At 13, I Was Enslaved by My Uncle. Now, I Make Sure Survivors of Modern Slavery Get a Voice.
Activist Sophie Otiende shares why she believes survivors of modern slavery need to be centred.
Sophie Otiende is a teacher, feminist, and human trafficking survivor advocate from Kenya.
She was just 13 when she was enslaved by her uncle, after a promise that he would support her in joining a new school. After 11 months of exploitation and sexual abuse, Otiende’s mother took her home — where she was able to complete her education and go to university, alongside volunteering with NGOs.
In January this year, she took on a new role, joining the board of directors at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, an international anti-slavery fund.
Here, she writes about her own experience of surviving human trafficking, and how she is working to help put survivors at the heart of the movement to end it.
You can read more from the In My Own Words series here.
Editor's note: This story includes details of sexual abuse.
I have never thought of my story as special. Maybe because it is a story I hear all too often around me.
Human trafficking, or as most people now call it, modern slavery, affects more than 40 million people around the world, according to the Global Slavery Index. That means that there are more than 40 million people with similar experiences to mine.
I am a feminist, I am teacher, and I am a survivor advocate of human trafficking. Everything I do or strive to achieve is defined within those identities. It is only seven years ago that I finally found a way to define the fact that I was a survivor of trafficking.
In general, most survivors of trafficking suffer multiple forms of abuse and sometimes, like me, are not aware that they are survivors of a crime. In some cases, because of the nature of human trafficking, survivors are criminalized for crimes committed while they were being trafficked or penalized for things like migration crimes.
Modern slavery intersects with so many other social justice issues because of its nature. That is why in addressing it, having an intersectional approach and perspective is helpful not only in addressing root causes of the issue, but also in protecting the people most affected by the issue.
Growing up, I always thought of that particular year as a bad experience. There is something very unsettling about not being able to correctly define what happened to you, especially if it fundamentally changed you. I remember bits and pieces of my life before I was 13 but I generally remember being happy and free because I had parents that worked hard and made sure that I had everything. My father lost his job when I was 12 and we lost everything and had to move from where we were living to a less affluent area.
My father firmly believed in education and even as we struggled to feed ourselves, going to school was still his highest priority. In 1998, I remember my father selling an old car engine he previously owned and gave my uncle money to take me to school. At the time I was going to a boarding school in a town eight hours away from Nairobi. My uncle lived one hour away from my school and since he was visiting, my parents thought that they would save some money and time by letting him escort me to school rather than them. We travelled on a weekend and on Monday I was supposed to be in school. At that time, it seemed like a great idea.
The weekend came and went, and my uncle did not take me to school. A week later, I realized that there were no plans to take me to school, and in fact the plan was that I would work for my uncle as a domestic worker.
I woke up early mornings and slept late at night because I was working. Late at night, I was also sexually abused by one of the people that stayed in my uncle's house. There are a few things I remember from that year: I remember not being able to cry, I remember questioning why I was still alive, and I remember being numb to all the pain. I remember not knowing if I will ever be able to be happy again.
Trauma does that to a person and many survivors have to navigate the effects of the trauma from their abuse without any help. A few are fortunate enough to find organizations that support them with direct services. An even smaller number pursue justice through the criminal justice system.
I was in my uncle's house for 11 months. They had been telling my poor parents that I was in school and that I had decided to stay with him, which is why my parents never worried about it. One day, they finally sent me to the shop and I thought it was my chance to escape. While in town, I met my mother's friend, I broke down for the first time in a long time and she advised me to go back and that she would make sure that my mother came for me. My mother came for me the following day.
I have been asked many times about justice and whether I feel like I got justice. Most people I have spoken to think about justice either through a criminal lens or through a religious lens. Most people ask me whether my uncle was arrested and whether I want him arrested, and for the religious ones, whether I have forgiven him.
The truth is that very few survivors of trafficking get justice from the criminal justice system and, in general, forgiveness is much more complicated than simply saying you forgive someone.
