The Power of Words and Community: A Child Bride and Forced Labor Survivor Story

The Power of Words and Community: A Child Bride and Forced Labor Survivor Story

The Power of Words and Community: A Child Bride and Forced Labor Survivor Story

Dr. Tamara MC, is a child marriage and human trafficking survivor and an author, academic, artist and activist. She is currently writing her memoir CHILD BRIDE about her experience. You can learn more about her work on her website HTS Program Director, Rebekah Enoch, recently connected with Tamara over zoom. This is the edited transcript of that conversation.

I didn’t know it then, but when I was 5 years old my life would be changed forever when my father joined a Sufi cult, then based in Texas, leading to my parents getting divorced. Due to the divorce I began regularly traveling to Texas where my dad had moved, spending most of my time in the cult community whenever I visited. I started doing “work” for the cult when I was 9, but when I was 12 years old, the leader of the cult told my father that he wanted me to live with him that Summer. He had multiple wives and he wanted me to stay in the household of his second wife who had four children under the age of five. No one told me why I would be staying there, but when I arrived I was immediately closed off in the house and left in charge of the four children. The youngest was six months old. I was expected to take care of them from sunrise until sunset for the entire summer. That was just the beginning. 

That same summer, within a week of my arrival, the adopted son of the leader began sneaking into my room and sexually molesting me. One night he came in and told me that he needed to marry me because he wasn’t allowed to have intimate relations without being married. He married me that night, just the two of us. He told me to repeat after him in Arabic that I would take him to be my husband for a fixed period of time as part of a temporary marriage. Temporary marriage is a marriage limited to a specific amount of time. According to the UNICEF Regional Study on Child Marriage In the Middle East and North Africa, temporary marriages range from a few minutes or hours to several months, and have been found to exploit girls 15 and younger, often for economic reasons. Temporary marriages heavily privilege the husband as opposed to traditional Islamic marriage, the UNICEF report states they are often used as a way to exploit and prostitute women across the Middle East and in other regions. But I didn’t know any of that then. I could speak a little Arabic at the time, but I did not at all understand what I was saying when I repeated the marriage vows he fed me. I just knew someone older than me was telling me I had to marry him, so I did as he asked. After that summer spent as his secret “wife”, I returned home to begin 8th grade. When my father picked me up from the leader’s house I did not tell him about my child marriage. At 12 years old, I had never even heard the terms child marriage or forced labor and didn’t really understand what had happened to me that Summer. I went back to Arizona, to my mother’s home, and I didn’t tell her about any of it. My child marriage and forced labor became a secret that I kept from everyone. 

I spent the next 5 years living a “normal” childhood at my mother’s house but traveling regularly to my father’s, keeping the secret of my child marriage and ongoing forced labor. When I turned 17, right after finishing High School, I traveled to England where the cult leader was now living and moved in with him and his family full time. At this point, the leader had two wives living in the house and there were eight children, so there was another six-month-old and two-year-old in addition to the previous four children. I was in charge of all the cooking for the whole family, about 15 people, and for washing all the dishes on top of watching the children with some support from a part-time nanny. The community also had a publishing company, and the leader wrote several books. During the evening hours I helped him with editing and publishing these books. All of these activities, the cooking, cleaning, and childcare, were free labor I had been doing throughout my whole childhood. I never even considered that what I had experienced was forced labor, labor exploitation and modern slavery. 

As a child you cannot make a choice that is informed about relationships nor do you have the ability or strength to advocate for yourself and say “no”. I was only 9 years old when I had started “working” for the cult, at 12 I had been married, even if only temporary. I had no recognition that I shouldn’t have been working at that age, I felt I loved my “husband” and I thought that it was my duty to serve the community through labor. In my view then, the leader was doing me a favor by allowing me to live in his house, my labor was compensation for him allowing me to live there. Emotions are particularly complicated for a person who’s been sex trafficked. When the leader’s adopted son snuck into my room he was a stranger who I was initially incredibly afraid of. But I grew to think that I loved him by the end. It is something hard to understand and this false “love” makes the victim think that they are consenting to this, which is not at all what’s happening. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons refers to this as “trauma bonding” often synonymous with Stockholm Syndrome. A fact sheet the office released titled Trauma Bonding in Human Trafficking states

 “Traffickers may take on a role of protector to maintain control of the victim, create confusion, and develop a connection or attachment, which may include the victim feeling a sense of loyalty to or love for the trafficker. This connection, or traumatic bond, becomes especially intense when fear of the trafficker is paired with gratitude for any kindness shown.” 

These activities started when I was just a young child and particularly vulnerable to trauma bonding. With hindsight I can see I used fawning as my trauma response, I became obedient and super lovable when I felt threatened. That’s what made me attractive to my traffickers but it also helped me survive.

