By Sophie Otiende
It is not everyday that you get invited to go to the Council of Europe as a survivor of sexual exploitation in order to attend a forum dedicated to survivors. This is the first time I have ever attended a forum whose agenda was addressing survivors’ contributions to the fight against childhood sexual exploitation. It is important to note that most people’s perception of survivors can be very skewed and sometimes this can even cause secondary victimization. Survivors, mainly, are seen as recipients of services being offered to them rather than active participants in setting the agenda of what happens to them.
I have to admit, after being selected by ECPAT International, I was still skeptical of the whole process. As a survivor, I have seen organizations and government institutions use survivors as rubber stamps for events. In most cases, survivors will be called at the last minute to ‘share their story,’ so that people can see how grave the issue is and other experts will then discuss the important matters. Rarely are survivors seen as experts on an experience that they have gone through. I was hoping that this forum was going to be different.
I realized that this was going to be a different experience as soon as I was asked how I wanted my story to be written. Honestly, no one ever asks. People pick bits and pieces of your life and write an opinion about the most intimate details of your life without even confirming how you want it to be written. I loved how ECPAT wrote my story (you can read it here). The other difference with this forum was that they decided to work with ‘survivor advocates’. This means that the people attending the forum were survivors that have worked in one way or another to advocate against child sexual exploitation in their communities. I was looking forward to meeting these inspirational individuals who have decided to use a bad experience as motivation for their work.
We all arrived in Strasbourg and were received by ECPAT international staff, and they were quite helpful. The following day, we went to the Council of Europe and worked with the ECPAT team to develop the agenda and get to know each other. It was refreshing to be around people with similar stories and experiences. It was very easy to connect with everyone simply because somehow because of our experience, it was easy to feel vulnerable around each other.
The topics that we discussed were divided under five major themes based on consultation meetings with survivors in various national contexts that happened before the survivors’ forum:
- Gender dynamics – harmful social norms, boys not perceived as being victims/stigma faced by victims/non-judgmental approaches
- Justice/access to information/confidentiality and privacy
- Recovery and reintegration/building self-worth and success, nurturing a sense of belonging and connectedness
- Government polices and practice in prevention, prosecution and recovery and reintegration.
- Supporting and mobilizing survivors – what are the next steps?
The discussions were quite long and everyone had a lot to contribute on each of the major themes. Some of the issues that stood out for me included:
- Difficulty in identification of male survivors/victims of sexual abuse because of the gender dynamics: We noted that most programs have been working with girls and women for so long that they no longer design programs that suit boys or male victims. To be able to cater for male victims, programs will have to be redesigned and consciously look out for this group. For various reasons, including stigma, this group may not simply show up because a program is available.
- Legal systems and justice do not mean the same thing to victims. The legal system is an avenue to one form of justice and, as practitioners, we should remember this. There is also a need to make the legal system survivor-friendly, especially when dealing with children who have survived sexual abuse. Iceland was praised for having a good system that managed cases of abused children in a friendly way.
- Survivors need to be protected from secondary abuse, especially when practitioners do not recognize that sharing their stories requires effort and needs compensation. There needs to be a protocol developed for dealing with survivors, particularly those working with service providers and the government. Abusing the passion that survivors have to change things is not the best way to deal with victims and prevents other victims from coming out and sharing their stories.
When we left Strasbourg, we had cried, laughed together and bonded in a special way that only we could. There are so many times, I have felt misunderstood and my fears dismissed, but with this crowd, I was understood and that meant the world to me.