July 5, 2018

Nursing students help shine a light on human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Calgary

Partnering with community organization CHILL, student nurses create social media campaign and e-learning tool for health-care providers to build awareness
The first cohort of nursing students to work with CHILL for the community health nursing course NURS 289 in winter 2017. From left, Megan Heggenstaller, Caroline Knox, Alexandra Pennell, Jasmin Smith, Gayathri Wewala, Madison McPhail, Sahil Dhiman and Marin Bonk.

The first cohort of nursing students to work with CHILL for the community health nursing course.

Caroline Knox

As we head into the Calgary Stampede, a huge tourist attraction where hundreds of thousands of visitors will be in the city, there’s a darker, less-talked about side of the massive event.

“The influx of tourists from all over the world is big business for human trafficking. Traffickers will ship individuals to Calgary from all over North America to Calgary for the duration of Stampede to be sold to tourists,” says Karen Doerksen, director community services at CHILL, a local non-profit that advocates for prevention, intervention, and recovery of those impacted by exploitation. “People of every age, race, gender and sexual orientation are being shipped in from all over North America.”

Doerksen says while sex trafficking in Calgary remains an under-reported issue, trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation are big problems in the city. In early 2017, the number of current exploitation cases numbered 1,200 youth and 300 women (Counter Exploitation Unit). However, she adds that exact numbers are impossible to know for certain as only 10 per cent of cases are estimated to be reported.

It was a fact that surprised Caroline Knox, currently a fourth-year nursing student at the Faculty of Nursing. Last winter, under the guidance of nursing instructor Aaron Liher cohort partnered with CHILL for their community health nursing course (NURS 289).

  • Above are some of the students from the first cohort. From left, Megan Heggenstaller, Caroline Knox, Alexandra Pennell, Jasmin Smith, Gayathri Wewala, Madison McPhail, Sahil Dhiman and Marin Bonk. 

“We were all really surprised to learn that sexual exploitation and trafficking was happening in Calgary,” says Knox. “The research showed that something like 90 per cent of victims have contact with a health-care provider while they were being trafficked, and they were coming into the hospitals where they were being missed.”

Statistics on exploitation and trafficking are 'eye-opening'

Recognizing that registered nurses could play a critical role in their interactions with this population, the UCalgary nursing students developed an online learning module for CHILL to target health-care providers and educate them on the topic of sexual trafficking, exploitation and health care. While there are policies around domestic violence for health professionals to follow, with sexual exploitation and trafficking, it’s less so.

In Canada, health-care costs for a victim of sexual exploitation are about $276, 842 annually. Knox says learning about the laundry list of long-term physical and psychological health outcomes for these individuals was eye-opening for her. The host of health effects on exploited individuals can range from unwanted pregnancies, STIs or malnutrition and dental issues, not to mention psychological impacts like post-traumatic stress disorders, depression, substance abuse and higher suicidal tendencies.

“As much as we saw it was concerning, it meant that they are accessing health care because they have to,” says Knox. “They are coming in for a variety of things and each one of those is an opportunity for us to initiate a conversation, address the problem and hopefully intervene.”

In the winter semester, nursing students in NURS 289 created a social media campaign project for CHILL which included video, online learning modules and this infographic to help generate public awareness around the local and global issue of sexual exploitation as it relates to health.

In the winter semester, nursing students created a social media campaign project for CHILL.

Aaron Li

Nurses have critical role in helping the exploited

Instructor Aaron Li has supervised two of three groups of nursing students that have now partnered with CHILL for this class. As his students went through the research, met with Calgary Police Service, and collaborated with CHILL staff who work directly with victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, he observed how the experience expanded their view of nursing. 

Above, from left, Carissa Lawton, former program director at CHILL; students Shaylee Dawn Zeller, Natasha Manfield, Charlotte Nyam, Beheshta Ramouzi, Carter Marcelline Bryant, Maeve Hodge, Amrit Nijjar, Carolyn Dunning; instructor Aaron Li. 

“Sexual exploitation is connected to someone’s health whether that’s psychologically, emotionally, financially or physically,” says Li. “When someone is sexually exploited, it takes seven to 10 times for that person to reach out to a health-care provider before something gets done about it. The students really wanted to decrease that number. It shouldn’t take that long; it should be the first or second time when something is recognized and people are mobilized.”

Second-year student nurse Beheshta Ramouzi was in the winter 2018 cohort of students who resumed working with CHILL from January to April. Her group enhanced the online module that was previously built and also digitized an informational booklet of CHILL’s to make it more accessible and online. They continued data collection and also decided to create social media materials like infographics and videos for CHILL to use in getting the message out.  

“We found that a lot of health-care workers don’t recognize those signs and symptoms of victims who are sexually exploited,” says Ramouzi. “We wanted to help others in the profession notice those symptoms so that there’s less stigma around it.”

Everyone can do 'one small thing' to help

As for the wider general public, Doerksen says when it comes to sexual exploitation and human trafficking, “This is something worth being offended about, even if it feels too big, too confusing, too scary.

“As you are out and about over the next few weeks during the Stampede, I encourage each and every person to do one small thing that can make all the difference to someone — just make eye contact with every person and smile, no matter what thoughts form as you look at them and no matter what they look like, no matter what side of this fence they look to be on, no matter how tempting it may be to judge them. They need to feel like they are still human, still visible and still have a reason to believe in the good of humanity. Don't underestimate the power of this small gift. Smile. Let every person you see know that you see them.”

See the online module UCalgary Nursing students helped to create with CHILL.


A cohort of nursing students working with CHILL.

A cohort of nursing students working with CHILL.

Lynda Sea, Faculty of Nursing