Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Grad student’s research aims to end sex trafficking

Robynne Locke

Robynne Locke's research helps policy makers who are working to eliminate sex trafficking. Locke graduates on June 4.

When she graduates on June 4, Robynne Locke will have already made a huge contribution to aid policy makers who are working to eliminate sex trafficking.

A master’s student in cultural anthropology with an ethnology concentration at the University of Denver, Locke has documented a cycle of trafficking, rehabilitation and re-trafficking. She has also identified ways to free women and girls from the conditions that make re-trafficking possible.

Initially inspired by a youthful “romantic fascination” with cultures like India and Nepal, Locke, as a college sophomore, signed up for a service trip to India. She worked in Calcutta at Prem Dan, Mother Teresa’s home for the dying and destitute, where the exposure to extreme poverty left a lasting impression.

“My obsession with traveling for adventure was replaced with the desire to understand how such extreme desperation and poverty can exist in the world. As I returned to Calcutta over the years, the way I viewed the city began to change. Yes, it is still a place of extreme hardship, but it’s also a place with a proud history, remarkable culture and stories of people overcoming incredible odds. It is this spirit that keeps me coming back,” Locke says.

Poverty and spirit each have a place in Locke’s research. Poverty creates the conditions that makes human trafficking and modern slavery possible; the spirit of the women and girls who have escaped and their desire to make new lives for themselves leads them through rehabilitation. Since coming to DU, Locke says what she’s learned about research methods and ethics have been integral to her research.

“At DU, there are so many professors with a wide range of expertise who provide a deep pool of knowledge from which any student can draw. I am constantly trying to network with experts in related fields, and I think this has broadened the possibilities of my own research considerably,” Locke says.

As an intern at the international research organization ICF Macro, last summer Locke assisted with several research projects, including a survey of child care providers in California.

“She demonstrated the ability to quickly learn new tasks and to effectively juggle multiple projects and priorities,” says Heather Driscoll, (MS Applied Research and Evaluation’00) an ICF Macro senior research manager. “She was in charge of fielding questions from [child care] providers … about how to respond to certain questions in our mail or telephone survey. In this capacity, she had to think on her feet and in consultation with senior staff determine how best to handle unique situations within the limits of a standardized survey questionnaire.”

While mail and telephone surveys are useful research tools in many situations, Locke knew she needed to conduct field research to add to her understanding of the issues surrounding sex trafficking. When a researcher establishes relationships with stakeholders through field-based research, she says the research better represents the needs of the people it serves. Her study population included girls, some as young as 5, who lived in rehabilitation homes after being trafficked as sex slaves.

Economics, politics and culture greatly influence the conditions that make sex trafficking possible. In places like India and Nepal, desperately poor victims are often lured into sex trafficking by people posing as job agents. In many countries, women are still treated as second-class citizens who are unequal under the eyes of the law, so they can’t turn to the authorities for justice. And in cultures like those Locke studies, women “belong” first to their father, then their husband and then their sons. Without the protection of a male, females are extremely vulnerable to trafficking due to the stigma and social ostracism they may face. That same cultural stigma contributes to women being re-trafficked as well.

“As a human rights issue, re-trafficking must be addressed on several levels,” 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. “I think her work could serve as a rationale and almost 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.”

Locke’s research is funded by a University of Denver Internationalization Grant and a research grant from the graduate student-run Graduate Students of the Four Faculties. She’s also a research associate with the Human Trafficking Clinic at DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Although her research has shown that human trafficking is an extremely widespread and lucrative business, Locke believes all it takes to end it is political will.

“There are examples from all over the world where increased international pressure has caused governments to crack down on traffickers and shut down brothels with underage girls. If we make ending sex trafficking and modern day slavery a priority it will be brought to an end,” Locke says.

Until that happens, Locke says she will continue to raise awareness and funds to support anti-trafficking organizations.

“At times, I feel fatigued by the emotion of what I have seen and what I must continue to read and speak about, but it is important that this information gets out so that the sexual exploitation of women and children can come to an end,” Locke says.

Locke established a fund to benefit the sex trafficking survivor service providers she worked with in India and Nepal. Donations may be sent to: The Survivor’s Fund, P.O. Box 2896, Seabrook, N.H. 03874.

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