Human trafficking is an important human rights problem that occurs both domestically and internationally. From what little research has been done on human trafficking in Ethiopia, we know that the most common form of trafficking is of women for domestic labor. It is deeply interconnected with migration as a result of poverty, political conflict, gender discrimination, and other historical, political, and social injustices. Survivors often have posttraumatic mental disorders, physical injuries or illnesses, economic needs, and legal advocacy needs, but very few services are available to meet these needs.
Through a seed grant called EM-PACE (Ethiopia-Michigan Partnership for Advancing Collaborative Engagement), a group of faculty and students from the Law School, the School of Nursing, the School of Public Health, and the Ross School of Business had a unique opportunity to collaborate to address human trafficking in Ethiopia. The group has recently received additional funding from an Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) Collaborative Planning Grant.
Since January 2015, we have been engaged in forming partnerships with key stakeholders in Ethiopia and conducting a situational analysis to inform the development of comprehensive models of service delivery for survivors. The overall goal of our project is to facilitate recognition, response, and reintegration—which the Law School coined the ‘Triple R’ aim—and address this important gap by developing comprehensive models of service delivery. As we have worked to form critical partnerships and assess the situation in Ethiopia, we have had the opportunity to engage in problem-solving as a multidisciplinary group of faculty and graduate students from multiple schools and colleges at the University of Michigan. Working together as a team has been one of the most exciting parts of this project, and we’ve each had a unique role in what we’ve accomplished so far.
After our faculty advisors in our respective schools had established funding and travel plans, they sought out graduate students who were interested in working on this project. We each participated in a different component of the situational analysis. A group of law, nursing, and business went on the initial trip during March 2015 to establish partnerships in Addis Ababa, and I went on the second trip with a public health student during July and August 2015 to conduct interviews with partners. As students from multiple different schools and colleges at U-M, we work together on the goals of the project and also to help each other speak and understand the language of survivor service needs from our disciplinary perspectives. For example, Danielle Kalil-McLane, a law student, helped me understand legal terminology, policy, and law structures, while as a nursing student, I can explain posttraumatic mental health disorders and physical illnesses. As Danielle said, “Working with graduate students from other schools also made me realize how entrenched I was in my own legal perspective. At times, it was challenging to discuss various aspects of our project when we were all approaching them from such different perspectives, but it was always rewarding.” Both perspectives are important to understanding and developing comprehensive survivor services, and it’s helpful to have the opportunity to come together, share knowledge from our field, and ask questions about what we don’t understand.
As a Ph.D. student, I’m able to contribute to the research components of our project with an emphasis on applying our research to real-world practice, especially as it relates to mental health. From a research perspective, the goal of our project is to generate new knowledge to improve the health and lives of trafficking survivors. In this project, I’ve gotten to apply the research methods I’ve learned in class—things like literature reviews, data analysis, and designing scientific studies—to a real-world problem. I’m energized by seeing the research process unfold and also the potential of the research to make a difference in the lives of trafficking survivors. My doctoral program of research is focused on interpersonal trauma, posttraumatic mental disorders, and trauma treatment service delivery systems, and I am passionate about system-level change to address interpersonal violence and its adverse effects on mental health and well-being. Because nearly all survivors of human trafficking experience some form of interpersonal violence or psychological trauma, addressing mental health is a critical component of the rehabilitation process.
Because I am also a registered nurse and have a bachelor's of science in nursing, it’s exciting to be a part of a project where I can apply both my research and clinical skills. This project is a perfect blend of my interests in interpersonal trauma, mental health, and research. I also greatly enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of this project. I learned that thinking beyond narrow academic disciplines is crucial for addressing a complex problem like human trafficking and developing effective solutions. For example, as a nurse who studies posttraumatic stress disorders, I went into the project thinking that the number-one priority service need for survivors would be mental health. Trauma-related mental illnesses like PTSD, depression, dissociation, and anxiety can be debilitating, and I thought that mental well-being would necessarily be the first thing to address to assist survivors in accessing other rehabilitation and reintegration services.
However, our data have suggested that mental health may not actually be the number-one priority at all. Because many individuals fall prey to trafficking while trying to find work and make money, economic needs are often at the forefront of their minds before, during, and after trafficking. Often, addressing economic needs like housing, work, material needs, and finances is initially more important to survivors than addressing their mental health needs. Of course, mental health is also an important component of recovery, but understanding trafficking from an interdisciplinary economic, law, and health perspective allows me to put survivors and their goals at the center of recovery rather than my goals as a health care provider and trauma researcher. It also helps me to think about survivor needs holistically and to view survivors as whole people with economic, legal, health, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, and spiritual needs and strengths.
Working with students and professors from other schools was both educational and enjoyable. I worked with Dana Beck, a family nurse practitioner student, to conduct a comprehensive literature search of the nursing, psychological, biomedical, legal, and international literature to identify gaps in service delivery, research, and policy as it relates to human trafficking in Ethiopia. I also worked with Munmun Khan, a master’s of public health student, on conducting a service needs assessment in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Both of these projects helped me better understand what kinds of services and policies will be most effective in addressing human trafficking in Ethiopia. They also helped me to form research questions about human trafficking in Ethiopia that we hope to be able to answer in the future. It can be daunting to think about the scope and complexity of human trafficking—not only in Ethiopia, but all over the world—but knowing how much research and clinical work needs to be done is energizing to me as a Ph.D. student and future researcher. It confirms that I’ve chosen the right field and career path and inspires me to use my training, skills, and ideas to solve social problems.
Because human trafficking is a complex phenomenon with roots in policy, economics, culture, and society, achieving this aim requires an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach. It is also a priority for our team to fully understand the unique cultural, social, political, and historical contexts for human trafficking in Ethiopia before moving into intervention development. We believe that strong partnerships are the key to successful work in this area—not only among scientific disciplines, but also with key stakeholders outside of academia, including government departments, non-government organizations, practitioners, clinicians, and survivors. As Law student Danielle Kalil-McLane put it, “Working across borders with people from diverse fields gave me a whole new perspective, and I am so grateful that I had this experience during law school. First and foremost, it was humbling to realize that my own field was not capable of meeting all of a client’s needs.” Like Danielle, I’m thrilled to have had this research experience as a Ph.D. student and look forward to using research to confront health and human rights problems around the world.