Survivor Engagement in the Anti-Trafficking Field: History, Lessons Learned, and Looking Forward

Survivor Engagement in the Anti-Trafficking Field: History, Lessons Learned, and Looking Forward

Survivor Engagement in the Anti-Trafficking Field: History, Lessons Learned, and Looking Forward

Please note that this introduction contains substantial input from the Human Trafficking Expert Consultant Network (the Network). The purpose of the Network is to engage experts, particularly those with lived experience of human trafficking, to provide expertise and input on Department of State anti-trafficking policies, strategies, and product.

Survivors of human trafficking play a vital role in combating this crime. Their perspective and experience should be taken into consideration to better address this crime and to craft a better response to it. They run organizations, advocate before legislatures, train law enforcement officers, conduct public outreach, and collaborate with government officials on local and national levels. They serve the anti-trafficking community and society at large as doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals, and more. Engaging survivors as partners is critical to establishing effective victim-centered, trauma-informed, and culturally competent anti-trafficking polices and strategies that address prevention, protection, and prosecution efforts. Meaningful engagement means collaborating with survivors in all aspects of anti-trafficking efforts such as developing practices, policies, and strategies, as well as prioritizing survivor leadership of those efforts whenever possible.

The goal of this introduction is to highlight and emphasize the importance of meaningful survivor engagement – specifically with experts with lived experience of human trafficking for whom sufficient time has passed since their victimization – and to share context, lessons learned, and guidance to governments, international organizations, civil society, private sector entities, and other stakeholders who wish to further their survivor engagement efforts. While many anti-trafficking stakeholders have long consulted survivors in their work, it is imperative that this engagement be done in a responsible and meaningful way and that stakeholders develop and improve upon their approaches to doing so. This effort will bolster inclusivity, help prevent sensationalism, and reduce potential re-traumatization of survivors. It will also promote more effective criminal justice responses that provide remedies for victims and survivors and help prevent trafficking crimes. This year’s introduction seeks to establish a solid foundation for how to responsibly engage survivors through trauma-informed approaches that promote transparency, trust, equity, inclusivity, and commitment to collaboration.

The background, learnings, and promising practices offered in the sections to follow are informed primarily by survivor leaders, as well as anti-trafficking practitioners and allies in the field, creating a collective basis of understanding upon which the anti-trafficking community can build.

Integrating survivors and their perspective and expertise into the development and execution of anti-trafficking policy, programming, and public awareness efforts is essential. This recognition has prompted governments and stakeholders to consider the best mechanisms to incorporate survivor input and to establish adequate support, including compensation, for survivor leaders. Solutions to combat human trafficking and serve victims are most effective when designed and informed by those who have survived it.

Human Trafficking Defined

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, as amended (TVPA), defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

  • sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another for the crime to fall within this definition.


As noted in the 2021 report of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (the Council), there are myriad terms survivors use to identify themselves. While some individuals who have experienced trafficking choose to embrace the title “survivor,” others do not. Terminology regarding human trafficking varies based on a country’s respective laws and language(s). The word “survivor” is not generally defined by law, nor is it universally used or accepted in the con-text of human trafficking. In some countries, “survivor” may refer to those who have experienced historical, collective, or cultural trauma.

Within the United States, there are some widely used terms for individuals who have experienced human trafficking and subsequently decided to engage in anti-trafficking related work on a professional level. Individuals may prefer to be referred to as “survivor leaders,” “survivor advocates,” or “subject matter experts with lived experience of human trafficking.” Some may have other titles or prefer not to identify based on this experience at all. In recognizing individuals’ full life experiences, skill sets, and professional goals, it is important to always ask someone how they want to be identified. Policymakers and stakeholders should not assume that someone who identifies as a “survivor leader,” “survivor advocate,” or “expert with lived experience of human trafficking” should be referred to as such in a professional setting or that identification as a survivor leader makes it acceptable to inquire about someone’s personal experience with human trafficking. For simplicity and consistency, the terms “survivor” and “survivor leader” are used throughout this introduction.

