Buiy is the kind of person to skip meals if it means her younger siblings get to eat. By the time she was 14 years old, she already had a lot of experience in doing without.
Buiy is Akha, an ethnic minority in Thailand, a factor that already puts her at risk of trafficking and exploitation because many ethnic minorities are heavily discriminated against. Her family consists of her parents, an older brother, three younger siblings, and herself.
Money has always been tight for their family. For a while, when her uncle was in jail, their family lived in his house and helped take care of his daughter, Buiy’s cousin. When he was released and returned home, they had to borrow money from others in their village to build a home for themselves. Buiy’s father has a drinking problem and, as she puts it, his drinking would often cause him to fight with her mother, in very intense verbal arguments, about money. These arguments made Buiy feel that she shouldn’t study further because it would increase their expenses and cause more fights and problems in her family. She was a star soccer player at her school, but it cost too much to keep attending there. She chose to drop out, giving up on her dream of playing soccer, to instead go to a school she could afford.
Paying for education and daily living costs remained a struggle. Some days she would skip lunch because she knew her younger siblings needed the money themselves, though she never let on to her siblings or even her mother that she was doing that. When her friends asked her why she wasn’t eating, she would only say she wasn’t hungry. Their questions made her feel embarrassed and afraid of losing her friends. She hid her tears from them, slipping away to a secret place when she needed to cry.
How Self-Sacrifice Leads to Risk
There was a lot of pressure to drop out of school early, due to costs. Her older brother had already dropped out so their younger siblings could continue their studies. Her parents believed that Buiy, too, should drop out after graduating from junior high and frequently pushed her to do so, so that she could work at night or work online to help support the family. Her mother didn’t believe education was a worthwhile investment for girls who, she believed, would only get married and leave.
Meanwhile, Buiy was very close to the cousin she had lived with. Her cousin would often give her clothes and she frequently went for sleepovers at their house, which wasn’t a safe environment, as there were many friends and boyfriends coming and going. Her cousin also frequently worked abroad, going to Taiwan for a few months, where she earned enough money to get plastic surgery, then Korea for 3 months, then Malaysia for another 3 months–markers that she was engaging in sex work. Whenever she was back in Thailand, she would work at karaoke bars–another well-known hot spot for sex trafficking and exploitation–and she often invited Buiy to spend time together and work part-time there too. She told Buiy, “Higher education doesn’t have any benefits. Use your good looks to find money.”
Buiy didn’t want to work at night, but she didn’t know what else to do. By that point, she felt she might have to, if it came to it. She didn’t want to give up on her education though. She asked her parents for permission to stay at a local children’s home called the Thai-Akha Foundation, which provides children with housing and transportation back and forth to school, as it would make it easier to continue studying while working part-time to support her family.
After moving to the Thai-Akha Foundation, Buiy heard about The Freedom Story, as many of our scholarship students have ties there. She applied for a scholarship. When our staff met Buiy, they were very concerned about this potent mix of poverty and desperation pushing the children to drop out of school at such a young age, plus such a close, influential person already pressuring her into work that puts her at enormous risk for sex trafficking and exploitation. Especially since she already shows so much willingness to sacrifice for her family, it would be a natural next step for her to continue down a dangerous road, willing to go through anything to help her family survive.
How The Freedom Story is Supporting Buiy
The Freedom Story offered Buiy a scholarship in 2020 to help her stay in school. Buiy says, “I was very glad and thanked God to get this help. These past two years were so valuable for me because I could go to school and had money to buy lunch at school.”
At 16 years old, she is back at home, now studying in a Retail Sales vocational program at a nearby college, and has staff mentors who are always available to give guidance and emotional support, cheer her on, and fortify her confidence. This emotional connection they’ve forged with her matters as much as the financial support in helping to keep her safe. It helps counterbalance the influences in her life that pressure her to pursue riskier paths. Her staff mentors work with her to develop her assertiveness and her ability to express her desires and needs openly, for hopefully a more healthy balance in her life between her own needs and those of others. They’re also supporting her in her desire to learn English.
The staff had heard from others about Buiy’s cousin posting on Facebook that she had gambling debts and that people were trying to find her. The staff shared this information with Buiy, and after discussing the matter, she decided she should distance herself from this influence.
Meanwhile, she has been grateful to participate in activities that teach about things such as human trafficking prevention, online media risks, life skills, and volunteering. Buiy is very aware of the changes that connection and support have brought to her life. She says, “I was very happy to attend these activities. They helped me to be more confident and make my own decisions. I gained leadership skills and had more friends. I was very glad to have opportunities to continue studying. I almost quit school, but my mentor gave me advice and encouraged me to continue on studying.”
She now combines her studies with part-time work at a local 7-Eleven, which allows her to continue her education while also bringing significant money home to her parents. In doing so, she paid off their 30,000 baht loan almost entirely by herself. She says, “A great big thank you to The Freedom Story for supporting my family. I appreciate all mentors who give me advice about my education and all the problems I encountered.”