As a psychologist trying to understand human behavior, there is one concept that I reference more frequently than any other. It is that of my former graduate school professor, who said, “People don’t come into therapy to be told what they should do. People already know what they should do. They need help identifying the barriers that are preventing them from doing it.” When confronted with a problem, whether of a personal or global nature, one of my initial thoughts is now, “What’s the barrier?” Take, for example, smoking cigarettes. Most people who smoke would agree that they should quit. Few would deny the health risks associated with smoking. Most have family or friends who have been telling them for a long time that they should quit. Following the ‘identifying barriers’ logic, a better way to solve this problem is to identify what gets in the way of quitting. For instance, is the person concerned about the discomfort of physical withdrawal, about potential weight gain, that they could no longer do Friday happy hours with their friends who smoke? Helping people address the barriers that prevent them from making a change leads to more robust results because it addresses root causes. It’s also a more genuine approach because it honors the complexity of human decision-making.
This concept can be applied to the prevention of human trafficking. In fact, there is increasing recognition among policy makers that when designing interventions aimed at preventing human trafficking, public awareness efforts and data collection are important but not sufficient. To bring about more substantive change, prevention efforts must also target the social and economic conditions that render people vulnerable to trafficking. Just as with cigarette smoking, we can warn someone of and cite statistics about the dangers of trafficking, but this alone will likely not be motivation enough for them to change. It is essential that we address the vulnerabilities that create barriers to change. This is poignantly noted in Vulnerability, Prevention and Human Trafficking: The Need for a New Paradigm, where in support of the argument that knowledge does not necessarily influence choices, the author states, “a NGO outreach worker in a large Western European city, asked several trafficked youth whether or not they had been warned about the dangers of accepting foreign job offers. One young person responded, ‘Yes, but the nightmare I don’t know is preferable to the nightmare I live with every day.’”
Through my work with the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV) in Kampala, Uganda, I interact regularly with people who experience that kind of suffering. My involvement began through helping a young acid attack survivor whom I met in Uganda in 2014 get to the U.S. for a series of pro bono reconstructive surgeries. In the process, I met Hanifa Nakiryowa, another Ugandan acid attack survivor and the founder of CERESAV. In the past year, CERESAV has worked together to design interventions that empower survivors, including providing them with skills training, support groups and access to technology. Though our mission is not specific to the prevention of trafficking, these interventions target those things that make acid attack survivors vulnerable to trafficking: lack of education, stigmatization and marginalization within Ugandan society, poverty and lack of access to resources.
Please see the video below of CERESAV Director Hanifa Nakiryowa’s perspective on this issue. To learn more about CERESAV and how you can support our mission, please visit http://ceresav.org or email email@example.com.
Angie Vredeveld, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who works in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio and specializes in immigrant and refugee mental health. She is the Executive Coordinator for the Center for Rehabilitation of Survivors of Acid and Burns Violence (CERESAV) in Kampala, Uganda. In addition, she has traveled as a psychologist to South Africa, Rwanda, and Uganda, and helped establish a mental health program for a NGO serving refugees in Uganda.