Harvesting: where fiction meets children’s rights advocacy
Harvesting highlights storytelling’s power and reminds us we all can help fight trafficking
Lisa Harding’s aptitude for storytelling helps humanise trafficking survivors and raise awareness of the problem. Photograph: Getty Images
Human trafficking inflicts physical, sexual and emotional violence on children across the globe. These impacts on the rights and wellbeing of children are devastating, both for their childhood and their adult life to come. Marginalised children – especially those without parental care – are not only especially vulnerable to trafficking and its various forms of exploitation, but they also face many barriers to accessing assistance needed to get out of trafficking situations. And so they often go unseen in our communities, as they suffer grave violations of their human rights.
According to the United Nations, child trafficking is the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of a child for the purpose of exploitation. It can take many forms – occurring either within or across state borders for example – and includes not only sexual exploitation but also labour exploitation across numerous sectors including ones that produce the food we eat and the clothing we wear. Across all types of trafficking, traffickers exert control of their victims through deception, coercion, abuse of power and violence.
There is now greater visibility of the problem of child trafficking, with heightened concern about the need to prevent and respond effectively translating into co-ordinated multilateral action by states. International children’s rights organisations like End Child Prostitution and Trafficking have highlighted the scale and complexity of the problem, with national organisations like Ruhama providing supports and services to those affected. But the problem continues nonetheless, requiring accelerated international, co-ordinated and intensive efforts both to prevent and to respond to its effects.
Crucial to the legal and practical steps against child trafficking and exploitation is the need to raise awareness about the true nature of the problem. Advocacy of all kinds serves to lift the lid on the problem, exposing the reality of its impacts on children and sharing information about its causes and its solutions. Finding creative ways to explain the problem and to communicate its effects to the public is critical to motivating individuals across society to play proactive roles in addressing child trafficking.
The complex and dark world of human trafficking provides the backdrop to Lisa Harding’s ambitious and compelling novel Harvesting, that tells the devastating story of two girls who are victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Based in Ireland, the book tells the distinct but interwoven stories of Nico, a girl trafficked from Moldova with the promise (to her parents) of a better life, and Sammy, a girl who falls between the cracks of parental and social care.
There are many stand-out elements: the emotional complexity of Nico’s departure from her family life in Moldova and the vivid description of the treacherous journey as, between terror and hope, her vulnerability is exploited. For Sammy, the tragedy is home grown. A girl who quickly finds herself on the margins, her circumstances push her quickly from vulnerability into exploitation. In both scenarios, adults represented throughout the novel present as much risk to the girls as they offer aid.
The protagonists’ resilience shines through the utter abandonment and ruthlessness of their experience. What is most compelling about the novel, ultimately, is the author’s ability to tell the story of trafficking and exploitation in a way that is both arresting and authentic. In this way, ‘Harvesting’ speaks to the value of advocacy through fiction, linking original story telling with evidenced based experiences in a powerful way.
Although the story is dark, Harvesting also offers positive insights into the importance of family support (and state support for vulnerable families), as well as the role of alternative care and guardianship systems. It also conveys the importance of children’s voices and the need for adults to listen and genuinely hear what concerns or interests children.
The value of Harvesting is twofold. First, as an advocacy tool, fiction can have a powerful impact. Research shows that fiction is engrained in the hearts and minds of readers in a way that does not occur with nonfiction. Legal arguments and data, while essential to advocacy efforts, do not operate to the same effect. The act of reading itself engenders empathy and can reduce violence. Through the personal narratives that Harding envisions, readers can experience the pain and suffering, as well as the strength and resilience, of trafficking victims and survivors. Readers witness the violence of trafficking, learn the extent of human rights violations suffered by those children targeted by traffickers, and gain a greater understanding of the complex nature of child trafficking.
More broadly, this richer understanding of trafficking victims’ lived experience helps educate readers to understand children’s rights violations as not merely issues that happen to children in far off lands, but as traumatic experiences that occur with children within our communities.
Second, Harding’s book imparts a second important lesson: everyone can contribute to preventing trafficking and other children’s rights violations. As she explains, the book was her “attempt to pay homage to these invisible girls, and to raise awareness of this hidden, flourishing trade”. Ultimately, addressing child trafficking successfully will require an integrated, multi-sector response. But rather than insist that every concerned citizen learn a new set of skills, we need to help others understand how their existing skill set can contribute. Harding’s aptitude for storytelling helps humanise trafficking survivors and raise awareness of the problem. The rest of us – health care providers, educators, private sector professionals, media, and other members of the community – all have a role to play.
Harvesting reminds us that anti-trafficking efforts are not limited to the work of law enforcement and social services. And it highlights the importance and power of storytelling. In the end, it is vital that we also hear the stories and experiences of trafficking survivors, so that we can understand human trafficking in ways that will help us build more effective responses to the problem.
Ursula Kilkelly is a professor of law at University College Cork. Jonathan Todres is a professor of law at Georgia State University in the US