The Freedom Story project (originally named Sold) was founded in 2008 by Tawee Donchai, 40 and Rachel Spark, 37, to mitigate child sex trafficking in the villages of the north of Thailand by funding scholarships and educational programs. The organization has already seen 200 graduates, with another hundred in schools right now. Here, we talk to Tawee about his work and hear the stories of two children who received scholarships.
How did you get involved with combatting child sex trafficking?
I am from a village that suffers from the problem of child trafficking. My parents died when I was young and I grew up with my grandad and his younger sister. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship when I was 10 through the Ruamchit Normklao Organization [www.ruamchit-normklao.org
]. Before I met Rachel, I was trying to get a girl a scholarship through the same organization. I didn’t understand the concept of human trafficking until Rachel explained it to me. I then realized that it was something I had been around my entire life.
How did The Freedom Story project get started?
I had just finished my master’s degree [in biochemistry] when I met Rachel. She was interested in making a documentary about human trafficking and the child sex industry. I decided to help her. I introduced her to some children and was her translator. The documentary focuses on the contrast between the life of a girl at risk of being lured into human trafficking and the lives of the girls who were already caught up in it. The documentary, called Sold, screened in the US, including at a non-profit film festival that Rachel’s father organizes. It received a lot of good feedback and interest, with people reaching out to ask how they could get involved. With their support, we were able to give out 20 scholarships, including to the girl from the documentary. In 2008, we decided to set up a foundation, which was originally called Sold but is now The Freedom Story.
What effect has your work had?
We started by giving students scholarships. The scholarships are for children who are from high-risk, meaning poor, backgrounds. Then we realized that some of the village schools were not providing good education. Students still couldn’t read or write at the age of 15. So we started a resource center and organized after-school and weekend programs across five amper [sub-districts] to teach children about human trafficking, their rights as human beings, drugs, sex and even family life. The children need role models. They need to be supported to dream bigger. We also meet with families to foster communication and support the careers of parents. Among our 200 graduates are three recipients currently studying in China. One recipient is about to complete her master’s degree.
Is Thailand’s child trafficking situation getting better or worse?
Both, really. People are talking about it more and trying to get involved, which is good. Organizations are also getting bigger budgets. However, the traffickers are finding new ways to get to the children. Social media can be dangerous. It’s not just poor and uneducated children that are lured in anymore.
Please share with us the stories of some of your scholarship recipients.
Ratana, who is now 19, began attending The Freedom Story activities from when she was nine. She is from a poor family and her parents are uneducated, making her susceptible to human trafficking. She applied for a scholarship through the organization and is now studying at Chiang Mai University. We also work with boys like Win, was born in a border area with no formal citizenship. His parents originally encouraged him to stick to farming. The Freedom Story worked with him and he’s now a lawyer with Thai citizenship, and gives his time back to the organization.