Books, Bikes & Buffalos: fighting child trafficking by keeping kids in school

October 5, 2021

Blue Dragon developed ‘Back to School’ campaigns in response to the spike in school dropout rates caused by COVID-19 in northern Vietnam. The interventions, aimed at keeping children in school and safe from human trafficking, have assisted hundreds of students to return to class. A new report analyses what causes children to leave school, and how these campaigns guaranteed their right to education.

When COVID-19 first emerged in early 2020, in addition to closing its borders, Vietnam closed schools and restricted domestic travel and gatherings. As months went by and restrictions increased, the pandemic was controlled but poverty spread rapidly.

In underdeveloped provinces like Dien Bien and Ha Giang in Vietnam’s far north, the level of hardship was particularly severe. Many children had to make an impossible choice between going hungry and going to school. When schools reopened after four months, hundreds of children in these provinces didn’t return to the classroom. This placed them at high risk of being trafficked.

“We were alerted that a lot of ethnic minority children, especially girls, had dropped out of school either to get work or because they were getting married. We wanted to intervene to ensure these children weren’t being exploited and that they could get an education,” says Dr. Caitlin Wyndham, Resources and Partnerships leader at Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation.

In response to this crisis, Blue Dragon launched the Back to School campaigns, an expanded version of our existing interventions to keep children in school. “We needed to do something more systematic in order to reach any school where they had a very high dropout rate,” says Caitlin. 

a small hamlet in Ha Giang province

Teachers and social workers on the way to visit the family of a child in a small hamlet in Ha Giang province.

Between May and October 2020, Blue Dragon carried out five Back to School campaigns in Ha Giang and Dien Bien provinces. This resulted in 65% of the children who had to abandon their education returning to the classroom. One year later, 99% of these students who returned to class during the 2020 campaigns remained in school.

In light of these positive results, Blue Dragon is now carrying out these campaigns twice a year, when the most children are likely to abandon their studies: after the summer break, and after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Child marriage and child labour, driving school dropout rates

“Insight into the reasons why the children left school in the first place is key to being able to cater to the needs of all children in crisis,” highlights Blue Dragon’s report Back to School: Collaborative and holistic campaigns to prevent child trafficking. In the report, Blue Dragon analyses the information collected by teachers and social workers during the Back to School campaigns.

This analysis finds that the girls who abandoned their studies were on average three years younger than their male counterparts. The majority of the girls who were absent from the classroom when schools reopened were between 12 and 15 years old, while most male students were 15 to 18 years old.

This is mainly due to “cultural and economic expectations put on children from ethnic minority communities”, says Caitlin. Although poverty is the main driver causing children to leave school, because of these cultural expectations, boys and girls tend to leave school for different reasons.

While most boys leave school to find work and support their families financially, many girls end their education early to care for younger siblings so their parents can work away from home, or to get married.

girls in a school yard in northern Vietnam

School girls during an activity at their school in Dien Bien province.

In fact, the report found that at least 36% of the girls who did not return to school got married during school closures.

Both local and national Vietnamese government agencies have made substantial efforts to put a stop to child marriage in recent years. The practice, however, remains common in these communities. “In the northern mountainous region of Vietnam, remoteness makes policing and enforcement of the legislation difficult to implement,” says the report.

Hoang Duc Chu, coordinator of Blue Dragon’s program in Dien Bien province, cites H’mong culture as an example of this. “According to H’mong tradition, once young girls are around 13 years old, they are expected to fulfil their duty to the family through marriage.”

Once these teenage girls are married, it is very unlikely they will resume their education. “While parents tend to agree to let their daughters go back to school after they have given birth, the actual rate is nearly zero. In many ethnic communities, it is still customary for families to expect around four or five children to complete a household. Thus, once ‘wifely duties’ are fulfilled, these young women will have far surpassed the appropriate age to return to the classroom,” explains Hoang.

Infographic - why children leave school

For boys, the major cause for dropping out of school is financial stress on the family. “The underlying belief is that young men are expected to be the main pillar of the family and earn enough to support their wife and children,” says Hoang.

These traditional customs explain the different ages at which boys and girls leave school. The spike in poverty due to COVID-19 meant both teenage boys and girls were in desperate need to improve their families’ financial circumstances. This placed both male and female students at a higher risk trafficking for labour exploitation, while girls were also vulnerable to sex trafficking.

For female students who leave school to find work and support their families financially, the danger of labour exploitation is even greater than for boys. Because they are younger when they leave school, girls who set out to look for work are more likely to end up in exploitative jobs. “Not having yet reached the age to be legally employed reduces their chances of finding legitimate work,” says the report.

For ethnic minority children, disadvantages “pile up”

Ethnic minority communities in Vietnam tend to be overrepresented in all statistics related to poverty and disadvantage,” says Blue Dragon’s Resources and Partnerships Leader.