Other important terms used in this introduction and in country narratives within this report include:

  • Victim: In the United States, the term “victim” means a person who has suffered direct physical, emotional, or pecuniary harm as a result of the commission of a crime. As in the United States, in some other countries “victims” are expressly afforded certain rights and services to assist during and in the aftermath of the commission of that crime. For these reasons, country narratives within this report still make extensive use of this term. Adopting survivor and trauma-informed approaches should not conflict or compete with the provision of assistance entitled to victims.
  • Victim-centered approach: Stakeholders place the crime victim’s priorities, needs, and interests at the center of their work with the victim; providing nonjudgmental assistance, with an emphasis on self-determination, and assisting victims in making informed choices; ensuring restoration of victims’ feelings of safety and security are a priority; and safeguarding against policies and practices that may inadvertently re-traumatize victims. A victim-centered approach should also incorporate a trauma-informed, survivor-informed, and culturally competent approach.
  • Survivor-informed approach: A program, policy, intervention, or product that is designed, implemented, and evaluated with intentional leadership, expertise, and input from a diverse community of survivors to ensure that the program, policy, intervention, or product accurately represents their needs, interests, and perceptions.
  • Trauma-informed approach: A trauma-informed approach recognizes signs of trauma in individuals and the professionals who help them and responds by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, practices, and settings and by seeking to actively resist re-traumatization. This approach includes an understanding of the vulnerabilities and experiences of trauma survivors, including the prevalence and physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma. A trauma-informed approach places priority on restoring the survivor’s feelings of safety, choice, and control. Programs, services, agencies, and communities can be trauma-informed.
  • Culturally competent approach: Cultural and linguistic competence is a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. ‘Culture’ refers to integrated patterns of human behavior that include the language, thoughts, communications, actions, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions of racial, ethnic, religious, or social groups. ‘Competence’ implies having the capacity to function effectively as an individual and an organization within the context of the cultural beliefs, behaviors, and needs presented by consumers and their communities.

Historical Background and Reflections

Over the past two decades, there have been notable developments in the anti-trafficking movement, including the ongoing elevation of survivor leaders as influential decision-makers. Survivors have been instrumental in advocating for and guiding the incorporation of victim-centered, survivor-informed, trauma-informed, and culturally competent approaches in anti-trafficking efforts on a local and global scale.

First and foremost, it is important to acknowledge and address survivors’ long-term suffering and struggle to overcome exceptional challenges to establish and solidify their role as leaders in the anti-trafficking movement. When the anti-trafficking movement launched in the United States in the 1990s, trafficking survivors had few options for tailored support. Prior to the adoption of the TVPA and the UN TIP Protocol, individuals who had survived human trafficking experiences were served primarily by organizations lacking an understanding of human trafficking. The lack of dedicated and diverse services for victims of trafficking further marginalized and endangered survivors. Additionally, victims and survivors also faced stigmatization by some of the media’s misleading, yet influential, portrayal of survivors as either criminals or individuals who “are damaged for life and will never recover.” Furthermore, there were few opportunities for survivors who were willing to participate in the development of solutions related to service delivery, nor were there training or employment opportunities for survivor leaders. As the anti-trafficking field grew, survivors were mostly called on to share stories of their trafficking experience and faced barriers and competition to participate as legitimate partners or experts in anti-trafficking policy and programming efforts.

The long-standing trend of engaging survivors solely to share their trafficking experience is not always an appropriate or meaningful way to engage survivors. Storytelling can be a powerful tool to shed light on the reality of human trafficking; however, it can easily cause survivors to relive the trauma they experienced. It can also be harmful if survivors’ stories are used without their consent or a survivor feels compelled to accept a paid speaking request to share their story because of their economic situation. Survivors should not be engaged solely for storytelling purposes; yet survivors should not be dissuaded from sharing their story if they choose to do so. The recommendations in the later part of this introduction have been offered by survivors as promising practices in ethical storytelling. It is essential that in moving forward, governments, anti-trafficking organizations, the media, and private sector entities reflect on past policies, practices, and actions, as well as acknowledge unintentional harm to survivors, and commit to change for the better.

