Brave new alliances to wage war on human trafficking

by Melanie Cheary
Thursday, 19 July 2018 17:20 GMT

Participants in the Lab pose for a photo in Nairobi, Kenya. June 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Njeri Mwangi

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Small tremors cause seismic shifts. The “Unveil the Hidden Presence: Trafficking in Women and Children - a Leadership and Innovation Lab” shows how creativity can quickly have impact.

A powerful experiment took place in Nairobi last month. Government officials, journalists, academics and activists gathered to share ideas and combine resources in the fight against trafficking in women and children. Their mission: find innovative ways to win in a war that sometimes feels lost.

I was sceptical. Over 30 people from 25 countries, differing in age and gender. What common ground could we all reach in just four days? And as for actions, well that wasn’t likely was it? We all know everyone has their own agenda in these things, their own drum to beat. Surely just another multinational gathering where the converted preach to each other and nothing ever changes.

My cynicism was rapidly lost. Not a bad thing really, given that TRF was part of the facilitating team working with the Global Leadership Academy (GLAC) and Germany’s GIZ programme on promoting gender equality and women’s rights. Simply put, I wasn’t at all sure about what to expect. This wasn’t one of TRF’s skills-oriented media or journalism workshops. This was an open-ended social experiment on a global issue with only one parameter: leave your comfort zone and think freely.

Of course, it could all have gone horribly wrong. But it didn’t. It was an overwhelming success founded on cross-cultural dialogue with immigration officers engaging with activists, and journalists bonding with policymakers, while researchers and civil society leaders -- cautious at first – offered valuable input from their perspective too. The TRF team also contributed effectively, sharing skills on harnessing social media and developing messages, as well as insight into understanding journalists.

Now, as I follow the development of the group’s post-Lab projects on Facebook and WhatsApp, I’m awed by the high level of activity. “It was a rapid and consistent learning curve,” said one participant. “With the empowerment I got here, I will definitely implement changes,” said another. In fact, as I write this, the WhatsApp group buzzes with news of an accidental meeting of participants on separate missions in Accra, where further collaboration will take place.

Creative, constructive and concrete

Among our group were those for whom this crime against humanity was personal: survivors, brothers of victims and parents of rescued children. In the words of one of our participants, all were fighting for those who cannot fight for themselves. We enabled 33 people to creatively and constructively combine their anger, passion, insight and knowledge.

By the end of the first day, participants had identified their challenges and objectives. The subsequent sessions comprised group and plenary discussions on multiple topics with the prevailing themes being: how to influence policy change and how to provide support to survivors. Dialogue was focused, rich and productive. Ideas presented and critically debated. Consensus reached.

The result: an explosion of innovation with a host of unlikely alliances and concrete actions, including the first dedicated anti-trafficking NGO in Jordan and an agreement to share Kenyan government vehicles to search refugee camps for victims. Plans also emerged for an embryonic survivors’ map showing where to find support and a photographic exhibition of survivors’ work.

I’m mindful of the drivers of the Nairobi Lab’s success as we continue to collaborate and support each other in the months before the annual Trust Conference in London in November, where fighting modern slavery and defending human rights is the focus. So many factors played a role, including the invaluable field visits to Nairobi’s Mathare slum -- a preying ground for traffickers -- and the Haart Foundation, Kenya’s only dedicated anti-trafficking NGO.

But, in my opinion, three key components made this Lab work: the carefully selected participants who brought an electric energy to the dialogue; the flexibility of the facilitating team to adapt to new scenarios without imposing their own views; and the regular exercises in self-reflection which constantly challenged people to examine their own limitations and think freely.

Today over 40 million people are victims of trafficking with women and children at greatest risk. When confronting a problem of this magnitude, it is all too easy to become closed to fresh ideas, cynical or feel defeated. The Nairobi experiment took a group of diverse people and united them as an army. “Now I have a team and I am not alone,” said one as the meeting closed.