In a new report, 22 Nebraska women who survived sex trafficking shared their insights on protecting others from becoming ensnared in the sex trade.
Sriyani Tidball, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of practice and an activist against human trafficking, worked with Shireen Rajaram in the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health to interview the women and report their findings in a study commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Omaha.
“This is probably some of the most humbling work I have done, but I also feel it is really powerful to hear from women who have been marginalized, stigmatized and criminalized most of their lives,” said Tidball, who teaches in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Tidball is faculty adviser for Nebraska University Students Against Modern-day Slavery and is an organizer of the university’s annual conference on human trafficking. She also teaches a class on social justice, human rights and the media.
Rajaram, an associate professor of health promotion, social and behavioral health, said there is a “woeful lack of awareness” about sex trafficking among community leaders, law enforcement, teachers, health care professionals and the general public.
“People generally believe sex trafficking is a problem in other countries, but it’s happening in every state, including Nebraska,” she said. “Our nation has failed to call trafficking what it is – a public health problem.”
Obtaining names from knowledgeable sources and by word of mouth, Rajaram and Tidball interviewed 17 women from Lincoln and Omaha and five from smaller Nebraska towns. They ranged in age from 19 to 47. Thirteen were white, four were African American, two were Latino or Hispanic and three were of mixed race or ethnicity. Although participants were required to be adults who had not been trafficked at least a year, several of those interviewed had been caught in the sex trade while they were still minors. Twelve had been in foster care as children, while another had been in a group home. Six lacked a high school diploma, while two held master’s degrees.
But they had a common history. They had been forced into a life of being bought and sold for sex, often by the people they trust the most – father, mother, spouse, other relatives and lovers. And when they tried to tell other people who are close to them about it, they were not believed.
“Nobody is really believing that it’s happening,” said one woman. “Nobody believes, even when your parents don’t believe you, so you don’t trust nobody else to believe you.”
The report co-authored by Rajaram and Tidball is called “Nebraska Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak – A Qualitative Research Study” The Women’s Fund used the results of the study to develop a booklet “Nothing About Us Without Us.”
“The ultimate goal for this research is to begin unifying the community – including service providers, law enforcement, policy makers and the general public – in creating a robust, survivor-informed approach to systems change,” said Megan Malik, trafficking response coordinator for the Women’s Fund.
Research protocols barred the investigators from asking survivors directly about their experiences, out of concern that it might re-traumatize survivors. Although some participants volunteered personal details about their lives, the researchers asked survivors what steps could be taken to prevent children and adults from being forced into sex trafficking; how to protect victims and survivors; and how pimps and customers should be prosecuted.
The survivors said that too often their experiences were met with skepticism. Police and medical personnel lacked training on how to handle sexual trafficking cases. They urged more public awareness and education for youth and their families, law enforcement, school personnel – even hotel staff – to recognize the warning signs of sexual trafficking.
It is crucial to include survivors’ perspectives as Nebraska authorities develop a comprehensive plan to combat sex trafficking, Tidball said. Consultations are underway with state lawmakers and the attorney general’s office and she is hopeful the state legislature will take action in the coming year.
“I think we feel called to do something in the area of prevention,” she said. “Prevention is the most cost-effective approach. We can come up with strategies to prevent girls in high school and middle schools from being trafficked.”
A panel discussion, “Human Trafficking: Yes, it Happens in Nebraska,” will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 17 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Thompson Alumni Center, Bootstrapper Hall, 6705 Dodge St. RSVP by Aug. 3 to Mikaela Borecky at Events@UWMidlands.org or 402-522-7908.