I was invited recently to speak at the first international conference of human trafficking survivor’s in Colombia. After the conference a couple of women in the audience approached me because they had a question. I knew before they asked me what the question was going to be. I had explained that I had been exploited in Japan when I was 19 years old after I had accepted an offer to work as a model and hostess in Tokyo. Their questions was: If I had the freedom to go out every day why didn’t I ask for help?. I am always hesitant to talk about some details at a conference because questions like this one are very complex and I need more than the allow 15 minutes to answer them. If I simply answer with the truth, that I did not ask for help because I did not know I had been trafficked, it will be so incomprehensible that I will end up leaving the audience more confused than educated. How could I not have known that I was a human trafficking victim? To answer that I have to explain that traffickers often target young women like me knowing that we are easily going to be exploited and manipulated. That the grooming process for making me a victim had started so long, beginning in my childhood, that when the abuse happened I no longer felt it was illegal or that I had a choice. Grooming is the processes were an abuser gains the trust of the intended victim breaking their defenses. Abuse is often taboo so even when is exposed the victim is encouraged to keep silent and even normalizes the abuse since there aren’t any consequences for the perpetuator even after discovered therefore perpetuating the cycle of abuse for years to come. Even after I left Japan and I learned more about human trafficking I did not identified myself as a survivor because I did not fit the victim profile I had been accustomed seeing, the young woman chained, starved and beaten. In fact it was not until I met a survivor of human trafficking in 2012 that I understood.
After meeting Marcela Loaiza in Mexico City, she told me very matter of fact that according to the United Nations guideline that defines human trafficking I too had been a victim of trafficking for the simple facts that they had taken my passport upon arrival and had been coerced into having sex with clients for their financial gain. It was not until that fateful day that I started to look at human trafficking differently and recognized many of the situations I had experience. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime defines human trafficking as the recruitment, transport or harboring of a person by means of threat, abuse of power, violence or deception for the purpose of exploitation. Finding out that I was a survivor of human trafficking did not automatically mean I identified with my new title. It seems I am not the only one that had a hard time understanding.
In her book “Walking Prey” Holly Austin Smith, explains in great detail how many youth are at risk of becoming victims, she also talks about what she describes as a “willing victim” a victim that has been desensitized by years of abuse and lack of guidance that can easily be manipulated. Holly explains that nobody ever enters willingly a relationship of exploitation, undignified treatment and abuse. As shocking as this seems I really had no idea that I had not been at fault of anything that happen to me during my time in Japan, that I had been exploited and manipulated because I was afraid to return home to Mexico and that my desire for a better future did not have to cost me my dignity.
David A. Feingold’s article “Human Trafficking” seeks to demystifies what we know about this subject, he understands that by looking further into what we believe we understand about victims and traffickers we will be able to stop this crime. David explains in his article that the media keeps perpetuating the image of victims that are kidnapped when in fact most victims leave home voluntarily. At only 19 years old and with no information to help me understand my rights, is only logical that I not only became trafficked but also that had no idea that it was happening to me. I could take the time and explain the two women that asked me the question after the conference but I know that it will still leave them unsatisfied, what society wants is a vision of a perfect victim, one that society feel it was not at fault. Learning that day that I was a survivor help me shift my focus to advocate better against violence against women, labels matter only in understanding that when it comes to violence there is no such a thing as an isolated event, One is a door that leads to a cycle that only awareness can brake. So after that meeting I started to advocate and identified myself as a survivor of sexual violence and human trafficking to help identified all current victims of human trafficking or at risk of become targets. I wonder how may of the women that I crossed paths in Japan understand like me now that we were victims or they are just living their lives hiding and in shame. I don’t like celebrating my birthday, it was given to me instead I like celebrating the days that I have chosen to be born again. July 12, 2012 I will forever remember as the day I found out I was a survivor of human trafficking, a day when my dignity was restored.