Imagine an average middle class teenager growing up in the U.S. who dreams of doing some form of computer engineering, design, or other online job some day. You might imagine at this stage the teenager is a digital native, having grown up around digital devices, perhaps having access to some in school as well as at home, almost all the media and culture he consumes is made by others in his culture, often tailored for his generation, and anything he wants to know, there’s probably a YouTube tutorial for, and if he’s lucky, he probably knows a friend or peer who is already doing what he wants to learn and who he can ask when he has questions.
Now imagine a teenage boy in rural northern Thailand, living in a house of concrete and bamboo. His family has cell phones, but they are basic: mostly for calls, texting, and taking photos. They use prepaid cards that they “top up” at the nearest 7-11, and his nearest access to the Internet is at the local community center, where he shares it with the other neighborhood kids. He has watched YouTube videos online and the prospect of making his own videos has caught his interest. He thinks he could make a good living making YouTube videos some day. However, his parents are subsistence level farmers who wouldn’t have the first idea of how to guide him in making that career a reality. There are no computer literacy or coding classes at his school. He knows no one who is actually making these kinds of videos. He watches the ones that are in Thai, made by Thai people, but the overwhelming dominant market is in a language he doesn’t speak and caters to a culture he doesn’t know.
This is Luke.* He is age 14.
In the past, the economies (including technological change and development) of more developed countries and less developed countries were more separate and distinct. With the growth of the Internet and the spread of access to digital devices the divisions are blurring at an accelerating rate. Western cultures have been at the forefront of major technological developments, and while changes have come at an accelerated clip, as the arbiters and architects of the new economy, most of our society has been able to grow with it as it comes. For kids in these rural villages, it is like several steps in development were skipped—all the accessories of the modern technology are present and available (smart phones, computers, etc.), with little to none of the cultural buttressing to help support and augment development.
Where previously their worlds might have been entirely separate, Luke suddenly has in theory a similar kind of access to making money off YouTube videos as do his American peers. When asked about his future, he says he wants to pursue a career involving art, drawing, and freelancing work online. He is teaching himself through YouTube tutorials, and hopes to find a career online, which he thinks will give him more freedom to do a job that doesn’t require too much physical labor outside. He wants to work for himself. For him, this is an escape path out of the backbreaking, underpaid work his parents do. It’s also an alternative to the lure of trafficking for a kid who might be desperate to avoid the trappings of an impoverished rural life.
He is clearly self-motivated and has an entrepreneurial spirit, though there is not really a clear plan. While we do have some workshops providing some basic computer training, it doesn’t cover what he needs to pursue an alternative career path like this. Access to apprenticeships, workshops, college classes and other forms of training that would be readily available to wealthier students living in big cities are incredibly hard to come by for students like Luke. To get there, he needs to leap frog his way out of a local school and into a better equipped one in a bigger city—something he can’t do on his own.
Our first step to disrupting the path that leads to child trafficking is to keep the kids in school and provide an education that is the stepping stone to a viable future. However, simply being in school, any school, might not be enough when the local options have insufficient resources to help get these kids up to speed and competitive in a global economy.
It’s a tricky question we must confront. Do we tell these kids “Dream big—but not too big?” When kids like Luke see others making a living online, do we tell him, “Look, but don’t touch?” How do we dismantle the lure of easy money made in the sex trade if we tell the kids that their dreams are unrealistic—if the line “you can be anything you want to be” is an untruth?
This is why we at The Freedom Story believe the scholarships are a necessary but insufficient component to combating child sex trafficking. They are the first step, and our Resource Centers, where we develop relationships with the students deep enough to find out what they dream of becoming, where our counselors can help pursue networks, educational opportunities, and access to other resources to aid student development, become critical to ensuring success. This is why we support kids even at the university level—because that is where real opportunity begins.
It is through the combination of donor support and fortuitous opportunities that we might be able to help kids like Luke turn their hopes into a concrete path for the future.
*Name changed to protect privacy
FIVE students like Luke are still in need of scholarships for the year. Will you consider donating towards one?
Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.