Human trafficking is such a pervasive problem, and we’re just one organization working to prevent it in one area of Thailand–but what if prevention is an idea that can grow? Having spent more than a decade developing our prevention model and demonstrating its effectiveness, by mid-2019, we believed that The Freedom Story was ready to scale. We sought an opportunity to implement our prevention programs in a new region, one which we knew was even more of a hot spot than our home base in Chiang Rai. Our research and conversations with partners continually pointed us toward one province in particular: Nan.
Establishing Ourselves in Nan
Nan is a Northern province located 220 kilometers (136 miles) southeast of Chiang Rai, and the situation in the district where we are getting set up is quite dire. Two-thirds of our scholarship students there live on about $2 per day. Seventy percent have a parent or sibling who was involved in sex work, 62% have an extended relative who was involved in sex work, and 19% of students have a parent or sibling who was a victim of trafficking. There’s a high prevalence of child abuse in the local area, with 18% of children abused by someone in their families, and 30% abused by someone outside the family.
Access to education is hampered by costs – the local middle and high schools are about an hour commute away, which means that by the age of 13, school children need their families to cover the costs of dorms, food, transportation, uniforms, school fees, and other costs. This high cost causes families to pull their children out of school before or just after the government mandated 9th grade. Others become pregnant or involved in drugs after living away from home with minimal supervision. Some children of the Hmong ethnic minority group marry before they finish 9th grade, in accordance with traditional customs. For those that leave school, the only employment in the villages is farming, which does not make enough money to make ends meet. As a result, these children are desperate for work and are easily trafficked into the sex trade to make ends meet. This desperate situation explains the established and active generational cycle of trafficking with older generations incentivized to traffick the next generation to make money.
Doing prevention work in a way that is empowering for local communities means working alongside and in partnership with the communities themselves, supporting them as they overcome barriers that hamper their success. We sought to grow the idea of prevention through conversations with community leaders, local government officials and teachers. These initial conversations gave us a greater feel of the community and a solid understanding of how trafficking operates in this particular area. Our Education Program Manager, Kru Ball, grew up in one of the districts of Nan Province. As a local, he was able to facilitate these conversations that confirmed what we had already suspected: these communities were poverty stricken, with limited options for work, and high dropout rates. One teacher described the bleak options quite bluntly, “kids who drop out of school have two options: sell sex or sell drugs.” Mitigating risk proves a daunting task against such formidable forces.
Establishing trust is key to a relationship that is empowering, respectful, and dignifying. Kru Ball and his family’s established presence in the community gave us a solid basis upon which to build trust with the children and their guardians. Earning the trust of the village leaders took more time. The Freedom Story is the first NGO that has ever worked with these two villages. The village leaders, naturally, were protective and wary of allowing unknown people to come in and work with their already vulnerable people. Because of the conversations in which we were able to demonstrate The Freedom Story’s commitment to Nan, village leaders grew more comfortable with the idea.
Kru Ball’s standing in the province also comes with a certain pedigree: not only is he a first generation graduate from university in his family, he is also the first person in his entire village to graduate from university. His reputation in the community smoothed the process of transitioning programs. When asked how his relationships have changed in Nan since he left the village at the age of 12, Kru Ball chuckled and emphatically replied, ‘The relationships have changed a lot! They see me and the team there as advisors now. They no longer see me as a kid.”
How We Can Grow Prevention in Nan
Though we are in the early stages of growth and development in Nan, we are beginning to see the fruits of our and the community’s labor. In a very short time, trust in The Freedom Story has grown so much that the members of the community have begun to come to the staff with many of their problems, whether familial, financial, relational, etc.
Nevertheless, the road to freedom from risks is long and tough. Approximately 80% of the community is in poverty. Roughly 30% of the guardians of our scholarship students were previously or are currently being exploited sexually. A majority of the scholarship students’ guardians stopped going to school after the age of 12 or 13. With online exploitation on the rise during the pandemic, the children of Nan are at increased risk because they are accessing the internet more while their guardians’ lack of experience with the new technology and awareness of the risks means they lack guidance on safer internet use. (See this link on the new facilitator of trafficking for more information.)
To combat these risks, the staff in Nan have implemented three of The Freedom Story’s main pillars of prevention that have already assisted thousands of at-risk people in Chiang Rai–namely education, human rights awareness raising, and investment in sustainability. Thanks to the incredible generosity of individual donors as well as organizations, we were able to secure funding for our programs in Nan. This funding has enabled us to award 28 scholarships to students. We’ve led training sessions that inform about the risks of trafficking, abuse, and about human rights. Our Sustainability Program has also helped build and develop a viable community market. With some training on simple business practices and budgeting, the community market has helped many families increase their income, which simultaneously decreases their risk of exploitation. The greatest success, however, according to Kru Ball is that “the children and the community are now seeing they have an opportunity to have a different life. Before, only we knew that they had an opportunity to succeed. But now they see it too.” That already is an important accomplishment–and a promising beginning.
If we can demonstrate our ability to grow the idea of prevention beyond Chiang Rai to Nan, then we have a basis on which to grow prevention in other communities as well.