When we first started working in anti-trafficking, poverty was the trafficker, the biggest factor aiding and abetting vulnerability to exploitation. But in recent years, as kids started getting access to mobile phones and the internet, trafficking increasingly shows up in the form of exploitation online. Kids who live in bamboo houses, and who still use outhouses for bathrooms, have access to the world online–and predators have access to them. Raising awareness about online dangers is not as simple as it sounds–it requires transforming a whole mentality about what it means to connect online. For example, it is considered normal in Thailand to connect with total strangers on apps like Line and Facebook. Some people even meet their spouses that way. An added challenge is the rapid pace of technological advancements, meaning that parents who can barely read and write don’t understand the internet or its dangers. Because of this sea change in how traffickers can find people to exploit, there is an urgent need to recognize a new facilitator of trafficking: loneliness.
We recently shared about a case of loneliness driving a 14-year-old girl to nearly run away to Bangkok because of a woman she had met online. In today’s account, we’re sharing about the case of a girl who’s even younger: Sarai.*
Sarai is bright and gregarious, seeking new knowledge at every opportunity. But her whole family has been ravaged by trafficking, and though she is only a pre-teen, she too is vulnerable to it.
Sarai comes from a very remote and impoverished area. In this area, the generational cycle of trafficking is active, and Sarai’s family is a prime example. Her grandmother was trafficked into the sex industry, and once she was too old to continue to work, her two children were trafficked into the sex industry to support their family. Sarai’s mother, as a teenager, was trafficked for over a decade before she passed away when Sarai was a toddler. Sarai’s aunt still works in the sex industry.
With the loss of her mother, Sarai’s family survives on only her grandmother’s pension from the Thai government of $20 per month, the occasional work her grandmother can do around the village, and the occasional money her aunt sends to them. This alone would make Sarai incredibly vulnerable to trafficking. But in our relationship with her, we can see that the most immediately dangerous factor is loneliness.
Why Loneliness is a Facilitator of Exploitation
Sarai’s grandmother is her only caregiver, and their considerable age difference causes tension. “My relationship with my grandmother isn’t very good, because we’re from different generations. Every time I consult my grandmother on a problem or ask for advice, she gets stressed, and uses harsh words, making me feel terrible. Sometimes she won’t listen to me at all, especially when I don’t meet her expectations,” Sarai explains.
Her grandmother feels the strain too, especially with few other relatives she can turn to for advice. She also feels an incredible amount of guilt over the fate of her daughters, and it has a devastating daily impact on her mental health.
The loneliness is a huge problem, and Sarai turns to social media to cope. “The only thing that makes me feel better,” she says, “is my phone, because I can talk to my friends who understand me and listen about everything. It makes me happy.”
Sarai spends on average 5-6 hours a day on her mobile phone. She talks with friends from school, but what is worrying is she also talks with strangers she meets online. “I talk to boys I meet online, more than other people, because when I talk to them, I feel happy, like I can be myself, that I can express myself. It makes me feel happier than talking to my grandmother.”
Our Education Program Manager, Kru Ball, explains how this leads to danger. “Sarai wants friends, people to understand her, and above all, she wants love. This puts her at huge risk of online sexual exploitation. She has a lot of free time as well.” Idle time makes it more difficult to ignore the lures of the world online. Being so young, it’s difficult for her to identify when she’s being groomed for exploitation.
Sarai admits she has sent sexual photos to some of the boys she meets online. “They say they’ll send me money to buy clothes and things I want but that my grandmother refuses to buy because she says they are unnecessary.”
How We’re Working to Guide Her
Sarai began receiving a scholarship from The Freedom Story earlier this year. Now, after school Sarai spends time at our Resource Center with staff mentors, doing homework and spending time together rather than on her phone.
We have conducted 8 training sessions on online sexual exploitation in this region this year. As a result we have seen parents engaging their children on these topics much more. Kru Ball says, “Yesterday when I did a home visit, I talked to parents who joined our training, and they explained that they had talked to parents from another village about what they learned, sharing their knowledge about online sexual exploitation.”
Importantly, we have seen how children in our program open up to staff more about their online behavior. The trust they have in our staff mentors is essential to preventing exploitation, as it allows staff the opportunity to give advice and guidance to these vulnerable students.
We have been working with Sarai and her grandmother, visiting their home three times a week to mentor and support them. Sarai’s grandmother says her behavior is much better after joining our program. Sarai now shares her online behavior with staff, opening up to them about the problems she faces.
We are encouraged by these changes in behavior, but know that Sarai is still incredibly at risk and it will take time to change social media habits, as well as the underlying issues that led her to use social media as a coping strategy. The support that you’ve provided made it possible for us to expand our reach to more villages, and to children like Sarai. As we look forward to 2021, your support will make it possible to continue working with her to prevent any future exploitation.
Support and mentorship can help mitigate the risks that lead children to becoming trafficked and exploited. Sarai dreams of becoming a doctor, but she remains incredibly at risk. Scholarships help ensure she stays in school, and the mentorship and training can help her stay focused and committed to pursuing her dreams. Will you help us continue to secure freedom for children in 2021? Please help us reach our goal of raising $50,000 by the end of 2020 to protect vulnerable children and keep them safe through next year. Every gift will be matched for double the impact!
*Name changed for privacy.