We, at The Freedom Story, are grateful for your continued support of our work through GlobalGiving. As the end of the year approaches, we wanted to share a story of an inspiring young girl, Arisa*. Because of your generous support, we are able to help prevent trafficking at the source for children like Arisa.
Among the Hmong people, it is common to believe that girls’ education is less important than for boys. When a girl gets married, she becomes part of the husband’s family and no longer contributes to her own. From many parents’ perspectives, especially among older generations, even a college-educated woman will find value only with her husband’s family. For families that are in poverty, it seems to be not worth the investment.
Arisa is a bright fifteen-year-old Hmong girl. In her free time, she embroiders beautifully intricate Hmong fabrics to earn extra money for her family. “I feel proud every time I see my embroidery work in a frame,” she says. She also loves sports, especially takraw, a Thai game that is a cross between volleyball and soccer.
Her family lives in poverty. Her father is largely absent due to substance abuse, and he has remarried, leaving the financial burden for four children on Arisa’s mother. When he is around, there is often stress and violence, causing even greater strain. Arisa’s family lives in a very rural village in a remote province. The only jobs available are in agriculture. The wages are not enough to live on.
When we met Arisa, she was already spending a lot of time on social media, sometimes talking to strangers and engaging in risky behavior. She was taking a lot of sexually explicit photos and posting them with captions like, “I’m lonely, I’m single, I want someone to take care of me.” She had many contacts on Facebook, many quite a bit older, but she didn’t know most of them. They would comment on her photos and send her messages. Her homeroom teacher has also been concerned about her posting and said this is also pretty typical of Arisa’s friends.
This behavior opened her up to the likelihood of online sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, as she started getting older, her mother put more pressure on her to drop out of school to help support her younger siblings. These twin forces, the need to support her family and the drive to share herself on social media, create a situation ripe for exploitation.
She needed support to reassert her commitment to her education and to learning to value her online privacy, or she would be at significant risk of trafficking or exploitation.
Last year, when The Freedom Story expanded to Arisa’s village, we immediately saw all these factors that put her at risk: her family’s financial situation, the exposure to abuse, her family’s beliefs around educating girls, and her mother’s pressure on her to drop out.
We offered her a scholarship to encourage her to stay in school. Seeing her activity on social media, we also encouraged her to join in the training sessions we host for children and parents on the dangers of online exploitation.
Arisa joins activities at the resource center regularly, and they’ve had a significant impact on her. At first, she was reticent to talk to us about her online activities. But soon she began to tell us about her friends. She would bring her friends to activities with us too. Doing activities with her friends there helped her open up more.
Her mentor shared news articles about online sexual exploitation, which proved to be a pivotal moment for Arisa. As her mentor says, “We knew that if we only taught out of a book, it wouldn’t have any impact. No one thinks this kind of thing will happen to them, but after we shared the news story, she said, ‘Oh, I do those things too.’ The way she was dressing, things she was posting, it was dangerous in ways she didn’t know. She told us, ‘Hill tribe girls have to be pretty. When girls are pretty, they will get attention.’ We helped her understand the dangers a bit more.”
“After I joined The Freedom Story, my life changed for the better. Before, I spent most of my time playing on my phone, and I didn’t know anything about online exploitation. I would also take no responsibility for my chores.
“Now I have been to human trafficking prevention trainings and life skills development activities, for example in agriculture. I have learned how to spend my free time productively, spend less time on my phone, and use social media appropriately. I am also taking more responsibility for my duties, like taking care of my younger siblings and helping my mother work on the weekends and holidays.”
She no longer shares the same types of photos and captions. She is much more open and brave in talking to the staff. She seems happier too. She said she feels like “I have someone who cares about me, so I am happier to talk about myself.” We hope that being surrounded by people who care about her, value her, and support her–and not just for her looks–might be key to preventing her from seeking that kind of affirmation online.
Arisa says she’s also really enjoyed activities like the cooking classes at the resource center. They’ve helped her make new friends and build relationships with students from other villages and schools. Her mentor is there to support her, for example, when conflicts arise at school or with friends, issues that she feels uncomfortable sharing with her parents.
She dreams of one day becoming a nurse. She wants to help others in the community as well as have a stable career to “help lighten my mother’s burden in taking care of the younger children.”
There are many young women like Arisa. The belief in a girl’s right to an education is changing very slowly, especially among younger generations. The home visits we do play a role in helping to change these beliefs and encourage seeing the value in educating girls and young women. With your partnership, we are working to prevent trafficking for many children like Arisa. Thank you!
The Freedom Story
*Name changed for privacy