The things that put children and young people at risk of trafficking don’t usually happen overnight; they’re vulnerabilities that start early, which is why we advocate for deep change–working over time to reduce vulnerabilities and build up resilience to prevent trafficking. We have a system for identifying who is most vulnerable, relying on key factors from a person’s history that are recognized as red flags. To illustrate how this works, let’s look at the case of Chayu.
Fourteen year-old Chayu* is a shy girl with a sweet smile, timid yet articulate. However, her family history has a lot of red flags.
The Red Flags
The first red flag was her parents’ separation, and how she has spent the last few years bouncing back and forth between her mother and father’s houses. That alone would not necessarily be a cause for concern, of course, but after her parents separated, her mother’s income was unstable. She took on work as a housekeeper, but it was insufficient, so she began supplementing that income with sex work in Chiang Rai. She’s not the only one in the family to do so. Chayu’s paternal grandmother was also works in the sex trade in Malaysia, a hotspot for trafficking.
Although we make a distinction between consensual sex work (which is voluntary) and sex trafficking, it raises a concern that Chayu might be more prone to following this path, even while underage. This can happen if her family encourages her to do it to support them financially, or if she takes it on herself–either way, as a minor, this would be considered trafficking. As it is, her mother sometimes takes Chayu with her when she goes out drinking at night. Though Chayu only drinks a soda on these occasions, The Freedom Story staff mentors believe there is a high risk of “learning by seeing,” and that being around that environment would normalize sex work in a way that is inappropriate for someone so young.
Another red flag came in the form of Chayu’s mother’s new partner, who was in his late twenties and much younger than she. The Freedom Story staff believed that living with her mother and her partner in a one room apartment wasn’t appropriate, especially because in this area there is a high rate of sexual abuse by step parents. Her stepfather also had a lot of debt, paying off the car he needs for his job. Burdensome debts are a frequently-cited reason people turn to trafficking: it’s the promise of a lot of money earned quickly. Meanwhile, Chayu was often left alone with him while her mother works at night. This situation left a lot of opportunity for abuse.
Chayu’s staff mentor shared that both Chayu and her mom felt uncomfortable with the situation and Chayu wanted to be able to move out. “They were sharing one bed and she felt really uncomfortable, especially because they are so close in age. So she asked to move to live with her dad.”
At her father’s home, Chayu also experienced a lot of stress. She was often required to take care of her 1-year-old half-sister after school, which distracted her from the focus she needed to place on her school work. Her relationship with her step-mother was also fraught, and the two often wouldn’t speak for days on end. Stressful relationships at home also facilitate risk of trafficking, primarily if there is no safe place to turn to in time of need.
How TFS Is Stepping In
Seeing all these red flags–the low income, the family debt, her family history of sex work, being left alone a lot with her stepfather, and strained family relationships–The Freedom Story’s staff believed Chayu was at risk of trafficking. So she was accepted into The Freedom Story’s scholarship program last year, which helps alleviate the financial strain. TFS staff acted immediately to move Chayu to live with her father full time, to reduce the potential for abuse. Due to COVID restrictions, her grandmother is back from Malaysia, which also helps relieve the burden of carrying for her younger sibling. Our staff also helped facilitate a mutually agreeable system where her parents work together to ensure she is cared for and has transportation to and from school.
She is a dedicated student, working hard and thriving, even through the stress and disruption of a move to a new school. She will finish middle school soon, and though she’s not sure yet what she’ll want to focus on, she’s looking forward to choosing her new subjects for high school. Our task is continue supporting her financially through her education and providing emotional support to buoy her through challenges at home. We offer awareness raising programs that might also help her to recognize situations in which she might be vulnerable to abuse, so that she can learn to avoid them or get help if they do arise. Together, these resources can keep her more safe and protected.
There are a lot of vulnerable young girls like Chayu that we work with. To help support them, please consider a gift to our mentorship program. Between now and April 15, we’ve set a goal to raise $10,000! Can you help us reach it?
*Name changed to protect privacy.