My uncle never went to jail, we didn't even at the time think of arresting him. My parents prioritized my well-being at that moment and resuming my normal life. Have I forgiven my uncle? I really don't have the answer for that. It depends on what forgiveness is defined as. He no longer occupies my thoughts, despite the fact that I have scars from the experience, and I am no longer angry at him as a person.
My anger is directed at a system that allows people like him to get away with what he did, a system that creates an environment for people like him to take advantage. We have a capitalistic system that places profit above everything, including human lives. This means that to be poor is to be marked for death or abuse in one way or another.
Trafficking, to be honest, just happens to be one of those ways. We have a patriarchal system that subjugates women, dehumanizes them, and makes them vulnerable to trafficking. Racism and neo-colonialism have created inequality in each and every way imaginable. So long as we have inequality, we will see abuse. Abuse thrives in places of inequality.
American writer and feminist Audre Lorde spoke about every woman having an arsenal or rage against both personal and institutional oppression, and when that rage is used with precision it has the ability to become a powerful source of energy for progress and change.
She said anger is loaded with information and energy. I use the energy I get from anger to advocate for better systems of protection for survivors of trafficking. As mentioned above, many survivors of trafficking are not identified and, even when they are identified, they are never certain of the quality of services that they will receive. Most survivors rarely even get to know that what they went through is trafficking.
The reality is that few survivors get services that completely transform their lives to the point of independence. My work has mainly focused on thinking about the interventions that we are offering survivors and looking at how to standardize them.
As someone who has worked mainly in offering survivors direct services, I have ended up being the person that is constantly asking questions about the standards of care that we offer. Are the interventions that we offer based on evidence?
The counter-trafficking movement has always had a savior complex problem where most interventions or approaches are really focused on “saving” and “rescuing” the "victim," without really seeing them as people with agency.
This has made me a strong advocate on data and how we manage data, and has guided me as I work with grassroots organizations through Liberty Shared to recommend the use of the Victim Case Management System and adaptation of better record keeping practices.
Ethics when it comes to management of data for survivors is central. Most of the ways data is collected, managed, and analyzed do not think of survivors. In many ways survivors remain tools of observation in data collection, management, and analysis. Survivor Alliance is advocating for more survivors to be involved in research and data collection in the movement and I think this is one way of bringing much needed ethics to this discussion.
Most of the people that collect the most data are grassroots organizations. Most are doing the best they can with little to no resources invested in data management. That is the reason I am happy about the work I do with Liberty Shared, where we are offering a victim case management system for grassroots organizations to collect and analyse survivor-centered data.
As a feminist, I am also very passionate about storytelling and that the stories of survivors are part and parcel of the work that we do. The truth is survivors rarely get the chance to tell their own stories as a result, most survivors are represented in ways that victimize them, and the work that I do focuses on ensuring that survivors get to hold the pen that writes their stories.
I am also actively working on survivor leadership and representation in the movement. How do we center survivors? What does centering really mean?
Minh Dang, CEO of the Survivor Alliance, speaks about the fact that the counter-trafficking movement is one of the few movements that is not led by survivors. Ours is a movement made and run by experts. I strong believe that survivors need to consistently claim their place in the movement, and I am glad that there are a few organizations like the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery that have identified that they need to lead by example.
In all of its work, the Fund engages governments, civil society, and the private sector to build robust, sustainable programs to go after modern slavery from all angles. My role on the Board will be instrumental to building on this groundwork and ensuring that we continue to listen, learn, and fully incorporate survivor voices in everything we do.
What is the progress we have made as a movement? I think that we have increased general awareness about the crime of human trafficking. Most countries identify it as a crime, and many have specific laws that can be used to address it.
I think many survivors have been taken out of dangerous situations and have been assisted. We have several advocates running campaigns and fighting for accountability of all types of perpetrators.
Are we close to eradicating the vice in our lifetime? Not really, but we are making an effort towards it and I am proud of the many survivors who everyday go out and do the work needed.
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