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KATE KARACAY The graduate student raises awareness about human trafficking, successfully lobbying for a new Iowa law.

Hidden from view, it happens in Iowa and around the globe: young women seeking better opportunities are coerced into prostitution; children are taken from their homes and forced into labor or war.

But people like Kate Karacay are bringing human trafficking into the open.

Karacay, a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in international studies, has devoted much of her time in recent years to raising awareness about human trafficking, lobbying for Iowa’s first human-trafficking law in 2006. In doing so, the Iowa City native is standing up for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Karacay came to The University of Iowa as an undergraduate to pursue a double-major in history and ancient civilization. History was fascinating, she says, but it wasn’t sustaining.

“There was a sense that I really wanted to do something that had an element of altruism,” she says. “I felt that if I was going to do something with my life, it should be something that was going to make things better.”

While doing research on immigration for the UI Center for Human Rights as a graduate student, Karacay was deeply affected by accounts she read about human trafficking, a form of 21st century slavery.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that as many as 800,000 people—mostly women and children—are taken across international borders and forced into labor or sexual exploitation each year, and many others are trafficked within their own countries.

“It’s an issue that’s cropped up in the last 20 years,” she says, “It’s exploded worldwide because of globalization, migration, and privatization of industries. It’s been able to weave its way into a lot of industries and countries in different manifestations.”

Karacay founded the Iowa Human Trafficking Awareness Project to teach others about the issue. She also got together with Alex Orozco, executive director of the Iowa-based Network Against Human Trafficking, and Iowa State Senator Maggie Tinsman to lobby for an Iowa human-trafficking law. The bill, which passed the Iowa House and Senate unopposed, punishes perpetrators while offering services and protection to victims. It also provides training to help local police identify potential trafficking cases, which Karacay says is a key element.

“Police are often the first responders at a human-trafficking scene,” she says. “When they have the right training, they can better collect important evidence. Police also better understand what happens to victims and can interact with them with more compassion and understanding.”

Last summer, Karacay won a Stanley Fellowship for Research Abroad, one of the University’s premier awards for international study, to research human trafficking in Turkey, a country with a significant human trafficking problem. Karacay, whose husband is Turkish, looked specifically at efforts by women’s groups, international groups, and governmental organizations to provide victim services and promote public education on the problem.

The work got her more interested in women’s roles in Muslim society. She plans to pursue a PhD in social foundations in the UI College of Education this fall, doing research on the educational experiences of women in different parts of the world.

Karacay was recently awarded Philip G. Hubbard Human Rights Award, which is presented by the UI Human Rights Committee to a student who has made the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of human rights.

“I really enjoy doing this for the knowledge and love of the subject,” she says,  “but I also have a feeling of working toward making the world a little better, if that’s even possible.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tim Schoon

July 14, 2008