“For those who began to identify as survivors, the feeling of being oppressed was, in essence, replicated by the very organizations that they relied on for aid, even more so for those with diverse identities.  Survivors who were committed advocates were overlooked as experts and were competed against or replaced by agency endorsed non-survivor advocates causing them to lose training and employment opportunities.  As Dr. Countryman-Roswurm noted, they were ‘rarely genuinely lifted up, respected, treated as equal partners, or supported and followed as competent leaders.’”

         Dawn Schiller, 
Training Director, L.A. County Project, Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Human Trafficking (CAST), Human Trafficking Lived Experience Expert and Consultant

While there is still significant room for improvement, it is important to recognize the progress made thus far. Many survivors have overcome real and serious challenges and made remarkable strides forward, such as pursuing advanced degrees and founding NGOs that advance anti-trafficking priorities. In response to survivors’ advocacy efforts, the global anti-trafficking community has taken tangible steps toward more meaningful survivor engagement. Governments, anti-trafficking organizations, and private sector entities are now developing strategies and creating opportunities to build more meaningful working relationships with survivors. Though significant work towards meaningful improvement remains, efforts taken to date demonstrate survivors’ role as qualified experts, leaders, and equal partners in the development and implementation of anti-trafficking efforts. Throughout the past decade in the United States, survivor leaders have developed, drafted, and shaped significant landmark legislation in support of more effective anti-trafficking efforts. One of the major accomplishments resulting from these efforts was the establishment of the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, noted below. Other recently enacted U.S. legislation has explicitly recognized the necessity of survivor engagement, for example to inform development of human trafficking training requirements for health care and social service providers; to improve detection of human trafficking related financial transactions when surveilling money laundering and counter-terrorist financing activities; and to enhance efforts to combat crime, including human trafficking, affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The anti-trafficking field has significantly progressed in its understanding and practice of survivor engagement. Yet, there are still important lessons to learn for any government, anti-trafficking organization, or private sector entity seeking to further their survivor engagement efforts. Some recommendations based on lessons learned thus far are highlighted below under “Considerations for Engagement.”

Models for Engagement

Now more than ever, anti-trafficking stakeholders are incorporating survivor expertise and input at all stages of developing and implementing policies, procedures, and programs. Within the government space, as well as the NGO community, various models to include survivor expertise have emerged, such as advisory councils and boards and consultant mechanisms, as well as training and technical assistance centers. Government agencies at all levels should explore formal platforms to meaningfully engage survivors as subject matter experts and equal partners to become more survivor-informed in their policies and program implementation. Regardless of the model, governments and organizations must ensure the application of a victim-centered, trauma-informed, and culturally competent approach; provide competitive compensation for survivors’ expertise and contributions; and be willing to dedicate resources and explore ways to implement the changes recommended by survivor leaders. While further evaluation is needed to discover other promising initiatives globally, the following mechanisms showcase notable developments that may serve as a model to others.

Advisory Councils and Boards

  • United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (Council): In 2015, the Survivors of Human Trafficking Empowerment Act, which was passed as part of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, established the Council. The establishment of the Council, an idea originated by survivors and the world’s first survivor engagement mechanism of its kind, created a formal platform for human trafficking survivors to provide input on federal policies and marked a significant breakthrough in the anti-trafficking movement. The Council advises and makes recommendations on federal anti-trafficking policies to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, a cabinet-level entity created by the TVPA, which consists of 20 agencies across the federal government responsible for coordinating U.S. government-wide efforts to combat trafficking in persons. Each member of the Council is a survivor of human trafficking, and together they represent a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. Members of the Council are appointed by the President for two-year terms. Since it was established, the Council has produced five reports containing recommendations for the U.S. government related to rule of law, public awareness, victim services, labor laws, grantmaking, survivor-informed leadership, and underserved populations. After years of advocacy from the Council and other survivor leaders, the U.S. Congress included provisions in the William M. (Mac.) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 (P.L. 116-283) to compensate the Council for its work and contributions to federal government anti-trafficking efforts.
  • International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC): Established in 2021, the ISTAC currently consists of 21 survivor leaders from across OSCE’s 57 member states, representing a diverse range of expertise and backgrounds.. The ISTAC provides advice, guidance, and recommendations to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), and through ODIHR to the OSCE participating states, on matters pertaining to combating human trafficking, including but not limited to: draft legislation, policies, and state practices; implementation of relevant OSCE participating states’ commitments; research, drafting, and reviewing of material related to the international normative framework for combating human trafficking; and educational and capacity-building efforts undertaken by ODIHR to combat human trafficking in the OSCE region. For example, the ISTAC contributed to ODIHR’s updated version of its National Referral Mechanism (NRM) Handbook to provide guidance to OSCE participating states on establishing and strengthening NRMs. The ISTAC also provides guidance to survivor leaders on the tools necessary to foster the growth of national and international survivor networks and promotes the standardization of survivor-related terminology within anti-trafficking frameworks. Members are compensated for certain ISTAC-related work, including participation in trainings and speaking engagements.
  • Albania’s Advisory Board for Victims of Trafficking: The Coalition of Shelters for Victims of Trafficking in Albania has an Advisory Board for Victims of Trafficking composed of survivors of trafficking, with its own Regulation and Code of Conduct. The Board advises shelters on addressing the specific needs of victims in relation to identification, protection, and support and on consistently improving the shelters’ policies and practices.

