The Surprising Thing About Education
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Imagine you are a subsistence level farmer living in a rural village more than an hour’s drive away from the nearest city of any notable size. You grow tamarind and collect recyclables to sell on the side for the money to buy a few more meals. You have less than six years of schooling, which is more than your parents who were refugees, but less than you hope to provide for your children. Now imagine that your oldest son has shown an aptitude beyond which you can guide. Teachers have commended his abilities, and through some luck and determination, your son has a chance at a real degree. He could finish secondary school. He might even go to college! Your arthritis is acting up from the hard labor, and your lungs are giving out from years of working with pesticides. You worry about your mother who is also ill, and your youngest children, who go home to an empty house after school every day and watch TV until your eldest gets home and can help them with chores and homework. You know you have many more years of uncertain labor ahead of you, but it’s worth it because you have your entire family’s hopes pinned on your eldest son. He will break the cycle of poverty. He will find a good job, and earn good wages, which he can then use to support the family.
Now imagine this young son, fresh from graduation, stumbles upon a job offer—a lucrative position in a different country. Don’t worry, though, they tell you, he will be able to visit home often, and of course send money home. You have an inkling of fear, but this is the dream you’ve been waiting for, right? You can’t pass up such a good opportunity. So you pack his documents and his bags with silent prayers and wish him well on his way.
You never hear from him again.
The story above is a piece of fiction, but it is built on hundreds of thousands of true ones. The linchpin in these stories is education. Research has shown that education is one of the biggest deterrents to trafficking: the better one’s job prospects (and possibly the more experienced and skilled in critical thinking), the less vulnerable they are to being exploited.
However, there is a twist in this story about education.
In a recent survey of trafficking victims in the Greater Mekhong Subregion, it was found that around 30% of adults had completed secondary education (grades 6-8), and nearly 44% of children had. A small number had gone on to higher secondary education, and a few adults had even obtained a university degree. While the great majority of victims are obviously undereducated, thus demonstrating what impact education has on trafficking, some of the more educated people still fall prey.
These cases are explained more fully by findings in a pilot study recently conducted in Vietnam. This study found that better-educated households and villages are more impervious to trafficking, but that individual education is positively associated with trafficking risk. This study is small, so results must be taken with a grain of salt, but it does tap into trends those of us on the ground know exist. Namely, that when households are vulnerable, they often will send their best and brightest hopes out into the world to try to maximize their potential.
This is one of the big reasons why it is critical that we do more than provide education. Education is the key to opening many doors, but we need to help our students determine which doors are the ones they want to open. We need to raise general awareness in the community about the existence and dangers of trafficking, and how to avoid exploitation. We need to teach the students how to identify safe and unsafe situations. And we need solid relationships of trust and mentorship, so the students always have some place safe to turn to, and so they always have an advocate to keep an eye on them when they go out and pursue opportunity.
This is why we are building a second resource center in Chiang Rai City: so we can be there to help protect and guide our students every step of the way.
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