Survivors leading solutions: a voice, a mission, a new approach

The scope and reach of NGOs and humanitarian organizations has experienced a golden era within the age of communications. The number of NGOs grows daily, and so does the money and resources donated to them. By 2030, the expected global value of these resources is projected to grow to 2.5 billion dollars. Nevertheless, NGO assistance tends time and time again to reproduce a single structure: national or international organizations, often with headquarters in a major metropolis, entering different areas and offering services locally; with teams composed of industry professionals. While much help is delivered in this manner, one can wonder whether this structure presents a disconnect with the experiences and even the needs of those seeking assistance. This has come under focus in recent years, and many have been calling for a new mode: one based on survivors helping survivors.

What are Survivor-led approaches?

Survivor-led approaches are essentially care and support solutions delivered under the leadership of survivors themselves. They are defined by a victim-centered approach; holding an absolute focus on the needs of victims, and looking to make sure care is provided in a sensitive and compassionate manner. The intent is to minimize retraumatization during the process; recognizing that trauma and healing are complicated to understand and respond to correctly, and may include multiple layers of victimization.  Thus, it seeks to offer those that have been victimized by abuse the support of a community that will resonate with them – other survivors.

Empowering survivors to take charge and become engaged in assisting other victims not only assures that the providers fully understand the circumstances and needs of those they try to help, but also support survivors’ rights, dignity, autonomy, and self-determination.

Benefits of Survivor-led approaches

Survivor-led crisis response has been proved invaluable across numerous areas. In fact, humanitarian organizations and NGOs highlight that affected communities tend to be the most prepared first responders

To generate impact, survivor-informed solutions need to be applied at the individual, community, and systemic levels. NGO experiences indicate that this practice provides efficient and effective measures to address the most pressing needs, as identified by the survivors themselves. Survivors are able to address issues that pass under the radar of most NGOs or research groups and have key input in identifying the core vulnerabilities that lead to abuse. This serves to strengthen long term resilience.

The idea of survivors leading their own movements heightens awareness within the community of their ability to further improve both their own future and those of others like them. Such capacity encourages survivors to rise from horrific situations with dignity and pride in their work. In fact, even when having to face barriers along the way, more and more survivors are now leading the change they want to see.

How Survivors are trailblazing 

Survivor-led initiatives are finding their space within the world of NGOs and humanitarian assistance. Until now, most initiatives applying survivor-led approaches have been in the area of human trafficking. However, the field is slowly starting to diversify. 

Notable examples in anti-trafficking are: 

  • The National Survivor Network is a survivor-led initiative seeking to foster connections between survivors of any form of human trafficking; building an international anti-trafficking movement with survivors as leaders at the forefront of the fight.  The platform promotes survivor-led advocacy, community empowerment, and peer-to-peer mentorship. Currently, it includes survivors from 24 countries.
  • Breaking Free, founded in 1996 by Vednita Carter, helps women escape situations of sexual exploitation by providing direct services, such as housing, education, advocacy, and immediate action. This organization also looks to affect the demand for possibly forceful sexual exploitation through Men Breaking Free.
  • Apne Aap, created by 22 women from Mumbai’s red-light district, defines its vision as creating a “world where no woman could be bought or sold”. These women were the protagonists of Ruchira Gupta’s documentary “The Selling of Innocents”. They bonded during filming and found in each other the strength to make a difference. 

Furthermore, in recent years survivor led solutions have grown to define certain areas of support. We can see a trend of the emergence of survivor-led organizations for victims of acid attacks with many groups being formed across the world. Partnering with long-established organizations, like Acid Survivors Trust International, these initiatives are seeking to use international support to offer tailored local solutions. Particularly, the Acid Survivors Saahas Foundation stands out due to its impact. The initiative was founded by Mrs. Daulat Bi Khan, a survivor of an acid attack, in 2016. After recovering from the attack, she found no one would give her a job and people would offer her no help due to her appearance. In order to provide for others in her situation, she established a foundation that offered victims surgeries, provided them with any basic needs, and even secured marriages. Partnering with a diverse range of pre-existing organizations, such as the Meer Foundation, they continue to extend their support to more women. 

ASTI Map recording the areas with most acid attacks

Similarly, domestic violence is another area in which survivors are taking charge. Domestic violence survivors have often supported each other within the communities, but now we are witnessing these support networks expand across borders. Examples like We Are Survivors Foundation, founded by Wanda McKinley, a survivor of domestic violence, represent an new wave of support for often invisible victims. By providing a safe space for abused men, women, and children, including counseling, employment training, and shelter these NGOs seek to increase the capacity of victims escaping domestic violence. More niche responses, focusing on areas like entrepreneurship, mentorship, and empowerment, are also aiming to improve survivors’ agency and assist in their reintegration into their communities. 

Resistance and goals

Despite the progress mentioned above, and the recognized value of survivor-led approaches, there remains still a notable institutional resistance to the adoption of these practices as they clash with the traditional way of providing assistance in the nongovernmental and humanitarian sectors. There is a long way to go in supporting, empowering, and listening to survivors so that they themselves can shape new solutions to abuse. Governments and international organizations are making commitments to include survivors as key elements in shaping policy and on the ground responses. These commitments are being implemented in national action plans, toolkits, and implementation directives.

Now, it is up to us to give our support to survivors, and their new visions and solutions. 


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