Early this year, we had a case that was a narrow escape – one of the narrowest we’ve encountered. When 14-year-old BunMa* met Aon* on social media and was invited to attend a New Year’s party, she was already suffering from intense loneliness. She lives in a remote part of the country. At school she is bullied intensely because of a disability resulting from a motorbike accident. Her mother has passed away, and though she lives with her grandmother, cousin, and father, their relationship is strained. Her father works as a daily wage laborer when work is available, earning around $300 per month for the family. When work isn’t available, Bunma’s father and grandmother go to find fish to sell. It’s a struggle to get by. And our sense is, it’s a struggle for her to see her own self-worth. As a young teen who yearns for friendship, the loneliness and bullying consumes her.
Then she met a woman named Aon via social media. They became close friends, so when Aon invited BunMa to her house for a few days around a New Year’s party, BunMa and another younger acquaintance, Madee, gladly went. BunMa has attended trafficking awareness workshops and knows the dangers. Yet she still didn’t anticipate any risk because she thought Aon’s parents would be there. She felt safe with someone she thought was a friend.
When a Friendship Turns Dangerous
A day or two after they arrived, Aon said her aunt, who she lives and works with in Bangkok, had told her she had to go back to Bangkok immediately. At that point, Aon demanded that BunMa go with her or leave. BunMa was very tempted to go, and it was through sheer luck that she didn’t. The two girls went instead to the home of an older boy BunMa had also met on social media, one whom we suspect is involved in drug dealing. Though she had a narrow escape from the immediate trafficking situation, BunMa was still in a precarious position. By this point BunMa’s family were concerned that she hadn’t returned home when they had agreed, and they notified the police, who sent out a missing child’s report. The Freedom Story staff mobilized immediately to locate BunMa, knowing how at risk she is.
When her Freedom Story staff mentor reached out to her, BunMa had finally realized things were getting out of control, and she answered their messages even though she had been avoiding responding to anyone else. Our staff were able to find her. After she went to the police station for an interview, staff were eventually able to bring her back home.
It was a harrowing experience, and remains a hard lesson for a lonely girl desperate for friendship. Our staff are currently working with her to help her stay focused on her studies and schooling and to address her impulses to find validation through friends on social media and the lures of what those “friends” promise awaits her in Bangkok. To a young girl in a remote village, the fast life in Bangkok sounds exotic and exciting. It might even seem empowering to be promised enough money to buy whatever she wants. It can be intoxicating to imagine, for a girl who’s been bullied for a visible disability, that her looks make her desirable and that she can have a place among other desirable girls.
How Mentorship Served in a Narrow Escape
For girls like Mai, in our story from last week, it’s the poverty that puts her at risk. Mai has a clear moral compass all on her own, and it’s the scholarships that make her life more secure, and that make freedom possible.
But girls like Mai aren’t the only ones vulnerable to trafficking. There are girls like BunMa too, who are vulnerable due to poverty, yes, but more so because they need guidance and social-emotional support that few else in their life provide. They’re carrying deep emotional wounds…and it’s this vulnerability that makes it seem worth it to trade freedom for the love, attention, affection, and validation that they crave. In this sense, the security they need is secure relationships and a secure sense of self. Establishing that can be the key to ensuring they remain free from exploitation.
“There are many children this online exploitation or ‘grooming’ is happening to….There are lots of teens who don’t know how to use social media safely, and parents don’t have the ability to monitor or understand their child’s internet use. It’s important to teach parents, to encourage families to spend time together, to talk to one another about these things.” – Kru Ball, TFS Education Program Manager
Because we’re serious about preventing trafficking, we are steadfast in our commitment to try to change the trajectory of her path as much as we can. It’s long, hard work, with no quick fixes. The good news is that the immediate trafficking situation was averted and the staff were able to step in and help. However, BunMa remains a risk case, so our commitment to her must remain secure, to ensure her freedom through 2021 and beyond.
Having a secure network of people who truly care about you can literally save your life. When loneliness led her astray, it was relationships with people she could trust who brought her back. For students like BunMa, this kind of security can be the very thing that guarantees their freedom. 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!
*Names changed to protect privacy, and photo is stock and does not depict her.