Why would she run away? I just don’t understand! She woke up one morning with a strange bewildered look in her eyes, acted aggressively all morning, saying hurtful things and by late afternoon, she was gone. Not even taking her toothbrush with her. Just gone.
In my counselling with girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking, I have frequently been perplexed by the illogical phenomena of them running away. When they first arrive at a place of safety, they are like frightened little animals. They curl up in a corner and defend themselves, verbally or physically, whenever one would dare coming too close. Skittish kittens, dangerously unpredictable. After a while, they become overwhelmed by the realization that nobody here wants anything from them. It’s difficult for them to accept unconditional kindness and to believe that nobody wants to buy or sell them, or that no one will harm them for selfish gain. They are fed, clothed and listened to, without hidden agendas—for the first time, someone cares about them and their story. They are free to be themselves.
It sounds like an idyllic rescue story with a ‘happy ever after’ ending, but it’s not as simple as that. These girls don’t know how to ‘be themselves’. There is no identity baseline informing their behavior. There have been no role models whom they could identify with in a positive way. They have been tossed around like worthless objects for the majority of their lives. Nameless. Faceless. Hopeless. Onlookers and bystanders usually nurture the expectation that these girls will be rehabilitated within a short period of time, ‘get on with it’ and live ‘productively’. It’s expected that they become ‘normal’ like everybody else.
Let’s call her Grace. I listened to her life story and wondered if she would ever be a ‘normal’ woman after what she had endured—Grace was sold into sex trafficking by her parents at the age of five. The most horrific movie, depicting unimaginable torture, pales in comparison with her experiences, but I was hopeful. The grace of God has brought Grace to this place. God could heal her. I wanted her to be healed from her ordeals, to ‘become normal’ and ‘be free’. It’s as easy as making a choice. Is it not?
Grace was rescued by a lady (let’s call her ‘Mama’), who frequently ministers to prostitutes on the streets, most of whom have been lured into prostitution under false pretenses by sex traffickers. Mama cares for survivors at her place of safety, whom she had personally rescued. She cared for Grace with much patience and kindness and like me, trusted God for a miracle in this young woman’s life. In the early hours one morning, Mama awoke, startled as she realized Grace was sitting on her bed. ‘Mama,’ Grace whispered wide-eyed, ‘Take my takkies, because I think I’m going to run.’ She had thrown every rubber soled shoe into a black garbage bag and explained that it would ‘trigger’ her into running away. When she was held captive, she would often get hold of a pair of takkies and take to the streets. She would run for miles until she fell down with exhaustion. After catching her breath, she would carry on running aimlessly, sometimes for days, only to find herself back at her captors again. During those moments of ‘freedom’, she would feel in control of her life, but it quickly waned as it dawned on her that she had nowhere to run to. There was no destination at the end of the road. No place where she truly belonged. The place of torture was her only place of safety, the only place she knew.
We were making progress in the counselling. Grace was slowly starting to connect with herself emotionally—due to the physical harm victims endure, they become physically and emotionally numb, yet volatile. It’s a mine field. There is little impulse control and emotional intelligence. Using vocabulary containing abstract concepts like love, surrendering to God, or freedom in Christ, doesn’t make sense to them. I avoid any condemning talk from my side when counselling survivors, but rather focus on their own worth as women being created in God’s image. I once asked Grace, ‘What do you value about yourself?’ Grace stared at me for a long while before she smiled shyly. ‘That I can run very fast.’ We explored how running away had helped her in the past and how that wasn’t useful any longer. It seemed like she was feeling more ‘at home’ with herself than ever before. ‘I feel like I’m a person’, she said. She seemed like she was finally starting to ‘belong’. She was taking her first steps, wearing ‘footwear for freedom’.
Two weeks later, she got hold of a pair of takkies and ran back to her captors.
I have been contemplating the relation between wearing takkies and running back into the lion’s den, so to speak. The takkies are the ‘triggers’ which activate default behavioral patterns which Grace seemed to have had little control over. There wasn’t sufficient discipling taking place throughout Grace’s life enabling her to evaluate and choose differently. Those of us who have learned the difference between harmful and constructive behavior, most probably have had a trustworthy adult in our lives training us in making sensible choices which would preserve our lives. We have learned which ‘triggers’ to avoid as a result of experiencing the unpleasant consequences of our actions, although most of us have ignored those warnings at some point in our lives—’normal’ human development. Extensive therapy and counselling with someone like Grace, over a long period of time, could eventually cultivate different behavioral patterns. Grace could also learn to avoid her ‘triggers’, but there will probably be a number of ‘relapses’ along the way, regardless of how illogical it might seem.
As a counsellor, I have learned that survivors of sex trafficking need time and patience as they try on ‘footwear for freedom’. It takes time getting used to being accepted, unconditionally cared for and treated with respect. Discovering who they truly are as women is daunting. Being discipled into a new way of living may even cause them to look for a pair of takkies—they don’t want to disappoint their ‘good Samaritans’ and would rather run away than risk failure.
I received news from Mama: Grace had returned, willing to try again, one step at a time. Complex trauma and PTSD can take years to heal. It could take a long time before Grace is comfortable in her ‘footwear for freedom’ … but there is hope. I believe God has enough grace for Grace.
Short Biography: Idalette ([email protected]) is a part-time co-lecturer at SATS, in the Christian Counselling courses, she completed the Higher Certificate in Christian Counseling at SATS in January 2020 with distinction. She earned a degree in music (BMus (Ed), 1992), and honors in Educational Psychology (1993) at TUKS. As a part-time counselor with survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, she is interested in effectively applying music- and art therapeutic techniques in trauma counseling, she is also a motivational speaker, writer, and spokesperson for Human Trafficking Awareness. She is married to Andrew and they have three children and live in Centurion.