The results of The Butterfly Study, a 10-year longitudinal research project tracking the experiences of human trafficking survivors throughout their post-rescue process of residential shelter care and reintegration, were recently published in the academic journal The Dignity Journal. One of the topics of the research focused on the stigma that survivors experience upon reintegration into their communities.

I was particularly interested in the article on stigmatization as the attribution of stigma to survivors of trafficking was the focus of my final capstone project for my Master’s Degree. You can find the specific paper on stigma here:

There is an incredible amount of information to unpack, analyze, and think about in terms of strategic implications for the anti-trafficking movement in this study. At this point, I am just interested in cataloging the questions and thoughts that it prompts so they can be incorporated in our plans for research as well as any activities that involve strategic thinking and innovation sessions aimed at helping the movement find better ways of working that result in less trauma, discrimination, and exclusion for survivors of human trafficking.

Thoughts prompted by this paper

  • What are the strategic implications of stigma on program design? Does stigma and its effects get adequate consideration in the research, conceptualization, and design phases of anti-trafficking programs?
  • Can we develop a stigmatization audit for programs, organizations, and communications and then certify non-stigmatizing programs?
  • There is a stigmatized view of survivors and those perceived to be in sexually immoral or exploitative situations that permeates discourse on human trafficking. How do we help organizations reduce their stigmatized understanding of beneficiaries, in terms of philosophy, practice, communications, and otherwise?
  • NGOs often operate from a stigmatized view of survivors and survivors’ behavior while trafficked. How can they expect survivors themselves, their families, and their communities to see survivors any differently?
  • Economic and social discrimination are significant barriers to reintegration and flourishing. Poverty, lack of education, and low earning capacity are also factors of stigmatization. How can organizations develop stigma-free education and vocational training programs that are economically viable for survivors?
  • This research alone demonstrates the need for prevention programs that address the root causes of human trafficking, eliminate poverty, and reduce the lack of access to education, especially for girls.
  • The challenge this research highlights is that these programs must be entirely disassociated from antitrafficking efforts and must make every possible effort to avoid stereotyping and preserve the dignity of every survivor and student. How can programs do this successfully, navigating the practical needs of funding and the ethical needs of survivors?
  • A big challenge for recovery and reintegration is overcoming issues of value and self-worth. How can organizations develop recovery and reintegration programs that help survivors develop proven economic value so that they can return home triumphant rather than broke (financially, as well as mentally and emotionally) and stigmatized?
  • This research points out the flaw in anti-trafficking branded freedom enterprises. Survivors who work in those jobs can never return home and use that job to demonstrate their success. Often those skills are not transferable to daily life, and just the name of the business and its association with human trafficking invites intense stigma.
  • Stigma may be partially unavoidable, but that does not mean that the anti-trafficking industry does not need to look for ways to mitigate the risk of stigmatization. Currently, the strategy seems to be helping survivors develop coping strategies rather than develop stigma reducing strategies as part of organizational program design. How can we move towards intentionally designing programs that do not cause or reinforce stigma?
  • Studies like this demonstrate that the anti-trafficking movement has (or soon will have) a credibility problem. The statistics provided in this study cannot in any way be interpreted as success. Of all the participants involved in the study, none were able to complete a high school education even with NGO support as a result of the programs offered. The combination of lack of education and stigma creates real barriers to economic opportunity for survivors. How can we measurably improve the success rates of programs?
  • This data challenges the narratives filled with survivor success stories promoted by NGOs. If left unaddressed it has the potential to undermine the credibility of the movement. How can we create a narrative that honestly reflects the complexity of solving human trafficking, protects the dignity of survivors, and shapes the future of the movement towards one rooted in proven effectiveness?


In just this one 30 page paper on stigma, there is so much to digest that has immense implications for the anti-trafficking movement. It prescribes no answers or remedies but is a vivid reminder that constant evaluation and self-critique are essential to true success. It also reminds us that success is not as simple as removing a person from one bad situation. We have to be willing to invest in helping them have real, viable economic and social opportunities that they see as valuable and that bring real value to their families and communities.