Fast forward to two years ago, my secrets were still behind closed doors. I was in a yearlong memoir program trying to write down and capture my life story. As I was writing I started thinking about my work in the leader’s house, the child care, the work I had done for the publishing company in England. Something was missing, so I began researching what it means when somebody works for free. The term human trafficking kept coming up. I became curious, I had never even known of the word. Certainly human trafficking could never apply to me. How could it? I had never even heard of it. I went crazy researching and reading for weeks on end. I kept looking for and reading every definition associated with modern slavery, and every definition pertained to me. I learned I was a child bride. In the cult most of the girls got married by 14. We were taught that that was the way it was. I had never even known the terms child marriage or forced marriage, and that forced marriage is a form of human trafficking due to a child not being legally able to make that choice. When I came across the term modern slavery I realized I was both labor trafficked and sex trafficked, I was a survivor of modern slavery. 

I started to feel trapped by these ideas, like there was no way out. The words initially felt very shameful. It wasn’t something that I ever wanted to be part of my identity. It hadn’t ever been part of how I saw myself, defined myself, and I didn’t want to accept it. Thankfully my shame didn’t last long and it changed into curiosity. It became kind of exciting to actually be able to name something that happened to me. Before it had seemed so fuzzy and undefined. I was working in this house, I was a kid, I wasn’t being paid, there just was nothing to contain the experience. There also wasn’t anybody else outside my community I had spoken to who had shared anything like this experience. I didn’t have the terminology or vocabulary to explain what had happened to even begin the conversation. After I connected with the language, the vocabulary then became very powerful. I was able to name something that before had been a nameless secret. Now it has become almost like my weapon. Forced labor, human trafficking, child marriage, these are things that happened to me, but when I look at the definitions, it shows me that it has actually happened to many people, more than we actually even know of. When we think of a human trafficking victim or survivor in our mind, it just seems like somebody else. After I learned that there were so many who had experiences like mine, I felt there must also be girls and women that have been trafficked in similar ways to me and maybe, like me, they’re not even aware of what happened or is currently happening. Having the language to talk about and label something can give you power over it, to talk about it and find pathways out. 

During my research I found out there was a conference called the International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference held by the University of Toledo. I went to the virtual conference and I attended so many sessions, I learned about people and organizations and support services I had never heard of before. I was also able to connect with other survivors, and I kept connecting more and more after that. I found Unchained At Last, a survivor-led nonprofit organization dedicated to ending forced and child marriage in the United States through direct services and advocacy and I became involved with them. There I met a lot of child marriage survivors and I’ve been working with them for a couple of years. It feels like all the time now, there’s a new connection or something happening and I keep growing and growing. Survivors come from so many different backgrounds and religions and parts of the world. Yet our experiences are often so similar. When I’m in my regular community, my academic community or my writing community, I don’t share my experience with the people I interact with on a daily basis. But now, when I meet a survivor, I often find it’s almost as if our lives have been parallel even though we’ve never met before. We’ve lived the same way, I understand them and they understand me in a way that nobody else can and nobody else in my life ever has been able to. They can see this part of me, that is probably the most important part of me, because it made me who I am today, to study what I’ve studied and to write what I write. But it’s also the part of me that up until recently I didn’t share with anybody. For so many survivors, we’ve left our communities behind, and often our parents and family members behind. But the gain is now we have each other and it’s like this whole new family, more of a chosen family, a chosen community. Finding that new, chosen family or community is so important. 

The last thing I want to call attention to is, there are so many conversations happening now about pay and fair compensation in many parts of our society. I think it’s an important time to take a real look at these issues in the human trafficking sector too. I volunteer so much and I give so much of my time to help the human trafficking and survivor community. I recreate my past multiple times a year for free. Sometimes it’s like I’m not really getting out of the cycle that I’ve been in for a big chunk of my life. All of this is still free labor, so it’s really not getting me out of the free labor market. There is a lot of talk in the modern slavery sector about including survivor voices at the policy table, the programs table, the research table. I think that trafficking organizations when they’re using survivors in any capacity should be paying for that lived experience. If survivors are going out and speaking in the community, sharing their story, that should be paid. People that work for human trafficking organizations are being paid, they are not working for free. So why should a survivor? Of course, I always want to give. I always want to be available. But finding a balance and as a sector deciding what that should look like is so important. If reports or tools are being published using survivor stories, but the survivors are not paid, what really is the value? Value is connected to finances and valuing the survivor story across the sector should be one of the first steps organizations and policy makers take towards ending modern slavery. 

For more information on ending child marriage click here.

To learn more about human trafficking and forced labor click here.


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