Additionally, the Government of Canada, as part of its National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking 2019-2024, committed to establishing a Survivor Advisory Committee comprising survivors of human trafficking to provide a platform in which individuals with lived experiences can inform and provide their unique and invaluable recommendations to the Government of Canada on current and future federal anti-human trafficking policies and initiatives. The Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons, composed of UN and regional organizations, released its first Plan of Action in late 2020, which includes strengthening its engagement and partnerships with survivor councils and associations, as well as among other stakeholders, to ensure a human rights-based approach.

Consultant and Training and Technical Assistance Mechanisms

Within the United States, federal agencies have developed training and technical assistance centers and consultant mechanisms comprising survivor leaders and other relevant subject matter experts to bolster stakeholder and government efforts to combat trafficking. These mechanisms exist within the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, State, and Homeland Security. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created the Human Trafficking Leadership Academy (HTLA), which seeks to develop and expand survivor-informed services, offering leadership development opportunities to survivor leaders and allied professionals. The first class of HTLA fellows informed the “Toolkit for Building Survivor-Informed Organizations.”

Internationally, governments have also consulted with survivor leaders to improve their anti-trafficking efforts. For example, the Governments of the Philippines and the United Kingdom sought survivor input to inform the provision of protection services. The Government of the United Kingdom engaged directly with survivors to better understand their recovery needs and experiences with the NRM. It also solicited survivor input for the creation of an inspection regime for government-commissioned victim support services. In the Philippines, the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking conducted virtual focus group discussions with trafficking survivors to seek feedback on protection services, case management, and challenges in the provision of services.

The Governments of Guyana, Rwanda, and the Netherlands have consulted survivors on updates to their respective national action plans—critical to informing future whole of government approaches to address human trafficking. Additionally, the Organization of American States acknowledged the importance of survivor engagement in developing national policies and programs in its 2015-2018 Work Plan against Trafficking in Persons in the Western Hemisphere. Survivor leaders have also established their own organizations and continue work as independent contractors to advise NGOs, government agencies, and international and regional organizations on implementing survivor-informed and trauma-informed approaches in policy making and service delivery.

Considerations for Engagement

In the face of new and evolving challenges, survivor leaders are the most equipped to advise on adapting efforts and ensuring appropriate, effective, and uninterrupted services for victims and survivors. Learning from survivor leaders and integrating their expertise into program and policy development not only improves anti-trafficking efforts but also can help address emerging challenges and longstanding systemic issues that drive vulnerabilities and perpetuate trauma. Survivor leaders specifically can play an integral role in applying an equity lens to anti-trafficking practices to prevent and address discrimination in all its forms. Additionally, the challenges and widespread trauma associated with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and implications of climate-associated crises resulting from extreme weather conditions or environmental degradation have made a survivor-informed and trauma-informed approach more important than ever. Governments, private sector entities, and organizations should consider engaging survivor leaders to develop effective risk mitigation and management plans that ensure the incorporation of survivor-informed, trauma-informed, victim-centered, and culturally competent approaches; meet the needs of survivors; and minimize the chances of re-traumatization during crises.

