Journalists know the power of words. And few words elicite more debate than choosing to use “victim” versus “survivor” when talking about human trafficking.
The debate has resurfaced on the eve of International Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30. When frayintermedia decided to focus on #ReportingHumanTrafficking tips the question was which word should be used. Taking our cue from organisations working around ending human trafficking, we’ve used “victim” to refer to someone still trapped in trafficking and “survivor” to refer to someone who has either escaped or has been rescued.
In a brief telephonic interview, Police Practice lecturer at the University of South Africa, Marcel van der Watt, who is researching human trafficking, concurred that “victim” is used to refer to someone still in the trafficking situation or someone who has just been rescued and is still traumatised. While “survivor” would be used to describe someone who has come out of the situation and has reclaimed their life.
"voluntary migration of sex workers from one country to another does not amount to human trafficking"
Human rights lawyer and advocacy manager at Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) Cherith Sanger, is very aware of how sex work and human trafficking are often conflated as one and the same thing and is quick to point out the difference.
“Human trafficking is using force, threats or misleading information to recruit or abduct a person in order to be used, controlled and exploited by another. Examples include forced labour or prostitution. Sex work, however, is about choice. It’s about a consenting adult in difficult circumstances deciding to sell sex for an agreed upon amount of money, goods or services,” Sanger says.
She adds that the voluntary migration of sex workers from one country to another does not amount to human trafficking. “When people leave their country of origin for another, they might have limited opportunities and this might turn them to sex work.” Having said that she is wary of using the word “victim”, “unless sex workers are victims of crime,” says Sanger. But, even then she prefers to use the word “survivor” because, “it is empowering and speaks to reclaiming the bad experience”.
The only time she comfortably refers to “victims” is when it relates to children under age 18 who cannot give consent to engage in sexual activities.
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