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The Limits of Awareness Raising
June 16, 2022

When anti-trafficking organizations first started thinking about what prevention might look like, the biggest component was awareness-raising. The idea was to reach as many people as possible and warn them about trafficking by telling them what it is, how it can happen, and how to report it. This component continues to be essential. But time and experience have shown that it isn’t enough. There are limits to what awareness raising can achieve, and preventing trafficking from happening is proving to be harder than making sure they know about it.

Here are some of the reasons why awareness-raising is necessary but insufficient.

The Limits of Awareness Raising

When we first started working in the field, sex trafficking was a taboo subject in the communities in which we work. It was the unspoken secret, alluded to with euphemisms, but never addressed directly. People would talk about family members going to work at bars, restaurants, or hotels in other cities, mentioning this with a knowing look or other subtle gesture to indicate they were talking about something more than what the surface conversation implied.

While it can still be a tricky subject, there has been a gradual shift to being able to speak more openly about what these jobs really are, and also how exploitative they are. People are gradually coming to understand that they have the right to protect themselves from abuse and from exploitative labor. Where possible, we work with them to advocate for their rights, and of course, there are many aftercare service providers whose entire focus is on securing justice and compensation for survivors of trafficking.

But our experience – and that of other organizations in the field, as well as a lot of research – goes to show that knowing there is a risk that one might be trafficked is not always enough to prevent them from taking the risk in the first place.

Even when people know what trafficking is and that it could happen to them, sometimes the situation at home is so dire that the risk seems worth it. When the opportunities to earn enough money to live on are so limited at home, taking whatever job offer that comes along might seem like the only real option. Sometimes even legitimate jobs can feel so exploitative, that the offers traffickers make sound worth it in comparison. Sometimes, people still don’t feel empowered to decline a job offer. For example, as a UN Women report put it, “women and girls who have had very little previous experience of autonomous decision-making due to patriarchal gender norms may be even less likely to question recruiters and others they suspect of being traffickers, particularly if their family members are supportive of them migrating.”

In short, the reasons that people become vulnerable to traffickers remain, even after they’ve become aware of the danger.

And as the report points out, “awareness-raising around risks is an inherently individual-level approach” and it “places the onus for preventing trafficking on the individual.” Doing so shifts responsibility for preventing trafficking from the state onto some of the most marginalized constituents, which is a move away from the responsibility to meet the commitments governments have made.

Prevention Requires More Than Awareness

Raising awareness about trafficking is essential. But true trafficking prevention means addressing all the ways in which people become vulnerable to traffickers, to begin with. Knowing that there are risks is insufficient protection when you don’t feel you have any other choices. People need access to real job opportunities–which means education, a stable enough economy to support plenty of jobs, strong legal frameworks to guard against labor exploitation, affordable housing, and protection against exogenous shocks. Children and youth who become vulnerable to traffickers due to loneliness and social exclusion need stable families, a network of friends, and a supportive community around them.

This is why our prevention programs have always been about more than awareness-raising. We do a lot of outreach to help raise awareness – we’ve reached more than 3,800 children with our human rights education program and more than 4,500 adults. But we also invest in scholarships to keep kids in school when they otherwise couldn’t afford to, mentors to help children and youth navigate their daily struggles and feel supported when they come to important crossroads, programs to help families diversify sources of income, and Resource Centers to provide a safe place for children to come to play, learn, and make friends. 

As a small, grassroots NGO, we can’t change the job opportunities around them, but we can help reduce some of the barriers to accessing a life with better options and possibilities.

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