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Studying Human Trafficking

Studying Human Trafficking
November 28, 2007

As recently as 15 years ago, the academic study of human trafficking was, for all purposes, nonexistent. In a sign of how much times have changed, dozens of faculty members and legal experts packed into Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies Tuesday to discuss ways to turn recent interest in the subject into material to be woven into college curriculums.

Many professors already incorporate the study of human trafficking, the act of transporting people for the purpose of exploitation, into existing courses. They teach undergraduates and law school students, and the classes are most likely to be found in departments such as women's studies, anthropology and political science, according to a survey sent to more than 450 faculty who teach about human trafficking.

The norm is for faculty to devote one or two class sessions to the subject, but only a handful of courses identified in the survey are dedicated solely to trafficking. Increasing that number is a goal set forth by attendees of Tuesday's symposium, organized and hosted by the Protection Project, a human rights research institute based at SAIS.

"Hundreds of thousands of students who will be lawyers, doctors, legislators and policy makers should know something about the trafficking of persons," said Mohamed Mattar, executive director of the Protection Project. “There’s a demand for courses, and every student should study it as part of the curricula.”

That's best accomplished, several symposium panelists suggested, by reaching faculty members who already have a research interest in the subject and encouraging them to expand their teaching. "We need to find people who have the passion -- build a coalition of the willing on this issue," said Laura Lederer, senior director for global projects at the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

The Protection Project is offering its services in the form of a proposed syllabus. Researchers there are organizing a list of academic titles, journal articles and other resources and plan to send the materials to professors who have expressed an interest in trafficking as an academic subject. The project also announced the formation of an association of scholars of trafficking in persons -- a group meant to help professors collaborate with others who are looking to form new courses or revise current ones.

At the Georgetown University Law Center, where Lederer is an adjunct professor, she co-teaches a course on trafficking with Mattar. Lederer said the growing interest in the topic is heartening, particularly given how recently colleges have taken notice.

The phrase "human trafficking" burst into the national lexicon in the early 1990s, Lederer said, after some countries began cracking down on drug trafficking, and criminal enterprises realized they needed to engage in other forms of transporting goods. Legislators responded to news of increased activity, including Congress's 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Some academics took up human trafficking as their cause, introduced the topic to students, and the field has matured, Lederer and others agreed.

“As the awareness has increased, you see people beginning to look beyond advocacy -- which remains important -- and institutionalize [the study of trafficking] into academia,” said Mark Lagon, director of the U.S. Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Lederer said it's natural that professors are introducing human trafficking as a concept in a variety of fields, in part because the subject is an interdisciplinary problem. Lagon said professors could introduce the issue of North Korean women trafficked into China for forced marriages in the larger context of public policy and gender inequality. (Some scholars have noted that China's one-child policy encourages parents to rear boys, eschew girls and then bring the unwanted gender overseas by other means.)

Laura Hebert, an assistant professor in Occidental College’s department of diplomacy and world affairs, said she brings up trafficking to discuss human rights and the effects of globalization. She began teaching the topic six years ago with a historian at the University of Denver and has incorporated it into four classes at Occidental. Next academic year, Hebert plans to teach a full-length course called "International Trafficking of Women," and said there's no shortage of material or interest from both male and female students.

Terry Coonan, executive director of Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, teaches "modules" about trafficking and human rights as part of courses in several departments at FSU. A discussion in a medical school course focuses on expectations for a trafficking victim who comes into a hospital, and a law school session deals with victim rights. (Law students there often serve as victim advocates by introducing them to the U.S. legal system.)

Karen Bravo, an assistant professor of law at Indiana University, said she introduces her students to how the legal system creates illicit markets such as drug and human trafficking, and looks at why certain people are more vulnerable than others. Bravo said when she first introduced the human trafficking component to the course in 2005, students were "traumatized by the subject matter."

That, too, was the experience of Jini Roby, an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Social Work who teaches a U.S. social welfare policy course that includes the study of trafficking. “Most students here have international experience, so there’s a presumption that the topic would be quite firmly established," she said. "But it isn’t. Students gasp when they hear what happens, and I get a twisted sense of joy that I’m the first to tell them about something.”

 

 

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