Dec 18, 2020

Online Exploitation: A New Threat

Dear Friends,

It has been such a difficult year for everyone, and we are so thankful for your partnership. Thank you.

When we first started working in anti-trafficking, poverty was the trafficker, the biggest factor aiding and abetting vulnerability to exploitation. But in recent years, as kids started getting access to mobile phones and the internet, trafficking increasingly shows up in the form of exploitation online. Kids who live in bamboo houses, and who still use outhouses for bathrooms, have access to the world online–and predators have access to them. Raising awareness about online dangers is not as simple as it sounds–it requires transforming a whole mentality about what it means to connect online. For example, it is considered normal in Thailand to connect with total strangers on apps like Line and Facebook. Some people even meet their spouses that way. An added challenge is the rapid pace of technological advancements, meaning that parents who can barely read and write don’t understand the internet or its dangers. Because of this sea change in how traffickers can find people to exploit, there is an urgent need to recognize a new facilitator of trafficking: loneliness.

We recently shared about a case of loneliness driving a 14-year-old girl to nearly run away to Bangkok because of a woman she had met online. In today’s account, we’re sharing about the case of a girl who’s even younger: Sarai.*

Sarai is bright and gregarious, seeking new knowledge at every opportunity. But her whole family has been ravaged by trafficking, and though she is only a pre-teen, she too is vulnerable to it.

Sarai comes from a very remote and impoverished area. In this area, the generational cycle of trafficking is active, and Sarai’s family is a prime example. Her grandmother was trafficked into the sex industry, and once she was too old to continue to work, her two children were trafficked into the sex industry to support their family. Sarai’s mother, as a teenager, was trafficked for over a decade before she passed away when Sarai was a toddler. Sarai’s aunt still works in the sex industry.

With the loss of her mother, Sarai’s family survives on only her grandmother’s pension from the Thai government of $20 per month, the occasional work her grandmother can do around the village, and the occasional money her aunt sends to them. This alone would make Sarai incredibly vulnerable to trafficking. But in our relationship with her, we can see that the most immediately dangerous factor is loneliness.

Why Loneliness is a Facilitator of Exploitation

Sarai’s grandmother is her only caregiver, and their considerable age difference causes tension. “My relationship with my grandmother isn’t very good, because we’re from different generations. Every time I consult my grandmother on a problem or ask for advice, she gets stressed, and uses harsh words, making me feel terrible. Sometimes she won’t listen to me at all, especially when I don’t meet her expectations,” Sarai explains.

Her grandmother feels the strain too, especially with few other relatives she can turn to for advice. She also feels an incredible amount of guilt over the fate of her daughters, and it has a devastating daily impact on her mental health. 

The loneliness is a huge problem, and Sarai turns to social media to cope. “The only thing that makes me feel better,” she says, “is my phone, because I can talk to my friends who understand me and listen about everything. It makes me happy.” 

Sarai spends on average 5-6 hours a day on her mobile phone. She talks with friends from school, but what is worrying is she also talks with strangers she meets online. “I talk to boys I meet online, more than other people, because when I talk to them, I feel happy, like I can be myself, that I can express myself. It makes me feel happier than talking to my grandmother.”

Our Education Program Manager, Kru Ball, explains how this leads to danger. “Sarai wants friends, people to understand her, and above all, she wants love. This puts her at huge risk of online sexual exploitation. She has a lot of free time as well.” Idle time makes it more difficult to ignore the lures of the world online. Being so young, it’s difficult for her to identify when she’s being groomed for exploitation.

Sarai admits she has sent sexual photos to some of the boys she meets online. “They say they’ll send me money to buy clothes and things I want but that my grandmother refuses to buy because she says they are unnecessary.” 

How We’re Working to Guide Her

Sarai began receiving a scholarship from The Freedom Story earlier this year. Now, after school Sarai spends time at our Resource Center with staff mentors, doing homework and spending time together rather than on her phone. 

We have conducted 8 training sessions on online sexual exploitation in this region this year. As a result we have seen parents engaging their children on these topics much more. Kru Ball says, “Yesterday when I did a home visit, I talked to parents who joined our training, and they explained that they had talked to parents from another village about what they learned, sharing their knowledge about online sexual exploitation.” 

Importantly, we have seen how children in our program open up to staff more about their online behavior. The trust they have in our staff mentors is essential to preventing exploitation, as it allows staff the opportunity to give advice and guidance to these vulnerable students.

We have been working with Sarai and her grandmother, visiting their home three times a week to mentor and support them. Sarai’s grandmother says her behavior is much better after joining our program. Sarai now shares her online behavior with staff, opening up to them about the problems she faces.

We are encouraged by these changes in behavior, but know that Sarai is still incredibly at risk and it will take time to change social media habits, as well as the underlying issues that led her to use social media as a coping strategy. The support that you’ve provided made it possible for us to expand our reach to more villages, and to children like Sarai. As we look forward to 2021, your support will make it possible to continue working with her to prevent any future exploitation. 

Support and mentorship can help mitigate the risks that lead children to becoming trafficked and exploited. Sarai dreams of becoming a doctor, but she remains incredibly at risk. Scholarships help ensure she stays in school, and the mentorship and training can help her stay focused and committed to pursuing her dreams. Will you help us continue to secure freedom for children in 2021? Please help us reach our goal of raising $50,000 by December 31st to protect vulnerable children and keep them safe through next year. Every gift will be matched for double the impact!

In Hope,

 

Nov 26, 2020

THE NARROW ESCAPE

Loneliness consumes BunMa* putting her at risk.
Loneliness consumes BunMa* putting her at risk.

