This year’s theme—The Journey from Victim to Survivor—is very personal to me. It brings to mind many of the people I came to know and admire during the years I spent as a civil rights prosecutor.
I remember how frightened “Phuong” looked entering the empty courtroom a few days before the trial. To ease the trauma of testifying, she and her fellow survivors took turns sitting in the witness stand, the jury box, and even—with the permission of the court—the judge’s chair. She sat at counsel’s table, questioning one of the agents as if she were the prosecutor. As the hour went by and she became comfortable in the courtroom, her nervousness turned to laughter and then to determination. A week later, leaving the stand after a long cross-examination, she remarked about the defendant: “He looks so small.” The balance of power had finally shifted. A decade later, he remains in federal prison and his victims are living their lives in America. I was honored to attend the 10th anniversary celebrating their liberation from the garment factory; we danced and sang and told stories and laughed with the children. Phuong and her friends were no longer victims, they were survivors.
Then there was “Katia.” Trying hard to be tough and strong, the former track star who had been held in servitude in a strip club finally began to open up after she saw a female agent handcuff her trafficker at the end of a court hearing. While he went to prison, she went to work, building a new life in the United States and choosing to engage occasionally in anti-trafficking advocacy on her own terms. She bravely testified before Congress, sharing her story so that others could be helped. When I keynoted a seminar in her new hometown, Katia and one of her fellow survivors insisted on introducing me. I looked up at the podium and saw that they were still strong, but no longer scared. Toughness, defensiveness, and wariness had been replaced by determination, resilience, and grace. We were still linked, not as a prosecutor and victim-witnesses, but as colleagues.
What trafficking victims endure is incomparable to what most of us confront in a lifetime and should put into context the small injustices and frustrations of our daily work and lives. The same can be said of their courage and strength, both during their exploitation and recovery. Of the tens of thousands of victims identified this year worldwide, some will become advocates, some will go on to achieve personal goals, and some will continue to need care.
This Report stands for the belief that all survivors should be able to feel their power and live their truth. Whether becoming a witness or an activist, an employer or employee, the journey from victim to survivor is one that no one should walk alone. Last year, we challenged governments to ensure trafficking victims have “the freedom to choose their own futures.” That future is now.
Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons