Go small or go home

A 14 year old girl rescued from slavery. A community just wanting to break the shackles of poverty. An opportunity to make a lasting change.

It was a misty, muddy day in the northern mountains of Vietnam.

I was on my way to meet Ma, a teenage girl we had rescued weeks earlier from forced labour in a factory. She was 14 years old and wanted nothing more than to be home with her family.

I knew that life for her was difficult, and arriving in her village I could see why. Their sheer remoteness – so far from services, proper roads, jobs and hospitals – made for a harsh environment.

Walking through an ethnic minority village.

It’s easy to enter a village and see their deficits. But the key to helping people is always to find their strengths.

On this day, the answer came quickly: Community.

The village seemed almost empty, but as we walked along a narrow track between timber stilt houses we could hear a muffled chattering nearby. And then we could see many dozens of plastic flipflops piled and scattered at the base of one such house, which was larger than all the others.

A woman’s head popped out from the door above us and called us up. Off with our shoes and up the ladder we went!

The gathering

While the air outside was cold and damp, inside the traditional stilt house of this ethnic community was much warmer. Packed into the single-room building were at least 70 people, mostly women, and all dressed in the colourful outfits that were customary to this community.

The chattering was in a language unfamiliar to me. This was an ethnic Thai village, and the local language was used far more widely than the mainstream Vietnamese Kinh language.

Through translators, the village leader welcomed me and my colleagues from Blue Dragon and in turn we introduced ourselves. Despite our attempts at maintaining confidentiality, they all knew who we were and that we had recently helped one of their teen girls escape from slavery and return home.

Ma was at school, they told us, so we would see her later. For now, we were invited to take part in their community meeting.

An opportunity suddenly presented itself. Here was a gathering of members from almost every family in the village. We knew that the villages all across these mountains were being targeted by human traffickers. They came to town promising hope for people to escape their poverty. False offers of jobs and training led to children and adults alike being trapped into unpaid forced labour, unable to escape.

Community education

Taking a mobile phone from his pocket, one of my colleagues opened up his photos of the sweatshop where Ma had been taken more than a year ago. Relying on a translator, we talked about what these factories were like: the long hours, the harsh treatment, the lack of payment.

As that phone passed from hand to hand, the mothers and fathers visibly gasped. Mostly they were silent with shock. Some muttered angrily to the people sitting around them.

This was not what they had been promised by the “successful job brokers” who came to their village.

The parents were appalled. Our photos, taken in the sweatshops where children from this region were put to work, showed the awful conditions in which they lived. Sitting on a concrete floor cutting cloth. Working at machines that were much larger than the children themselves. No parent wants that for their child.

We talked to the community about what they thought the ‘job brokers’ were offering. They shared their disappointment at learning they had been tricked. Many knew someone, or were related to someone, who had followed them for work.

Changing hearts and minds

When it came time to go and see Ma, I sensed that a shift had taken place in this community.

Next time the traffickers came to town, they had no chance. In fact, I wondered if there might even be violence. Now that these parents had seen the images and heard the stories, they would never be deceived again.

Efforts to prevent human trafficking are often focused on reaching the largest number of people possible. This is to save money, be more efficient, and achieve the holy grail of ‘scalability’.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with mass campaigns. Some undoubtedly work.

But time and again, I’ve seen in Vietnam that the most effective way of changing minds and behaviour is to do so on a very ‘local’ level.

Local does it

The people who are most vulnerable to human trafficking are villagers like those in Ma’s community. Ethnic minority communities are vastly over-represented as victims of exploitation.

So the question becomes: How can we help them to stay safe?

One thing I know for certain is that they’re not interested in hearing from celebrities. Messages from sports stars and singers don’t move them. Strangers in suits coming to town from NGOs and embassies to give speeches or put up posters have no impact at all.

What’s needed is much ‘smaller’ than that.

That morning, as we sat with the community and got to know them, we connected. Mothers and fathers asked us questions, shared their own stories. We listened and asked them questions of our own.

A community education meeting inside a traditional stilt house.

Even though we were strangers, they knew we had helped one of their children. We weren’t just promising help in the future; we had already proven ourselves by doing something they appreciated.

Local-level solutions like this are powerful. Scaling them up requires a more ‘back to basics’ approach: it’s all about working with people and building trust. And Blue Dragon’s work shows it can be done.

Ma was back at school, more than happy to cross the hills and streams each day to attend her classes.

Her family was delighted that their daughter was safely home.

And her community was determined that no more of their children would be lured away by the false promises of human trafficking.

Community conversations just like this one were key to ending the trafficking of children to garment sweatshops and are now central to our strategy for ending all major forms of trafficking in Vietnam. A donation to Blue Dragon‘s work will make a real difference in the lives of children and communities.

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