There are several important considerations when engaging survivor leaders. Stakeholders should clearly articulate the scope and purpose of the engagement, as well as desired skills and outcomes. This will help inform how to identify potential partners. Survivors and other experienced leaders in the field recommend a trauma-informed strategy for identifying participants, whether as potential council or board members or consultants and reaching out to them to inform them of the opportunity. There must be complete transparency with the individual on how their information was obtained and why they are being contacted. Since no single individual can speak on behalf of all survivors, efforts must be made to mitigate tokenization by including individuals with a range of subject matter expertise and lived experiences (i.e., survivors of different forms of trafficking and experiences of trafficking at different ages, as well as expertise on a range of subjects). Council or board members, employees, and consultants should also represent a range of personal and professional experiences and backgrounds (i.e., sexual orientation, gender identity, expression, sex characteristics, ethnicity, race, religion, socioeconomic background, age, etc.).

When working with survivor leaders, it is key for governments and international, regional, and anti-trafficking organizations to consider financial hardships survivor leaders may face because of their trafficking experience and seek to alleviate those hardships. For example, survivors may have limited access to and complicated relationships with traditional banking institutions. If possible and appropriate, governments and stakeholders should find a way to cover upfront, reimbursable costs and determine strategies for limiting costs; they should also create a system for survivor leaders to invoice for labor fees and reimbursable expenses quickly and easily (if it is not possible to eliminate those costs). It is also necessary to build organizational capacity to be trauma-informed, ensuring all staff are familiar with trauma-informed principles and approaches, and to avoid re-traumatization of survivors during meetings, at public events, or through process-related tasks. This will also promote effective engagements and solution-oriented collaboration. Additional support can include providing access to mental health services such as counseling support or contracting an independent/third party to facilitate trauma-informed engagements and manage logistics.

Private Sector Partnerships and Employment Pathways

Private sector entities also benefit from incorporating survivor engagement and expertise into the development and implementation of their company policies, codes of conduct, and strategic planning; whether they seek to prevent forced labor in their global supply chains, prevent commercial sexual exploitation from occurring anywhere in their business operations, or both. Additionally, the financial sector can create an environment in which financial stability and accessibility are supported through banking systems that are accessible and navigable for survivors.

In the United States, partnerships have emerged between private sector companies and anti-trafficking service providers to create employment pathways and programs for survivors to pursue a job in a specific field or industries of interest. These innovative partnerships not only increase the availability of jobs in more industries but also create important opportunities for continuing education, professional development, financial freedom, and self-sufficiency, as well as help safeguard against revictimization.

“Many survivors wish to leave their trafficking experiences in the past. If organizations and service providers are only equipping survivors to work within the anti-trafficking sec-tor, it limits the potential of survivors and may cause further harm by keeping survivors feeling trapped in a field that is tied to their trafficking experience.” 

                  U.S. Advisory Council, 2021 report

Critical components of these partnerships include comprehensive skills training, appropriate employment placement, trauma-informed support, and a competitive wage. For these partnerships to develop, companies must implement confidentiality policies that ensure a safe space for survivors and allow them to be treated as equals among staff, while precluding identification of survivors without their consent.

Additionally, private sector partnerships with survivor leaders can provide promising opportunities to elevate survivor expertise. Survivor leaders have long advocated for organizations to hire survivors to deliver trainings on human trafficking awareness and identification, as well as on strategies to combat the crime. Survivors can provide unique perspectives that can help companies identify how trafficking situations may present within certain kinds of systems and industries or implement organizational change to hire and better support employees with varying levels of trauma, including trauma resulting from human trafficking.

Within the private sector, survivors can also play a pivotal role with financial institutions; this is critical as such institutions are required to report on money laundering transactions and are uniquely positioned to detect and combat human trafficking. It is estimated that human trafficking, both sex trafficking and forced labor, generate more than $150 billion in illicit profit for the traffickers and those who help facilitate the crime. Those profits often pass through traditional financial institutions or are used by traffickers to purchase real property or other personal assets. Survivor leaders can advise financial institutions and train staff on how trafficking may present on bank records and credit card transactions of individuals experiencing trafficking. Financial institutions should collaborate with survivors and other institutions to share information and standardize best practices to combat human trafficking, as well as to improve survivors’ access to banking and financial services.

