Empowering ethnic minority women and girls to keep safe from human trafficking

August 12, 2021

A Blue Dragon project implemented with support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives provides women and girls in Ha Giang province with the education, tools and resources to build bright futures away from danger and recover from the severe impacts of COVID-19.

Mo experienced three years of horror trapped in sexual slavery in China. In the H’mong village Mo comes from, perched on the majestic mountains of Ha Giang province, it is common for women to marry and have children at a young age. Following tradition, Mo did too. She had three children with her husband, and despite living in poverty, Mo was content with her family life… until her husband became abusive and violent. Mo then escaped to China, hoping to find a job and a better life. But she was tricked by a trafficker and sold into a forced ‘marriage’. Three more years of violence and horror followed, until in 2019 she managed to run away. 

Mo’s story is heartbreaking, but sadly not unique in Ha Giang province, where 80% of the population comes from the H’mong ethnic group, and most villages lack access to services and good quality employment. Because of these scarcities and the long and porous border with China, widespread poverty and the trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation go hand in hand in Ha Giang.

Over the past 11 years, Blue Dragon has assisted thousands of children and families from this province, including victims of sex trafficking and child labour. We collaborate with government partners to support survivors, prevent the exploitation of women and girls and, ultimately, end human trafficking altogether. A new partnership with the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) signed on August 6 will enable Blue Dragon to move one step closer to this goal. 

The $31,051 CAD ($24,686 USD) grant from CFLI will provide services for more than 2,600 children and adults. It will directly assist 85 ethnic minority women and girls who are at high risk of trafficking after being heavily impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic; provide life skills training and teach the risks of human trafficking, child labour and child marriage to nearly 2,500 students; and fund sports events and activities for girls in six schools.

Staying in school to stay safe

In 2020, almost four months of school closures to curb the spread of COVID-19 triggered a spike in the number of children leaving school. Months of restrictions and job and income losses affected millions of people across the country, and boys and girls whose families were struggling because of this stopped attending lessons and began searching for jobs. This jeopardized their chances of breaking out of poverty by completing their education and made them easy targets for exploitation and human trafficking. 

School abandonment rates were particularly pronounced in Ha Giang, where Blue Dragon identified 353 students who had left school in two districts alone (out of a total of ten districts). The majority of these students were girls. 

To respond to this concerning trend, Blue Dragon set in motion Back to School campaigns, and provided support that enabled 64% of the school-leavers to return to the classroom. In light of the success of those first campaigns and the ongoing struggles due to the pandemic, the Back to School campaigns now take place twice a year: after the Lunar New Year holiday and after the summer break, when high numbers of students dropout of school.

Blue Dragon staff travelling to a local home

As part of the Back to School campaigns, Blue Dragon staff carry supplies to the home of a girl who had left school.

Through this initiative, Blue Dragon supports teachers from schools in remote areas to visit the homes of absent students and collect information on each family’s situation. The teachers then relay the information to Blue Dragon social workers on why the children stopped attending school. With this knowledge, Blue Dragon provides solutions tailored to the specific needs of each family: covering schooling costs, books and uniforms, providing bicycles for children to travel to school, and helping families develop stable sources of income so children do not need to look for work to earn an income.

Because of the characteristics of Ha Giang province and the families Blue Dragon supports there, one of the most effective ways to help families develop a sustainable income source are Blue Dragon’s livestock banks. This scheme creates a cycle of change that benefits entire communities: a family receives farm animals to raise and earn an income, and when the animals have offspring some are given to another struggling family.

Ethnic minorities in Ha Giang live in very remote areas

Vu is a trafficking survivor who has received piglets so she can start anew without having to leave her beloved mountains.

Recovering from COVID-19

Blue Dragon foresees the number of girls requiring assistance to return to school in the next campaign will remain high. Vietnam is currently grappling with its most severe COVID-19 outbreak to date, and restrictions have been tightened. For many people from Ha Giang who live along the Chinese border and rely on crossing to the neighbouring country for informal work, this has meant losing all income, as increased surveillance has rendered those trips impossible. The situation is also dire for the hundreds of families in the area whose main breadwinner would normally migrate to work in industrial zones in other provinces. When several major factories became COVID clusters last May, many industrial parks had to be shut, leaving thousands of families across Vietnam without an income. 

Mo is one of the mothers who worries about how to pay her children’s schooling costs when the new academic year begins in September. After escaping slavery and seeing justice done when Blue Dragon represented her in a court case against her trafficker, she is now back in her small village in the mountains and has remarried. The family has a small patch of land where they grow corn, but Mo knows what it yields won’t be enough to provide for her family of five. With her husband unable to cross to China for extra income to put food on the table, the future seems uncertain.

The grant from CFLI will fund the next Back to School campaign in two districts of Ha Giang considered hotspots for human trafficking, and end the worries of mothers like Mo. The support will ensure that the severe setbacks the current COVID-19 outbreak has caused do not threaten the education of vulnerable girls, and will keep them safe from trafficking and exploitation.

Student in Ha Giang in a group activity.

Boys and girls in Ha Giang learn about the risks of child labour during a workshop organized by Blue Dragon.

As part of this human trafficking prevention approach, the project will ensure that girls not only return to but also stay in school. Blue Dragon will organize sport events and create Girl Clubs in six schools. Through these clubs, girls in areas with particularly high trafficking rates meet once a month. In the meetings, the teenage girls learn a variety of skills and topics – from public speaking and presentation skills to reproductive health or dancing – that boost their confidence and self-esteem, enhance their sense of community and belonging, and keep them engaged in education. Equally, the sports events for girls increase their confidence while helping them keep healthy and engaged in their educational journeys.

Additionally, through training sessions and engaging games in school, nearly 2,500 children, both boys and girls, will learn about the dangers of leaving school to look for work, of human trafficking and child marriage, and skills to protect themselves. 

Through the combination of all these activities, Blue Dragon and CFLI aim to ensure women like Mo and her daughters have everything they need to live in dignity and safety, and to build better lives away from poverty and danger. 

infographic on women and girls empowerment in Ha Giang

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