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Opinion: The Ethics of Parading Survivor Trauma

  • Published on
    April 5, 2019
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  • Category:
    Anti-Slavery Activists, Survivor Stories
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Nonprofits have recently come to embrace storytelling as a means of engaging their supporters, but when done wrong it can turn into “poverty porn” — e.g. the marketing of a poor, African child with tears in their eyes for a Western donor audience — or, the more recent phenomenon of “survivor porn.”

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As Sophie Otiende, a member of Freedom United’s Board of Advisors and program consultant for HAART Kenya, explains, survivors of trauma can be asked to share their experience to provide a “hook” for a story, but may face unexpected consequences for going public about their exploitation.

“Think about the power that organization holds over this victim,” says Otiende. “And then think about consent. Think about whether that victim—that survivor—would actually be able to give proper consent about telling their story.”

Nonprofit Quarterly reports:

Otiende is a program consultant for HAART Kenya, a nonprofit that bills itself as the only organization in Kenya that works exclusively on eradicating human trafficking. Otiende is in charge of its protection department and works directly with victims of trafficking. And while many survivors may find sharing their stories cathartic, Otiende has concerns about the unspoken risks survivors may face when they go public.

No one talks to survivors about the impact of telling your story—what it does to you, what it ultimately means—because we tend to think we live in an ideal world where, when I tell my story, everyone will be moved with compassion. We all know that’s not true.

In this podcast, Otiende also discusses her anti-trafficking work, and why awareness campaigns fail to deter vulnerable women who are already suffering from poverty and abuse in their own homes. A desire to escape these circumstances may be reason enough for them to accept risks in order to secure a better life in another country.

“When you talk about awareness being the only solution,” Otiende says, “you have to look at the context that people are coming from and the fact that they’re making logical decisions based on their circumstances.”

Otiende adds that donors in particular need to be more conscious of giving emotional support to frontline staff who are exhausted.

“We have so many people just getting to a point where they’re exhausted and they burn out,” she explains. “If I was working in a metal company and I was working with machines, my employer would be concerned to give me tools to protect my hands to make sure I didn’t cut myself.”

“Why can’t we also think about that when we are thinking about people who are working with [victims of] trauma?”


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Janet Hudgins
Janet Hudgins
5 years ago

I agree in part. It’s the victim that gets dangerously exposed, whatever the circumstances, by the the media, police, in court while the predator: politician, CEO, rapist, often gets tucked away out of sight and perhaps not even named.

Roxanne Fand
Roxanne Fand
5 years ago

Survivors who tell their story in public are doubly heroic for doing so: First, to have survived at all, and then to expose their private trauma in public. Those who do not wish to go public have every right to keep private in any case, and should not be pressured to go public. In some cases, a united solidarity among several survivors might help them find the courage to testify publicly.

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