This week on the 2nd of December, we celebrated the ‘International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.’ The day intends to raise awareness about contemporary forms of slavery we face today while remembering our painful past and all affected. Slavery has existed for centuries dating back to our first civilization. Defined by the “illegal exploitation of people for personal/commercial gain.” Just by the first glance of that definition, it’s no surprise that this type of oppression remains. We have repeatedly witnessed, that when it comes to money- humanity pays the price. It’s naive to believe slavery has met its end when many are enslaved today. It may be abolished, in a legal sense around the world, but it is still allowed. If it continues to bring about profit and generate billions annually in the 21st century, then, of course, it still exists.

Today modern slavery entraps women, men, and children all over the globe. We experience it in many different forms, although human trafficking serves as an umbrella term for the types of slavery that ensue. The illegal transporting (in-country or out) of persons to profit from their work or service has created a pool of reasons for traffickers to thrive. The unlawful recruitment and transfer of people aim to serve forced labor, sex work, organ removal, child marriage, child soldiers, and debt bondage activities.

Forced labor= Labor trafficking is a common form of modern slavery that exists worldwide. Many are captured against their will or coerced by manipulation and false promises of ‘opportunity.’ In poverty-driven communities, the need to escape hardship provides a ‘hopeful’ attitude that accepts any offer to support their families. Here, many meet human deceit and exploitation first-hand, held captive and forced to perform work under the threat of punishment. Identity documentation and any belongings – removed.

Sex work= This type of slavery exchanges sexual activity for money. Mainly women and children forced to perform sexual acts, non-consensually. Human beings traded globally to partake in prostitution become trapped in a cycle of abuse and violence. Innocence stripped.

Organ removal= Black market trading of organs illegally services the demand of human transplants. ‘The taking of one’s life to serve another.’ Organ harvesting involves the trafficking of people to remove their internal organs for transplant. Supply does not meet the demand, making it a more profitable business for traffickers in this trade.

Child marriage= Abducted children (mainly girls) against their consent are to wed adults. Girls and boys from developing countries are subjected to early marriages where they become slaves to their ‘spouses.’
Children coerced into such unions are expected to engage in sexual activities against their will and live in conditions where their lives are ‘lived for their spouses.’ Their spouses have ownership, they must serve them in every way.

Child soldiers= Adults continue to recruit children to do their dirty work. Children are trafficked to forcibly join the armed forces, rebel groups, or paramilitary organizations as pawns used in combat to kill and injure.

Debt bondage= Debt slavery is common and occurs when a person is forced to work or provide a service to pay off a prior debt. The idea of trapping individuals in poorer communities by offering them money and tricking them to do illegal work. Most get paid little to nothing and what they earn goes towards their debt. They became owned by their debtors. No control.

After looking at each form of slavery, I’m sure you can deduce the adverse effects it may have on one’s mental health. The violation of basic human rights leaves many survivors of contemporary slavery with lasting psychological problems. Most experience the onset of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Survivors face disabling mental health problems that hinder their entrance back into society. Support is usually given in terms of basic living needs, whereas psychological needs are overlooked. If we had to go through Maslows Hierchary of Needs- none are met when survivors first escape. They only have the clothes on their back, saddled with physical and psychological damage.
Trafficked individuals encounter multiple forms of violence such as physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse. Constant violence can induce post-traumatic stress disorder, which produces symptoms including nightmares, flashbacks, and unmanageable thoughts. It directly affects the way they begin to adjust and cope in society. Many become consumed by unwanted thoughts of their painful trauma that inhibits one’s growth.

The community plays a vital role in supporting survivors’ well-being and easing their transition. Survivors of modern slavery suffer enough isolation during their enslavement to be subjected to public scrutiny and stigma. (Usually the case). Remember, survivors are wrestling with their trauma and coming to terms with their past before they can better serve their present & future. Returning home after what they have endured can be frightening when dealing with the added burden of society’s perception of you. Instead of being celebrated for surviving, victims face rejection from their communities. Through discrimination, communities target the little survivors have left – family and values. Reintegration can be challenging, especially for sex trafficking survivors, viewed as “damaged goods.” Being persistently disregarded by society can lead to a deeper stigma within one, where they start to write themselves off. They enter a state of self-judgment and labeling where they believe they’re far too ‘damaged to be repaired.’ On top of existing, mental health problems, further alienation from society intensifies one’s depression. It is sometimes enough to lead survivors into a dark hole battling suicidal thoughts and possible attempts.

