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The river of life for a survivor: from dependency to agency

A blog by person with lived experience of modern slavery on meaningful engagement in research.

Published: 28th July 2022

The phoenix rising from the ashes is a perfect metaphor that can be used to describe the journey of a survivor from dependency to having agency.

A rebirth was possible for the phoenix because it was able to re-invent itself. Re-invention is essential as it signifies hope, healing and new beginnings, which can only be achieved if safe spaces where survivors can be meaningfully engaged are created. This will also make healing and self-reliance a possibility for survivors as they will be able to empower themselves.

This reality can only be possible for survivors if spaces where they can envision a different world for themselves, with the possibility of changing the existing power dynamics are created. Actively empowering survivors through the creation of opportunities where they can be meaningfully included is therefore essential. It empowers them to decide on the trajectory of their lives through taking actions that will bring them closer to reinforcing their agency and promoting their recovery, whilst inhibiting chances of re-trafficking.

Meaningfully engaging survivors in research, for instance, allows for the linking of the knowledge that survivors hone through their lived experience with action. It allows for the questioning of the data that is there, whilst offering an avenue for the existing gaps to be filled through the sharing of knowledge between academics and survivors. Teaching and learning from each other is essential in changing attitudes, as it gives both sides an unfiltered perspective. Through working with experts on the peer-to-peer research projects we participated in together with Survivor Alliance, it clearly emerged that there were evident gaps in both policies and some of the interventions that have been put in place to address the issues faced by survivors.

By creating a reflective practice, we were able to analyse policies and approaches through the knowledge honed through lived experiences. We were then taken through different cycles of learning, reflecting and visualising the different actions that can be taken to improve these policies and practices. Thereby using the same knowledge to advise on the existing gaps, whilst learning different skills that are essential when carrying out a research study.

Meaningfully engaging survivors and providing opportunities to not only learn from researchers, but also to apply what they learn in practice in projects they participate in, is an important aspect of empowerment. It’s therefore important to recognise that survivors are experts in the issue they’re researching, to make sure that the survivors and academics are able to feed each other’s expertise, and in turn inform policies and programs to address survivors’ real needs.

It’s therefore important to recognise that survivors are experts in the issue they’re researching, to make sure that the survivors and academics are able to feed each other’s expertise, and in turn inform policies and programs to address survivors’ real needs.

Person with lived experience of modern slavery

It is essential to recognise that, whilst such engagements are necessary, having safeguarding measures in place with clearly outlined roles and standards of engagement is crucial. This helps in ensuring that survivors are not exploited, that they know the nature and levels of engagement they are expected to have. Part of the reason why my experience as a peer researcher was impactful was that the project employed a survivor-centred approach and put measures in place to make sure that my wellbeing was as important as my output in research. This entailed observing safeguarding protocols such as the issue of consent and the availability of mentors who guided us through the projects. We also had different training sessions that took us through different research processes and addressed any issues that came up during our placements.

Part of the experience involved us having frequent learning and training sessions from both experts and peer researchers who have vast experience in the field of research. This created avenues for us to explore and have a deeper understanding of different areas of research we were struggling with and needed more training on, thereby ensuring that our output for the project was up to high standards. For example, through the training, we were able to carry out interviews, code and pick themes. We were also trained on how to carry out research ethically and how to write reports without plagiarising.

People who experienced modern slavery are more than their trauma. It is important to acknowledge that it is survivors themselves who can recognise where they are at their journey, and no one can therefore decide for them an opportune time for engagement in projects. Viewing survivors only through the lens of their experiences can not only hinder their healing, but also leaves them in a constant state of dependency, thereby exposing them to the risk of re-trafficking in a bid to make ends meet.

People who experienced modern slavery are more than their trauma.

Person with lived experience of modern slavery

Another important aspect of meaningfully engaging survivors in research is creating an avenue for them to build social networks that are important in facilitating empowerment and envisioning a different life for themselves, hence enabling them to reclaim their sense of control and self-efficacy. It will result in survivors gaining control over different aspects of their lives and acquiring techniques that will allow them to cope with shocks. Building connections with others is important to ensure that survivors are growing and moving from dependency to agency.

All this means that funding of research projects should not only ensure survivors are compensated fairly, but also making sure all these factors should be taken into account during conceptualisation of programs. Being aware of aspects such as power dynamics and how they may hinder meaningful survivor engagement is essential, and putting in measures to recognise them alongside safeguarding and survivor-centred approaches will help in ensuring that survivors are also able to thrive.

The Modern Slavery PEC is working on several innovative projects including survivors of modern slavery as those leading on research design and implementation, setting new standards for research. The project examining the role of mental wellbeing in recovery for survivors is also developing a curriculum on working with people with lived experience as peer researchers. The outputs are expected to be published in Autumn 2022.