Establishing Advisory Councils or Boards

When establishing an advisory council or board, it is especially important to ensure it operates as an independent body, autonomous from the organization, government, or entity it is to advise. This independence enables the council or board to provide objective advice and recommendations and safeguards members from being influenced or pressured from larger organizations to make certain decisions, change priorities, or weaken recommendations. The council or board should have the authority to establish its own governing bylaws, protocols, and procedures, as well as deliver its advice and recommendations with a unified voice, having each member contribute equally and collaboratively as a voting member of the body.

A council or board should also have administrative and trauma-informed support through an independent third-party structure. This support should include staff to facilitate coordination with the entity to which it is meant to advise and support understanding of that entity’s authorities, capacities, and limitations respective to its mandates and mission. In addition to providing support for members, a third party could also facilitate a grievance mechanism for both the members of the council or board and the entities for which they advise. This mechanism is especially important as it would create a channel for feedback if members of the council or board feel harmed or re-traumatized in any way, as well as for them to advocate for any needed support during their engagements.

It is also important for organizations or governments to continually evaluate, reflect, and adapt to ensure engagement with members remains respectful and positive. For example, check to make sure members are being treated as an entity of experts and that no one member is singled out in any way. Apply a trauma-informed approach to ensure that both members of the council or board and the entities for which they advise are working in ways that foster trust and collaboration. Ensure training on trauma, trauma-informed approaches, survivor leadership, and self-care is provided to all those who engage with members of a council or board.

Recommendations and Promising Practices

It is widely acknowledged that integrating a trauma-informed approach is essential to meaningful and responsible survivor engagement. The following recommendations from survivor leaders are practical ways to implement trauma-informed approaches for all anti-trafficking stakeholders.

“Meaningful inclusion of survivors is not simply providing services to survivors, building capacity of survivors or bringing a survivor to a meeting. Creating leadership positions for survivors is a small part of it. Meaningful inclusion requires a shift in culture.”

Sophie Otiende, 
Chief Executive Officer, Global Fund to End Modern Slavery

Implementing a Trauma-informed Approach

According to the HHS Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:

  • realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  • recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.

A trauma-informed lens upholds each person as an active agent of their own recovery process, the ability of individuals to recognize symptoms of trauma in others, and the integration of a “do no harm” approach into the creation of policies, procedures, and practices. Furthermore, trauma-informed practices build upon understanding the impact of trauma not only on individuals seeking services but also on staff members and consultants working within an organization. SAMHSA’s Six Key Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach (safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice, and choice; and cultural, historical, and gender issues) should also guide organizational responses to trauma, aiming to create and protect psychological and physical safety within the organization, foster trust through transparency, provide peer support, and level power differences through collaboration, empowerment, and cultural humility.

Ethical Storytelling

  • Do not engage survivors solely to tell the story of their trafficking experience.
  • Never share a survivors’ story without their permission.
  • Employ a robust, informed consent process when featuring a survivor’s story. This means being transparent with how and in what setting a survivor’s story might be used and confirming with the survivor whether they continue to consent to that use. If circumstances surrounding use of the survivor’s story change, give the survivor the opportunity to approve how their story will subsequently be used and allow them to withdraw their consent at any point. Survivors should have control over their stories.
  • If featuring a survivor’s story in fundraising materials, ensure that your organization has obtained consent from the survivor to use their story for this purpose.
  • Ensure language used in all communication material (internal and public) is both trauma-informed and survivor-informed, as well as culturally sensitive, inclusive, and empowering. Work with survivors on communication materials, especially with those whose stories you are sharing, to avoid sensationalism and re-traumatization, including in photography and graphics.