“These communities usually live very traditional lives, follow traditional farming practices and lifestyles, and have limited access to public services like health and education. This is partly because of culture, but also because they live in remote areas where services are limited.

map of locations of Back to School campaigns in Vietnam

In the provinces of Dien Bien and Ha Giang, the vast majority of students come from ethnic minority communities.

“Vietnam has done very well in developing remote areas and overcoming poverty, but there’s still a lot of disparities and inequalities. While most families do have access to electricity, they may be a two-or three-hour drive away from the nearest health centre or school,” Caitlin explains.

Language barriers play an important role in the disadvantages ethnic minority people face. “They try to maintain their traditional language, which is important, but may also mean that they’re not proficient in the mainstream language. This sometimes excludes them from access to information and services,” says Caitlin.

For schoolchildren, this impacts their likelihood to complete their education. “At school, where mainstream Vietnamese is the main language used, ethnic minority children have difficulties expressing themselves in the classroom and communicating with their teachers. As a result, they often fall behind,” says Hoang, the coordinator of Blue Dragon’s work in Dien Bien.

These obstacles make ethnic minority people more vulnerable to poverty, illiteracy, and human trafficking. “This range of disadvantages mean they are much easier for traffickers to target,” says Caitlin.

“They’re vulnerable to believing the unrealistic promises traffickers make. As these communities are very poor and desperate, they are more likely to accept any job offer with the potential to improve their living standards without really asking questions about it,” she explains.

Many of the Blue Dragon staff in Dien Bien and Ha Giang, as well as Blue Dragon’s partners in the area, speak these ethnic minority languages. This is a great help in discussions with the families, providing support that fits their needs, and encouraging children to stay in school.

Tailored support and local collaboration

The ‘Back to School’ campaigns tackle the specific problems faced by these children through tailored support in collaboration with local schools and teachers.

“The schools collect information about the students who have not returned, and we then support the teachers to visit each family and find out more,” says Caitlin. In Dien Bien and Ha Giang, many students live in remote and isolated areas. When schools reopened after the four-month break caused by COVID lockdowns, this collaboration with teachers was vital to reach children swiftly and ensure they were not in danger.

With the information the teachers collect, the Blue Dragon social workers design support plans tailored to the specific needs of each family. “Sometimes that might just be a bicycle so the child can easily get home on the weekends and attend school during the week, or it might be providing the family with a cow or some pigs. This ensures they can have enough income and the child doesn’t have to leave home and work for the family,” explains Caitlin.

blue dragon back to school model

In Ha Giang province, 33% of the families of students who had left school required assistance to develop stable sources of income, while in Dien Bien province this was only necessary for a handful of families. In these cases, Blue Dragon provided the families cows, pigs, goats or chickens they could raise. In collaboration with local partners, Blue Dragon then offered them guidance so these animals could help them generate an income.

The remaining families who needed assistance to keep their children in school received support to cover schooling costs (such as school fees, books, uniforms and stationery), and bicycles for the children to travel to school.

meeting with parents, students and teachers in Vietnam

Teachers visit a student in his home to encourage him to return to school.

While this support was essential for many families, shares Caitlin, a significant percentage of the children returned to school without assistance. “We are still learning about this, but it does seem that information about the risks of child labour, child trafficking and child marriage, as well as evidence that the community and the school care about that child, by making an effort to visit and encourage them, is enough to convince many families,” she says.

To ensure these children stay in school, teachers, public social workers and Blue Dragon staff regularly check in with them. Blue Dragon also organises extracurricular activities and student clubs to help boys and girls stay engaged with their education.

“Outside of school hours, participating in extracurricular activities and school clubs contributes to building up the students’ confidence. There, students can benefit from listening to each other and growing together. These activities give the students a chance to express themselves,” says Hoang.

Hope for the future

In addition to continuing the campaigns where they have already been implemented, Blue Dragon is showcasing these campaigns to other schools, provincial Departments of Education, and civil society organisations, so the model can be applied more broadly.

“The campaigns are a really good initiative because they are quite low cost and easy to carry out even without Blue Dragon’s support. Once the system has been put in place, there is other government assistance that can support these kids and families, so the model has a good chance at wider applicability and long-term sustainability,” says Caitlin.

As this happens, Blue Dragon will “keep learning, investigating if these campaigns could be useful in other parts of Vietnam, finding out more about the reasons why children are dropping out of school, and if there are other ways we can address that,” she adds.

The high school dropout rates in Dien Bien and Ha Giang remain a concern, but Blue Dragon has found reasons for hope. In these two provinces, “some schools are already prioritising for teachers to go and visit families of students who don’t return to school without our support, and they’re doing it within their budget,” says Caitlin. “It’s absolutely wonderful to see that schools are adopting the model themselves.”

You can find the full report here. More information about Blue Dragon’s work to guarantee children across Vietnam can fulfil their right to receive an education can be found here.


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