Dalla expands research to include life stories of prostitutes in India

Mar 28th, 2013 | By | Category: Uncategorized

Less than 12 hours on the ground in India, Rochelle Dalla and a translator stood along a bustling Mumbai street trying to find a cab driver willing to venture into Asia’s second largest red-light district.

The request to transport the women to Kamathipura made the cabbies uncomfortable — even if it was in broad daylight and for a research project on women trafficked into prostitution.

“We were able to hail cabs over, but they just refused to take us,” Dalla said. “My research has taken me into areas that are a little bit dangerous. I try not to let that influence the quality of my work. But, after the first two cab drivers said, ‘no,’ I started to worry a little about what I was getting into.”

Dalla’s research is putting a face on the plight of marginalized women around the globe. Rather than focusing on statistics and demographics, the associate professor of Child, Youth and Family Studies is actively going out to collect and tell the individual stories of women who dwell on the corners of society.

The focus on marginalized female populations started at the University of Arizona, where Dalla based master’s and doctoral degree research on in-depth interviews with teen mothers living on the Navajo reservation.

Dalla joined UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences in 1996. She further refined her research direction after learning about Wellspring, a Salvation Army program in Omaha.

“It sent chills up my spine when I learned that the purpose of Wellspring was to help women on the streets get out of prostitution,” Dalla said. “I knew right then, based on my visceral reaction, where I was going with my research.”

Dalla pored through existing research on street-level prostitution. She found that almost nothing had been written about the prostitutes as women.

“There was plenty of information about the risk-taking behaviors of prostitutes, how they are transmitters of STDs and HIV, drug use and condom use. But really, there was nothing about them as people,” Dalla said. “I decided to make these in-depth, personal interviews the center point of my research.

“I wanted to give these marginalized women a voice and to point out that there are developmental processes that result in their circumstances.”

Dalla interviewed 43 women in the Wellspring program between 1998 and 1999. Three years later, she located 18 of the original 43 for follow-up interviews to gauge individual success of getting out of prostitution and/or remaining drug free. The research was published in Dalla’s book, “Exposing the ‘Pretty Woman’ Myth,” (2006, Lexington Books). The work was well received by colleagues in related fields of study.

John DeFrain, a UNL emeriti professor in Child, Youth and Family Studies, said the book was “extraordinary” and praised Dalla for the unique research perspective.

“Dalla’s skill in helping us to see, and more important, to feel some of the things that prostitute women feel is remarkable,” DeFrain said. “She helps the reader really see, most likely for the first time, the grim, violent, drug-addicted and degrading world of women trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, despair and street-level prostitution.”

Dalla — who is also part of the UNL Human Trafficking team — has worked in the last three years to expand the research internationally. Projects in China and Australia failed to launch before contacts from colleagues (including Marjorie Kostelnik, dean of the College of Human Sciences) opened doors in India.

A series of emails led Dalla to an agreement with Prerana, a non-governmental organization that offers a variety of programs to poor families in India. One of those programs is focused on breaking the cycle that leads children of brothel workers into the sex trade industry.

“One of the women I talked to was a third-generation brothel worker,” Dalla said. “Her grandmother was human trafficked and sold to a brothel. Her mother was born and raised in the brothel and became a worker. She was born there and became a worker.

“Many of these women fear that their children will end up the same way.”

During a two-week period in summer 2012, Dalla and a translator interviewed 10 Prerana workers and 30 prostitutes working in the Kamthipura and Falkland Road red-light districts.

The language barrier and cultural differences made the interviews difficult at first. However, Dalla learned to read body language and related cues between the translator and the women, adapting the line of questioning as needed.

“Really I was trying to be respectful,” said Dalla. “The main stuff I wanted to get was about the trafficking — how they ended up there, how it happened, about the trafficker. Those details were not so personal.”

With some of the women, Dalla was able to delve deeper. Overall, the research gathering went well, but the conditions in the slums weighed on Dalla.

“In one letter to my husband, I wrote that there has got to be beauty in this city of 22 million people, but I had not seen any of it,” said Dalla. “I was so worn down with heartache, it became really, really hard. Especially when it came to the children.”

The interviews are being transcribed for Dalla to further the research. She hopes to start analyzing the data in the summer. She plans to use it to publish research papers, develop professional conference presentations, create a pilot study to pursue grants to further the work, and integrate it into her classroom teaching.

The project coupled with Dalla joining a UNL delegation in India and Sri Lanka in January have led to additional contacts and the possibility of another interview project this summer.

Despite the weight of the previous research trip, Dalla is looking forward to going back.

“I continue to be very passionate about my research,” Dalla said. “These are people who are so marginalized and extremely vulnerable. And it is my job to represent them accurately and do everything I can to tell their stories.”

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