"I can't erase my past, but I can use it," lived experience leader takes the fight to new heights in Colombia

July 25, 2022

Where there is progress in the human trafficking movement, there are lived experience leaders rising, using their voices, and inspiring real change at the center. At Atlas Free, we strive to ensure that survivor voices are at the heart of our research, solutions, and strategies. Their lived experience drives impact in all areas like aftercare, policy, intervention, demand reduction, and more.    

Our strategic partner and lived experience leader Claudia is the founder and director of one of Colombia's Cuidando Vidas safe houses.

Claudia is a survivor of the Colombian armed conflict, sexual violence, and prostitution. She was a victim for more than ten years in Colombia and Argentina—and after many attempts, she was able to free herself.

Since then, she has worked directly with the Colombian government to address the problems of sex trafficking and founded her own organization that accompanies survivors in Popayán and Cali, Colombia.

In early 2020, Claudia aimed to launch the first-of-its-kind long-term safe home for exploited women in the region. Atlas Free came alongside her to equip, empower and realize her dream to serve victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Together, we were able to act quickly during the pandemic and launch a new safe home as a part of our Rapid Covid Relief initiative in April 2020. 

Since then, we have worked closely with our Local Partner Empodérame, with Claudia at the helm. We equip her team for sustainability, champion them in their growth, and scale their efforts for future impact. 

Since opening, her partnership in the aftercare space has transformed the lives of countless women and children and provided education and childcare to combat vulnerability. 

Since then, we have served over 150 people through the residential and non-residential programs—over 50% being children. Thes life-changing programs have included vocational training for survivors to secure jobs and economic empowerment. 

Today, we are working with Claudia to take her impact to new heights. Since we invested and equipped Claudia's first dream to launch the long-term emergency shelter, she has opened another safe home in the region and will open a third to support even more exploited women. This is a testament to what investing in a partnership can look like—equipping what is working, empowering partners for sustainability, and championing growth. 

In addition, our investment approach uniquely allows us to build what's missing in the fight. Today, we provide organizational coaching to help Claudia scale and provide a solid foundation for the sustainability of future life-changing projects. 

One of those projects looks like training local law enforcement, the community, and other organizations to help educate regional leaders. We provide coaching to Claudia as well as equip her with a platform to house all of the training workshops. 

Through our partnership, Claudia has also received funding for two recent special projects: a micro business event for survivors and the development and execution of online prevention education. Claudia has recently participated in multiple panels and discussions at the UN. She will be featured in the Trafficking in Persons training, sharing her expertise on sexual exploitation amid armed conflict. 

At Atlas Free, we are looking to not only bring freedom to victims but to empower survivors. They are the gateway toward ending sexual exploitation. Following their lead and empowering lived experience voices like Claudia's is crucial in making real progress in this movement. 

Claudia shared with us why she is so passionate about this job. She shared that her attacker had hung a hook just inside the front door of her home when he was abusing her, and he would point to it every day and tell her that she would hang on that hook someday.

He wanted her to believe that she was trapped, but she bravely fled this situation. She hung a light on the hook inside her front door the day he was arrested. When asked why she didn't take it down, she said, "I can't erase my past, but I can use it. And that is why I'm so excited to run a new home to remind girls just like me that there was a purpose, hope, healing, and light for them." 

Empowering people and partners who have already made great strides in the fight is critical. Working together, we inspire new ideas, drive strategic action, and push towards integrated progress. Each step forward should tie back to freedom for every human life.