Dear Friends,

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.

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 escaped 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.

For girls like Mai from our story 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. 

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.

We are so grateful for your support. If you are able, would you consider giving to our project this Giving Tuesday so we can support children like BunMa?

Best Wishes,

Lucy

Nov 25, 2020

How Your Support Secured Mai's Freedom

A student, not Mai, during one of our workshops.
A student, not Mai, during one of our workshops.

Dear Friends,

I wanted to share the story of Mai* one of our incredible students. I hope her resilience inspires and encourages you.

When Mai* was seven, her parents sent her away from their home in Myanmar to live with her aunt in Thailand so she could get a better life. It was not the promise they imagined it would be. “My life was so difficult. I had to help my aunt with everything. I had to wake up early, make breakfast, get water from the well, wash clothes for her children. I was late to school every day and was hit every day for being late, but they understood what I had to do before school. We didn’t have any money either, because my aunt was addicted to drugs. She would use all the money my parents sent for her addiction,” Mai explains. On weekends, she had to walk two hours to her aunt’s farm to help out. During the week she had to do housework, and if it wasn’t done by the time her aunt got home–for example, if there was an after school activity–Mai would be hit with bamboo sticks, more than once to the point where she almost died. This was not the life her parents thought they had secured for her.

Mai couldn’t escape. She had no phone and couldn’t call her mother. Luckily when her older sister moved to Thailand for work, she was able to use a moment when her aunt was out to call her sister for help. Her sister sent money to them, but again her aunt took it all. 

When Mai was in 4th grade, her uncle attempted to sexaully assault her while she was sleeping. The whole family slept in the same room, a common practice in some parts of Thailand, but one which puts children at high risk of abuse. Mai escaped and slept at a friend’s house for a week afterwards, afraid to go home. She told both her sister and her mom but they did not believe her. They thought she wanted to go back to Myanmar. Finally her aunt admitted it had happened. 

At that point Mai moved to a local children’s home. “I felt so much better. When I lived with my aunt, that was a living hell, but when I went to the dorm that was heaven. I was so relaxed, I didn’t have to think about anything,” she explains. 

Through the children’s home, Mai became acquainted with The Freedom Story staff. When she was 14, she was accepted into the scholarship program. The financial support allowed Mai to continue in school, and her staff mentor became a source of emotional support in her turbulent life. 

To study for her high school vocational degree in tourism and pursue her dream of becoming a tour guide, Mai moved from the children’s home to live with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in the city. However this move also proved disastrous. While there, her safety was again violated when her sister’s boyfriend attempted to sexually assault her. At first it started with teasing, and inviting her to do things, until one day he was standing in only a towel in front of her asking, “Do you know how to use a condom? I can teach you, come to my room.” Mai felt beholden to him living in his house, but she refused his advances. Mai reached out to another relative in the city and asked to move in with her. 

Meanwhile, despite graduating from the vocational degree program, Mai’s hopes of becoming a tour guide were dashed. As an immigrant, she did not have the right legal status to become a guide. She decided to further her education by studying to become a beautician, in the hopes of one day opening her own salon. But her family had no money to support her. She’d have to cover all her expenses herself. Determined to further her education, she decided to study at the open university, as it would allow her to work and study at the same time. 

The Freedom Story was able to cover her school expenses, but Mai had to find a way of making enough money to support her living expenses in a way that didn’t involve working in the daytime when she needed to study. Her sister was working in a bar at that time, and invited her to work there too. “At first I told her, ‘I don’t want to do it...I fought with her so many times…But I needed money.” 

At first, working at the bar and making enough money to support herself was a source of immense pride. But it was a double-edged sword because Mai was taking on a lot of risk. 

To keep herself safe, Mai had to know her boundaries. She is very articulate about how effective the lures of trafficking are. She said, “If you offer money, nowadays, people will go anywhere. If you don’t love yourself, if you don’t see your value, people will go. If you think money is more important than yourself, you will go. I have people who invited me to leave the bar with them for money. [Editor’s note: leaving the bar with someone is generally a euphemism for going home with a client to perform sexual favors in exchange for money.] I always tell myself, ‘No matter how much money it is, I am not going with them.’ It's just money, you can always find more money. It's not worth it for the money–we don't know what they will do.”

Mai’s incredible resilience and strength is evident in how steadfast she kept to her dreams. She knows her value; it was only support that she needed to pursue her dreams. “The Freedom Story has helped me so much. It helped cover my school expenses. Without the scholarship, I don’t know where I’d be. It has taken so much weight off of me. And I’ve had so much encouragement. And people to ask for advice. I can’t ask my sister anything. She didn’t get a chance to study. I have no one I can ask. If I want to do something, I have to think about it alone, and sometimes I just don’t know what to do. When I come to The Freedom Story, I have people to talk to and I get so much praise and support ....Not only that, but I’ve learned so much through the trainings. Last year, I joined a training on legal status and learned a lot about what my options to pursue full citizenship might be.”

In early 2020, Mai graduated with her beautician degree and no longer works in the bar. She used the money she made to open her own salon and employ her sisters. “I wanted to work in this to save money, so I could study, so that I could open my beauty salon, so I can pull my sisters in to work with me, to pull them out of that cycle.” She used her opportunities to not only pursue her own freedom, but to liberate her sisters as well.

Because of you, Mai is secure and free. Thank you for your incredible support throughout this very difficult year. If you Mai's story has inspired you, will you consider giving to our project on Giving Tuesday next week? GlobalGiving has $1 million in matching gifts available. We would greatly apprecaite your support.


In Hope,

Lucy

*Name changed to protect privacy and identity of student.

 
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