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Alum’s research aims to end sex trafficking

"Human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not some foreign issue that happens ‘over there,'" says alumna Robynne Locke. "It is with us every day." Photo courtesy of Robynne Locke

Robynne Locke (MA cultural anthropology ’10) only graduated a few months ago, but already she has made a huge contribution toward eliminating sex trafficking. For her master’s thesis, Locke documented a cycle of trafficking, rehabilitation and re-trafficking. She also  developed recommendations for breaking the cycle.

The United Nations reports that more than 30 million Asian women and children have been victims of sex trafficking over the past 30 years. Locke says survivors often face significant cultural, economic and psychosocial challenges.

“The problem that remains is how to re-integrate survivors back into society in a way that improves their standard of living and limits the potential for continued exploitation,” Locke says.

DU grants funded Locke’s research, which included fieldwork in fall 2009 at eight anti-trafficking organizations in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and Katmandu, Nepal. Members of the study population were living in rehabilitation homes after being trafficked as sex slaves. Research methods included participant observation, focus groups and semi-structured interviews with rehabilitation institution staff, survivors and experts.

Among her findings, Locke learned that poverty tends to be the primary risk factor for sex trafficking. Desperately poor victims often are lured into the sex trade by people posing as job agents. While rehabilitation centers provide psychological and physical support until survivors can return home, if additional tools aren’t available to help survivors provide for and protect themselves, the cycle can continue.

To break the cycle, Locke found survivors need practical and emotional support within their communities of origin. They need:

•    to be able to earn a living
•    a safe place to stay (other than institutionalization)
•    more family outreach to combat the stigma and reduce the likelihood of rejection
•    to have their rights and privacy protected
•    to be heard and considered during the rehabilitation process.

She was surprised to learn that although rehabilitation institutions recently have embraced the importance of talking about “empowerment” and “rights-based approaches,” in practice, they fell short of recognizing survivor voices, fostering authentic participation and protecting survivor rights.

To learn more about sex trafficking, visit the Human Trafficking Clinic at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies:

Locke’s findings were presented to major anti-trafficking organizations in Geneva earlier this year, and in September she’ll present her research at the second annual Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Trafficking at the University of Nebraska.

“I think her work could serve as a manual for those intent on eliminating the causes of trafficking and re-trafficking at the rehabilitation level, at the funding level and at the policy-making level,” says Richard Clemmer-Smith, a professor in DU’s anthropology department, curator of ethnology at the DU Museum of Anthropology and Locke’s research adviser.

Locke now lives in Burlington, Vt., and works for ICF Macro, an international research organization. She continues to conduct research in the fields of development and human rights.

“Human trafficking and modern-day slavery is not some foreign issue that happens ‘over there.’ It is with us every day in the food we eat, in the clothes we wear [and] in the products we buy. It occurs in every corner of the globe, including in the United States,” Locke says.

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