact on their children. However, children don’t always have full agency in the decisions to engage in risky ventures. Even what looks like consent can really mask coercion if children feel guilted into the need to support their families. Untangling these dynamics means working closely enough with families to determine what’s going on.
On The Emotional Needs of Children and Youth
Loneliness and social isolation are major risk factors for youth on social media. Many families are ill-equipped to help children navigate that space safely. They don’t know what their children are doing online, what they might be opening themselves up to, or who might be trying to contact them. That’s combined with an age when social pressures are at their peak. At the same time, children have very little of their own life experience and may have a limited psycho-emotional capacity to navigate good decision-making. Children and youth need more tools: awareness of risks, alternatives for dealing with the emotional pain of social drama, tools to protect themselves from predators, and safe off-ramps if they find themselves in trouble.
On Child Sensitive Aftercare
There was an anecdote we’d heard from one of our partners a few years ago. They said that, when dealing with child victims of trafficking, the team would upend traditional adult-child dynamics where adults always sit higher than children. Children had to sit on the floor before their elders to show respect. The team flipped that dynamic and seated themselves on the floor before the child to place the power more in the child’s hands. This gesture isn’t always necessary–it’s very culture-specific and maybe even specific to certain children. But it illustrates the necessity of being sensitive to all the ways children may perceive barriers to getting the help they really need–including questioning one’s cultural assumptions if doing something counter-culture makes it possible to meet the needs of the child.
Some countries, like Malaysia, have mandates that trafficking survivors stay in government shelters at least for a period while their cases are processed. This example shows how policies that might have come from good intentions (i.e., ensuring the survivor is protected, has access to counseling, etc.) can cause further harm, cutting survivors off from access to family and social support structures that might be critical to healing. One can imagine this might be especially damaging for children, especially if compounded by officials treating trafficking victims as criminals, as is, unfortunately, too often the case. Reports on these processes often don’t differentiate between how adult versus child victims are treated, making it that much harder to track whether children’s needs are being met.
These issues present an argument for the need to dig deep into personal, familial, and communal contexts to tailor programs, services, and policies for the wide variety of needs that children may have. One-size-fits-all solutions are unlikely to be effective and may cause further harm. Bringing minors’ voices into the anti-trafficking sphere may provide critical insights into how we can become even more effective.