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Sarah SprinkleSarah Sprinkle

Sarah Sprinkle: Modern Day Slaves

Most of us think slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. However, in nearly every country in the world, trafficking in human beings, especially women and girls, is commonplace. According to the U.S. State Department, nearly a million people annually are subjected to force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation. Willamette University Carson scholar, Sarah Sprinkle, traveled halfway around the world to research this little-known, but growing international crisis.

"I became interested in trafficking in human beings while I was doing an independent study in Bosnia last year," says the senior who's pursuing a double major in rhetoric and media studies and women and gender studies. "I wanted to explore the problem of human trafficking and see what kinds of anti-trafficking programs are in place and how effective they are in dealing with it."

To fund her research, Sprinkle received a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant. The $2,500 stipend is designed to encourage students to pursue original research or areas of study outside the classroom. Sprinkle spent a month in Thailand - in Bangkok in the south and in Chang Mai in the north.

"Because of the poverty, Northern Thailand has a huge problem with families selling their daughters. In fact, about 70 percent of families sell at least one daughter into the sex trade. You can tell which families sell their daughters by their houses. Instead of the usual wooden houses, they use the money to build fancy concrete houses."

In Thailand, Sprinkle interviewed 10 people working in nine different organizations - non-government organizations (NGOs), international organizations and government organizations. Her first hurdle was getting people to talk with her. "Getting through the red tape just to interview people was a challenge. I'd call and call and end up scheduling one interview. Finally, it all fell into place."

Sprinkle learned that Thailand has a number of anti-trafficking programs in place. "The Thai government has taken quite a bit of initiative and that's encouraging. Their victim assistance programs bring people who have been sold into safe houses and provide them with medical treatment, legal counseling and psychological treatment. There are also programs to help them get back home."

Repatriation - returning home - is problematic for people who have been trafficked, especially women who are victims of the sex trade. "Even though it wasn't her fault, a woman trafficked in the sex trade is often blamed. When she goes home, she may be scorned. She may not be welcomed back into her family or be eligible for marriage. In many countries, a woman who isn't welcome in her own country has no other options."

Too often, Sprinkle found, the victims are also treated like criminals by foreign governments. "Many times, victims of traffickers are viewed only as illegal immigrants. It's a challenge to try to change the beliefs of police officers, judges and prosecutors. They're treated like criminals and immediately sent back to their home countries where they're often re-trafficked again and again."

One of the most effective ways Thailand combats trafficking is through education. Sprinkle interviewed an NGO worker in Northern Thailand whose program focuses on community development. "Many of the people in the hill tribes in Northern Thailand have migrated down from other countries so they're not full Thai citizens. They're not eligible for education or health benefits. The NGO is trying to provide education for these children and their families. There are also programs where people can learn a trade so they don't have to rely on selling children or going to another country to work."

Sprinkle also discovered that lack of communication and cooperation between anti-trafficking programs poses a significant barrier to effectively countering international trafficking. "The communication is better between the groups in Thailand than it is in Bosnia. But I found every group I spoke with put a different slant on their program. Everyone wants to talk up their own program and put down every one else's program because there are limited funding opportunities. Cooperation is essential, but it's something they all struggle to achieve."

Another challenge is simply getting countries to acknowledge and address the problem. "Human trafficking a world-wide problem, but many countries like the U.S. are just starting to address the issue. Some countries have extensive systems already in place to deal with trafficking; others like Australia haven't even begun to deal with it."

Sprinkle, who plans to work for the Peace Corps or Teach for America before returning to school to pursue a graduate degree, says her research has made the world a smaller, more personal place for her. "I used to see stories on the news about what's happening in other countries and it was never personal for me. Traveling to Thailand and Bosnia and talking with people who are fighting human trafficking has brought this issue home to me. It's also opened my eyes. I could really do something to make a difference."