In 2010, a unique piece of research began at Chab Dai – one that would enable survivors of human trafficking to tell their own stories about reintegrating into the community. As we continue to look back on some of the achievements we’ve been most proud of, we catch up with Lim Vanntheary, Project Manager for The Butterfly Longitudinal Study, to find out her experience of working on this insightful study so far…
About the Butterfly Project
A field-based research project, the Butterfly Team conduct interviews with both male and female participants who have received some form of assistance or care after experiences with sexual exploitation or trafficking. Participants might have spent time in a shelter, foster home or received community assistance training. Over the course of ten years, the same 128 participants are interviewed to understand their feelings about (re)integrating into the community, work and family relationships. The findings are then published and made available to aftercare organisations.
Coming from a solid research background herself, with a degree in Sociology and Education from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Theary explains further:
“We produce a recommendation – from the research results – for the programmes that work directly with human trafficking or sexual exploitation. So when they see our recommendation, they have to think about whether their program is of a good standard or they need to improve. We can also give confidential feedback at the request of assistance programs. Our interviews and research comes from the voice of our participants, from the people that we are working with.”
The challenges of human trafficking research
Understandably, it can be difficult for survivors to talk about their experiences.
“It’s very hard,” Theary says. “It feels like sometimes participants don’t tell us the truth. They try to hide information from us and sometimes we can see inconsistencies in participant’s stories from year to year. Maybe they don’t want to reveal their story to us…or maybe they feel ashamed.”
These inconsistencies luckily only form a small part of the research, Vanntheary tells me. “We still go to see them, figure out their lives outside of themselves. We don’t just focus on them, but look at their overall situation.”
Another challenge for Vanntheary is that ‘people don’t always understand our job – they ask ‘what is the research, why are you doing it, how important is it?’
Perhaps because it’s a long-term study, I suggest, people often expect conclusive results straight away.
But as International Director Helen Sworn explains, the motive for doing a longitudinal study is to really understand the participants in a way that hasn’t been done before. “We see this research as a survivor movement in itself - sharing the words and experiences of these survivors in a way that dignifies them but respects that they wish to remain anonymous in a culture where they would be shamed to share their experiences publicly.”
Listening to the survivors
As well as research, the Butterfly team have other skills they can add to this kind of sensitive work, assuming a counsellor role in some respects.
“Sometimes [particpants] feel like they want to share their problem but they cannot find anyone they want to share with. So at least they have us – besides researchers, we are good listeners. We try not to hurt their feelings. Everything that they can share, we share but we don’t force them to tell their stories.”
Many in the anti human trafficking field can learn from The Butterfly Study, Theary says.
“It is for everyone. We share hard copies and soft copies of our work. We do presentations and attend conferences; work with anyone who wants to listen.”
If you would like to read more on the Butterfly team’s latest research, you can find the 2014 working paper on Resilience: Survivor Experiences and Expressions here online and share your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #10yearsofChabDai.
Blog post by Laura Gavin. Photos from Chab Dai archive.