Including Survivors in Decision-Making and Addressing Barriers to Survivor Inclusion and Leadership

  • Give survivors the opportunity to continuously identify areas for professional development.
  • Offer academic scholarships for continuing education and fund opportunities for professional development, leadership training, and networking so survivors can build the experience necessary to get a job or leadership position in the field of their choice.
  • Ask individuals how they want to be introduced; do not automatically introduce someone as a survivor of trafficking. This empowers those who have experienced exploitation to identify in a manner they choose. Understand that this may change over their lifetime. Treat them as more than the traumas they experienced and foster their strengths. Many survivor leaders want to be valued as professionals separate from their lived experience.
  • Always compensate survivors for their time, expertise, and contributions in a timely manner, whether they are participating in a focus group or providing consultant services.
  • Continuously and appropriately access survivor expertise at all appropriate stages throughout program development, implementation, and evaluation.
  • Create opportunities to elevate expertise from survivor leaders in a variety of ways (i.e., panel discussions, report writing, etc.). Have them participate in the design of the engagement.
  • Be as transparent as possible to foster trust and build genuine collaboration with survivor leaders. Outline clear goals, expectations, and timelines for survivor input on projects—and be clear about the ways in which their expertise is intended to be and has been utilized in shaping approaches.

Employing Survivors and Ensuring a Trauma-Informed Work Environment

  • Invite a diversity of survivor leaders to apply for positions within your anti-trafficking organization.
  • Understand that not everyone who has experienced trafficking will publicly disclose their experience as a survivor. No matter the reason behind the decision, respect the individual’s choice not to disclose. Individuals should have full agency in their decision to publicly disclose, when and how to share their story, and what (if any) their role is in the anti-trafficking movement.
  • Acknowledge that human trafficking survivors are more likely to live with complex trauma, which can heighten their risk of re-traumatization when working on anti-trafficking issues. Create an environment of safety for all so that if a survivor is triggered and has a trauma response, they do not feel as though they must hide or that they will be looked down on or lose employment or other opportunities. There should not be any stigma or expressions of condemnation signaling that they do not belong or are not qualified for this work. If appropriate, organize optional support groups within the organizations that offer best practices for dealing with potential re-traumatization.
  • Recognize that trauma is not unique to an individual who identifies as a survivor leader; nearly every individual has experienced trauma, and it affects everyone differently. The way survivors are treated should mirror the way other staff members without lived experience of human trafficking are treated, and vice versa. Provide training and resources, such as an onsite licensed clinician, on trauma and trauma-informed approaches for staff at all levels. Failing to provide adequate resources to mitigate re-traumatization and vicarious trauma can be detrimental to the mental health of all staff.
  • Implement self-care as part of organizational culture to build resilience and help mitigate vicarious trauma, including executive leadership modeling self-care best practices and encouraging staff to engage in healthy coping skills and take care of their emotional and physical health. Organizations can also implement paid mental health days, self-care plans as part of employee reviews, and organization-wide education encompassing individual wellness.
  • Create grievance policies for what all staff should do if they feel harmed or re-traumatized by organization policies, programs, or other staff within the organization. Ensure survivors have a role in problem-solving.

Establishing Administrative Processes for a Trauma-Informed Workplace

  • Ensure that benefits include mental health care for all staff members, regardless of survivorship status or disclosure of lived experience.
  • Evaluate hiring practices so that survivors have equal access to employment opportunities. Consider prioritizing and institutionalizing survivor leadership by creating a budget line within the organization for consultations with and employment of survivor leaders.
  • Establish compensation policies for subject matter experts who are either consultants or contractors, including appropriate compensation for such expert consultation (i.e., do not supplement or replace compensation for expert consultation with gift cards or vouchers unless it is preferred by the consultant). Ensure survivors in leadership positions are compensated commensurate with other leadership positions or expert consultants.
  • Contract a third-party evaluator with lived experience of human trafficking to assess the organization’s integration of survivor leadership and trauma-informed approaches.

Addressing Mistakes

  • Admit mistakes and make clear your organization wants to do better in this area; establish an anonymous feedback loop to give the opportunity for individuals to share feedback. Be a conscious listener and communicate updates on implementing these changes to survivor leaders and broadly throughout the organization.
  • Assess organizational mission, vision, values, and processes. Make necessary changes and reflect feed-back from survivor leaders.
  • Become an organization that is resilient and adaptable to change as best practices for trauma-informed and survivor-centered care evolve.

Practices for Ensuring Inclusivity and Diversity

Ensuring inclusivity and diversity is essential to the application and success of survivor engagement practices. It is also key to share decision-making on human trafficking matters with survivors who have lived through the crime and navigated the aftermath and with those who are leaders in marginalized and vulnerable communities that traffickers often target. This means survivors of all forms of trafficking must be included in anti-trafficking efforts and should reflect the communities they serve.

