In 2004, Dr. Rita Dhungel visited dozens of brothels in India. She was hired as a researcher by Save the Children to study migration between countries, including women who moved from Nepal to work in Indian brothels.
Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery, where people are exploited through control or influence by another person, usually through sexual exploitation or forced labour. According to the United Nations, nearly 2.5 million people in countries around the world, including Canada, are actively being trafficked at any given time. Recognizing this, the Canadian government declared in 2012 that February 22 would be National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
Rita moved to Canada a year after her visit to India, and finished her master’s degree and PhD in social work, conducting research with women from Nepal who were trafficked through brothels in India.
Her research asked one primary question: How do adult female trafficking survivors define successful reintegration into their communities after returning home to Nepal?
Many survivors are met with hostility and discrimination, and though significant research has been conducted on human trafficking, very few studies have focused on reintegration, explains Rita.
“A lot of survivors are tired and frustrated with scholars who come in and interview them about their trafficking experience. It’s traumatic to relive that, and the women don’t feel compelled to share when the research is not practically improving their lives. They want to move on from the past,” she adds.
With this in mind, Rita employed a participatory action research model — a form of research that mobilizes participants to create plans for social change that improve their situation and that of their community.
“I wanted to provide opportunities for the women to explore their own talents and expertise — to ask them what they could do and how they wanted to do it. As a social worker, my research is not just an academic pursuit — I want it to lead to emancipation and transformation.”
The survivors identified the issues they were facing, honed strategies to deal with those problems, then put their plans into action. Acting as co-researchers alongside Rita, they developed a stakeholder questionnaire and interviewed their peers, academics, lawyers and employees at social work agencies, ultimately providing recommendations to the Government of Nepal regarding policy changes. All co-researchers received a certification from the University of Calgary, where Rita was studying at the time.
“It was incredible to witness the women’s transformation,” says Rita. “At first, many of them felt they were at fault for what happened, but after working together for almost a year, they came to see the systemic injustices that led to their situation. My co-researchers found empowerment, creativity and confidence.”
This focus on participation in one’s own learning and transformation is something Rita also brings to her classroom at MacEwan.
“With the women, I trusted their expertise to address their own issues. I try to do the same for my students,” she explains. “I often ask students to identify their own learning outcomes, and then facilitate ways for them to reach those goals. It teaches them how we, as social workers, need to be focused on the needs and perspectives of our clients.”
Rita also engages her students by having them volunteer to introduce and thank guest speakers. “By encouraging my students to take the lead in the classroom, I’m hoping to instill a knowledge of how to mobilize a community to create change.”
Ultimately, Rita says social work research will, and should, differ from other academic studies. “I believe research means relationship-building. This is how we actually engage with people, to not only understand them better, but to create a more welcoming and just society together.”