2016 Class Acts

Confronting a Critical Issue

Irene Taranhike works toward eliminating sex trafficking

Irene Taranhike

Brown student Irene Taranhike wants to build awareness about human trafficking. “It’s all around us — we don’t have to go too far,” says Taranhike. Photo by Sid Hastings/WUSTL Photos


Irene Taranhike, a second-year Master in Public Health student in the Brown School, is working to reduce sex trafficking in St. Louis. In addressing this critical issue, Taranhike, who is from Harare, Zimbabwe, is assisting faculty in the Brown School and in the School of Medicine in obtaining and providing quantitative data that can advance monitoring and prevention efforts across the St. Louis region.

“What strikes me most as I learn more, especially about how to identify or recognize potential victims or perpetrators,” said Taranhike, “is that most of us, myself included, may have had some interaction or come in close proximity with a victim or perpetrator and never knew it. It is around us — we don’t have to go too far… What takes me aback is the thought that my ignorance may be contributing to how this awful business thrives.”

In a series of university studies, Taranhike works on a risk-factor framework that assigns a proxy for locations with identified cases of sex trafficking. She also assists the team in mapping indicators of known risk factors for sex trafficking in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“Doing so will help increase awareness of human trafficking and provide professionals, health care providers, and even the community at large with the knowledge and skills to to identify and appropriately respond to human trafficking victims and perpetrators,” Taranhike continued. “Additionally, we aim to increase access to social services for victims.”

After developing the framework, the team will work to refine strategies for future prevention and for allocating resources to locations with incidents of trafficking, including areas untouched by federal prosecution. In the process, Taranhike has come across some surprising misconceptions people may have. “Firstly, human trafficking is an overarching term for sex and labor trafficking,” she said. “These terms are typically confused and/or used interchangeably. Another common perception is that this only affects women and girls; however, it affects both genders.”

Seven years ago, Taranhike was inspired to take on this issue after a mission trip to Ethiopia, where she got to know women who had been commercial sex workers. By partnering with a local organization, the mission participants provided homes and fostered relationships with women who had been involved in the sex industry in order to improve their conditions.

“Everyday, we would go to their homes and spend the day with them. Hearing their stories, and sharing ours with them, changed my life. They were no longer statistics… they became sisters, friends, aunts, mothers,” Taranhike explained. “I want to be a part of a story that gives them hope and an opportunity for a better life.”


by Cassie Hwang


More Class Acts