The Oxford Dictionary defines victimology as the “study of the victims of crime and the psychological effects on them”. Some academics and indeed scholars consider victimology as a soft science that may shed light on parts of the often-multifaceted statements and testimonies that are delivered in courts of law and other platforms by victims across the world. Acquiring even the most basic level of understanding of the behavior of victims of human trafficking and allied criminal offences such as in cases of domestic violence may significantly contribute to making or breaking any given case.
I would to like to however focus our attention on the effects of victimology or the behavior of victims vis-à-vis their perceived credibility in the eyes of those that may encounter them or those charged with the responsibility of identifying and assisting them such as law enforcement, social workers, Bogosi, political leaders, community leaders, the general public and others. In this respect and when interviewed, it is not uncommon for victims to be perceived, at least initially, as being evasive, dishonest, unwilling to cooperate or tell untruths or outright lies.
For law enforcement and social workers and others who may find themselves assisting such victims, it is extremely important to resist the temptation to declare the victim a chronic liar, cut them down in any way or be quick to allow the defense or the legal team of the accused trafficker to freely and without insightful contestation impugn the credibility of the victim. Whilst inconsistencies and untruths would under normal circumstances warrant the dismissal of a case before the courts, there are certain situations in which courts of law and law enforcement in general may consider such inconsistencies as advantageous and beneficial to the successful prosecution of a trafficking in persons case and also validate the protection needs of the victim.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) through engagement of members of ICAT (UN Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons) have published an array of position papers and other scholarly writings to explain this phenomenon of perceived victim untruths. In the UNODC issue paper entitled “Pivoting Toward the Evidence; Building Effective Counter-Trafficking Responses using Accumulated Knowledge and a Shared Approach to Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning”, a number of reasons for victim inconsistencies are explored.
For instance and through the examination of adjudicated cases around the globe, there have been circumstances whereby some victims have found themselves in situations where they feel indebted to their captor or trafficker. For example, a trafficker may say to a victim “ha nne e se ka nna, losika lwa gago nkabo le sa obe letsogo, e bile mmago o itse ngaka e le ha ke gatang teng”, or other quips that may over time reinforce a sense of subservience and utter helplessness on the part of the victim thereby exacerbating the severity of the type human trafficking or the type of exploitation such as in cases of domestic servitude otherwise known as modern-day slavery.
The traumatic processes that the victim has undergone is therefore critical to understand if one is to decipher the perceived untruths or inconsistencies in victim statements and testimonies. During trial, a victim’s demeanor may also be very telling. Is he or she afraid? Are there any relations of any sort between the victim and the accused person? If so, the presence of family members of the defendant may significantly intimidate a victim that already feels falsely indebted to the accused trafficker. In such circumstances, the likelihood that a victim may alter his or her statements; tell what appears to be an outlandishly contradictory statement in stark contrast to previous statements or even seek to totally expunge them is great. Some victims may feel extremely intimidated by the presence of law enforcement officers if, for example they have experienced violations at the hands of such officials during the trafficking process. We should also be mindful that it is well known that traffickers also coach their victims on what to say and what not to say. This coaching can be so deeply entrenched in the victim that their contradictory and sometimes implausible assertions are nothing more than symptomatic ramblings of such coaching.
In Botswana, Government has provided targeted capacity building opportunities to law enforcement officials and pertinent Government Departments so as to take into account the impact of soft sciences like victimology. In addition, such capacity building initiatives have been extended to social workers, Bogosi and civil society organisations in a bid to ensure that they too capture victim statements in as thorough detail as possible which will consequently assist adjudicators to more easily decipher and sift through contradictory victim testimonies and statements. They may thereafter exact sufficiently stringent sentences or reach successful prosecutions. Conversely, understanding victimology may also work to secure legitimate exonerations. The key to unravelling a lot of what goes on in the underworld of human trafficking is conducting excellent investigations and continually building capacity amongst all concerned stakeholders.
*Madoda Leslie Nasha is a Manager – Trafficking in Persons at the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security