Ensuring Representation of Diverse Backgrounds and Lived Experience

  • Understand and promote the idea that there is no ‘typical’ survivor or story.
  • Given the vast array of underserved populations across the globe, a wide range of survivor leaders must be engaged, including diversity in race or ethnicity, gender identities, religion, culture, and areas of lived experience and expertise.
  • Provide the opportunity for local survivor-led organizations and survivor leaders from marginalized groups to not only participate but also lead the process from concept to completion.

Engaging Underrepresented Survivors

  • Create safe spaces for survivors from marginalized and underserved populations to contribute and lead. Prioritize empowerment of and professional development for such survivors, as well as address barriers to participation for underrepresented groups.
  • Value and seek input from survivors and survivor-led organizations that reflect underrepresented backgrounds and experiences and underserved communities, such as those from racial and ethnic minority groups, indigenous persons, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, immigrants and migrants, and populations experiencing housing instability or substance use, to provide insights into emerging trends and new solutions.

Acknowledging Cultural Differences and Engaging Survivors Internationally

Promising practices identified within one context and country may not apply in another. Engaging local survivor leaders and survivor-led organizations prior to designing and implementing anti-trafficking efforts within a different country, or region within the same country, is essential. Doing this will establish trust with the community and safeguard against potential harm from culturally insensitive approaches.

  • Always respect and acknowledge the cultural identity of every victim and survivor while reinforcing their dignity and potential. When engaging with or providing services to people of different cultures, it is essential not to assume people of the same ethnic background have the same beliefs or cultural practices.
  • When soliciting input to inform anti-trafficking policies and strategies, ensure accessible, appropriate translation and intentional advertisement of your request to address disability and language barriers and access local expertise.
  • Offer alternative ways to compensate survivors for their time and expertise, especially for those who may not have bank accounts and rely on cash transfers and mobile banking applications.
  • Research survivor-led and survivor-informed programs overseas and exchange information and learnings if or when the opportunity arises. Contextualize learnings, both successes and failures, for application to efforts being planned, implemented, and evaluated in other countries, as appropriate.
  • Be aware of and unbiased to the differences in laws and government practices when looking for how promising practices vary across the globe.

From Survivor Engagement to Survivor Leadership

Despite significant progress, there must be continued learning on how to best recognize and engage survivor leaders as experts in anti-trafficking efforts. In partnership with survivors, anti-trafficking stakeholders should focus on strengthening trauma-informed approaches and ensuring that promising practices reflect the specific needs of a wide range of trafficking experiences; funding research and evaluation and engaging survivor leaders throughout all stages; standardizing language and definitions to allow for clear and concise understanding of terms and approaches; and prioritizing equity and meaningful inclusion so that survivors engaged are reflective of the myriad of experiences of human trafficking.

A cornerstone to implementing these recommendations is to ensure survivor leaders are at the front and center of efforts to combat this crime. This approach requires a change in mindset and culture to support, normalize, and secure the meaningful and ongoing inclusion of survivors as leaders, experts, and equal partners in decision-making processes. Many survivors advocate for a future that includes an increased focus on ensuring sustainable and empowered living and addressing the holistic and long-term needs of survivors through the creation of survivor-informed anti-trafficking initiatives and responses. By strengthening survivor engagement and making every effort to ensure survivors’ full participation in the anti-trafficking movement, we can better prevent and prosecute human trafficking while also ensuring survivor prosperity.

“Survivor engagement is a crucial part of partnership within human trafficking prevention. Government agencies have an obligation to ensure survivor input in policy and project development, not to mention implementation and funding priorities. Knowing how to work with survivors in a respectful and equitable way is not a skill that happens overnight. We continue to learn at the Minnesota Department of Health Safe Harbor program and actively seek out survivor feedback and participation throughout all of our endeavors so we can ensure our efforts are meeting the needs of those most impacted.”

Caroline Palmer, 
JD, Safe Harbor Director, Violence Prevention Programs Unit, 
Injury & Violence Prevention Section, Minnesota Department of Health