We must maintain an open mind to pain – we cannot understand and fathom. After being dehumanized and treated as an object, it is our civic duty to show humanity and rally among survivors in unity. As you might expect survivors lack trust and human connection after their experiences. They may not be inclined to accept help from others and form honest relationships because they are constantly on guard and suspect the worse of individuals. As most have endured the worst, humans have to offer. You can imagine how social stigma escalates their mistrust.

Ravaged with anxiety from experiences that have stripped any normalcy away, it is difficult for survivors to live with freedom again. One may be regularly triggered, losing control of their ability to respond to a situation. Responses – are led by fear and worry. A feeling ‘NOT’ easily shaken and detrimental to day-to-day functioning. Intense panic attacks and excessive worry about being re-trafficked is the reality for most survivors. For the child soldier forced to pull the trigger, the young lady abused by her pimp, or the father coerced into illegal work with the threat of his family’s lives- fear runs deep. The emotional scars of their journey heighten survivors’ risk of adopting substance abuse habits to escape their thoughts. Cycles are created, falling into a pit of self-criticizing, echoing the idea that you are worthless. Children survivors feel robbed of their innocence, believing that they are defined by the crimes they are forced to commit. When you spend a large amount of your development in some of the cruelest and darkest parts of the world – it definitely can make one lose hope.

How do we begin to assist in rebuilding the lives of survivors?

We can start by tackling access to mental health services for survivors. While prioritizing the socio-economic needs one must look to heal the tool necessary for growth. ‘The mind.’ The investment into one’s mental well-being is essential. Survivors in developing countries must receive support from governments, in the form of mental health care. Professionals together with survivors can work towards unique treatment that addresses the different trauma and victimization faced. Therapy must focus on building survivors’ self-confidence and self-esteem. It is important that survivors feel powerful again and begin to respect themselves. Individuals need to understand their worth and establish their purpose. Victims of modern-day slavery need to break away from their former identity as a slave and look to rebuild the individual they aspire to be.
Support groups and counseling can effectively channel one’s understanding to identify what those goals and aspirations may be. There is a chance at a beautiful rebirth of identity, where the survivor can work at readjusting their self-perception. Depending on the patient’s response to treatment, participation in local advocacy and activism may be suggested – as a means of taking back their power and life. Using your trauma to shed light on the situation and create awareness among the community. Note, that it is only helpful for a survivor if their progress is promising and there is no risk of retriggering their trauma. With individuals who have experienced so much isolation, finding a sense of belonging and rebuilding healthy relationships is imperative. The assistance of the community is necessary. Mental health facilities need to focus on patients relearning of social connection and their relation to others. By building a network of people and a village of support, together with services, communities can welcome survivors with warmth and acceptance. Victims have reported being locked in rooms, so learning how to re-socialize can help them curate meaningful relationships. Peer visits by mentors and survivors can give those currently affected – hope and a chance at a new life. Being an ear for survivors allows them to find ways to express their experiences providing relief. Many choose to suppress and block their trauma which can hinder their healing. It is a matter of timing. Survivors must feel ready to share rather than being pushed to recall.

We need to look at collectively using our resources to train mental health professionals in treating victims of modern-day slavery. We must identify their needs and curate effective therapies. In terms of access, we have to apply pressure on the government to provide free facilities that target low economic developing countries. All barriers like finance and language must be recognized and solved to ensure there is no discrimination when it comes to receiving treatment. It needs to encompass all. We cannot further marginalize victims of abuse instead, we should welcome and offer them a fighting chance at reintegration into society. Law enforcement together with policy reform need to focus on actively reducing the number of people trafficked. But while it continues to be our reality, we must prepare for the consequences.

Mind Over Matter