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OMAHA -- For the first time in Nebraska, survivors of sex trafficking will have their voices heard. 

The Women's Fund of Omaha will release a study Friday called "Nothing About Us Without Us," which features the stories of 22 survivors and what they say can be done to prevent trafficking.

Shireen Rajaram, associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and Sriyani Tidball, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications, spent 10 months talking to survivors.

Here are some of the things they found.

* Many people are confused about the difference between prostitution, where a person willingly exchanges sex for money, and sex trafficking, where a commercial sex act takes place through force, fraud or coercion by a trafficker. 

* Law enforcement must recognize that difference to keep from blaming and arresting victims.

* The stigma for trafficked women must be addressed through education. 

* Short-term needs for survivors include access to safe homes, counseling provided by trauma specialists and medical care. 

* Survivors need trauma therapy and medical care for as long as 20 years.

Survivors tell the story best, Tidball and Rajaram said.

“Every time I turned around, I felt their voice was missing," said Tidball. "I wanted to see the victims, the survivors, write the books. They’re the ones who know how to stop it, how to prevent it, how to be protected.”

Seventeen of the 22 survivors interviewed lived in the Omaha/Lincoln area when they were trafficked; five lived in rural Nebraska. 

"If you say Nebraska is the good life, you can't have a good life when a segment of the population is being subjected to these injustices right in our backyard," Rajaram said. "These things are happening in every part of Nebraska."

The study showed that while immediate crisis services are available in the eastern part of the state, services are less available in rural areas, and survivors have almost no help years after their victimization no matter where they live.

"We need to look at this statewide," Rajaram said. "We have the interstate going through rural Nebraska, and it brings business to those areas."

One of the women interviewed said traffickers prey upon girls in the Midwest, "because we’re naïve, because we don’t know about the big cities ... We’re a lot more trusting ... and they love to hit these small towns."

Survivors also need help with education. Six of the 22 women interviewed had neither a high school diploma nor GED. 

The study suggests that stiffer penalties need to be given to those buying and selling people for sex. It also suggests there should be a registry for sex trafficking offenders.

In the end, Tidball said, it comes down to education.

“So many of these women we interviewed didn’t know they were victims of trafficking," she said. "Two were being sold by their parents, one of them by their boyfriend. They’re being exploited by people they’re supposed to trust.”

One of the women interviewed for the study said, “I didn’t figure out until like years later what had actually happened to me and what it was.”

“We are putting our children at greater risk by not educating them,” Tidball said. “Education could have prevented half these cases and awareness is half the problem.”

Survivors Rachel Pointer and Sakura Yodogawa-Campbell, both of Omaha, spoke Monday night during the release of the study in Omaha.

Pointer and Yodogawa-Campbell were victimized at ages 6 and 26, respectively. The experience led both to careers working with victims.

“Thinking it’s OK to buy sex, that’s a problem,” Pointer said. “Thinking it’s OK to intimidate others into giving out sex, that’s a problem … until we no longer ignore this problem of sex trafficking, it’s never going to disappear.”

Yodogawa-Campbell said education could put a dent in the demand. 

"When there's no demand, there's no trafficking," she said. "Talk to people, tell them it's happening."

Added Pointer: "I would not be sitting in this chair tonight if someone would have addressed the demand before I turned 6. People are not for sale, but we're not doing a great job at stopping it."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7395 or nmanna@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNicholeManna.

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