ECU grad to fight against human trafficking

By Melanie Jock
ECU News Services

A book titled “Half the Sky” – which tells of oppression of women and girls in the developing world – led ECU graduate Megan Keels to a bold decision.

In September, Keels will leave her hometown of Wilmington to spend six months in India as a volunteer with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a small, nonprofit organization with a mission to end sex trafficking and prostitution.

A December 2011 graduate, Keels will apply knowledge acquired while obtaining her masters in sociology at ECU to work in the organization’s research and development department. She will collect, analyze and report the most recent data available on sex trafficking in Delhi, India. Those numbers should help pressure officials to do something about the problem, she said.

Reading the book, which was written by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, triggered Keels’ desire to make a difference. “It felt like a light came on that helped me see and decide that, at this time, volunteering to fight against human trafficking is my top priority.”

“I was dismayed to learn how far reaching and severe these problems are,” said Keels, who added the United Nations estimates that more than a million people are trafficked annually, the majority for sexual exploitation.

Keels said that ECU courses in multivariate statistics and qualitative analysis provided the skills she will need in her volunteer role. Her duties in India run parallel with the duties she performed as research assistant at ECU’s Community Research Lab, which conducts both in-house and community outreach surveys. At the research lab, Keel supervised a team of interviewers for a telephone survey research lab.

Keels is a member of the sociology honor society at ECU and the first college graduate from in her family.

Video from “Half the Sky” provides additional detail about the issues Megan Keels discovered in the book.

“My academic career has prepared me for understanding the cultural and structural dynamics of the issues that entrap individuals in the cycle of sex trafficking,” she said.

Dr. Rebecca S. Powers is associate professor in the Department of Sociology and co-director of the Community Research Lab and is confident Keels is ready for the challenge. “I know firsthand that Megan is intellectually, physically and emotional well prepared to undertake this project,” said Powers.  “She has the skills that they need – a researcher to collect the data. That’s what she’s really good at.”

“Here’s a person who is not only capable, but also willing, to the extent that she is prepared to take on personal debt to do it,” Powers said.  “I have complete confidence in her ability to succeed with this project.”

Keels needs financial support for her undertaking. Apne Aap is non-profit, so it will not provide pay and housing. She is trying to raise $10,000 for her expenses through donations to her web site, http://www.sendmegantoindia.com. By mid-August, she has reached 20 percent of her goal.

“I am looking forward to being able to use the skills and tools that I’ve acquired to activate social change, and I am especially excited that I will get to put these skills to use in a country foreign to me,” said Keels.

“I am passionate about human rights and gender equality, and this project thrives at the heart of these two goals. Gender inequality is a worldwide problem and human trafficking is not only an issue in developing countries, it is universal.”

For additional information about Apne Aap, visit http://apneaap.org/index.php.

Megan Keels is collecting donations to support travel to India for volunteer work to fight human trafficking. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)