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United Way Blog

Education as a Tool to Combat Human Trafficking

Recognizing January as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, this blog is the second in a series about the intersectionality of human trafficking with education, health, and financial stability. To read the first blog in the series, click here

Human trafficking – the act of compelling someone to work, for little or no pay, through force, fraud, or coercion – is an incredibly complex issue that connects with many others. Systemic injustices like racism, homophobia, sexism, economic inequality, and more lead some people to face more risk of human trafficking than others. It is a multi-dimensional problem that disproportionately impacts marginalized communities around the world.

United Way envisions a world where communities ​deliver equitable solutions to achieve lasting change, giving everyone the chance to thrive — especially in education, economic mobility, and health. Each of these issues is affected by and affects human trafficking. They are prevention points *and* intervention tools in the fight against human trafficking.

Human trafficking can’t be prevented unless everyone is getting adequate access to education, healthcare, and a decent job that supports a family. And survivors of human trafficking frequently need support to access healthcare, gain a proper education, and build financially stability. Recognizing and addressing these intersection points can help strengthen community resilience to human trafficking, we’re seeing in on-the-ground work across the world.Human Trafficking Prevention and

Intervention through Education
At United Way, we believe success in life begins with a quality education.
And yet, millions of children and youth lack the support they need to strengthen their literacy, stay on track in school, graduate high school and find a career. Lack of access to quality education exacerbates vulnerabilities and puts children and adults alike at risk of human trafficking.

Schools are one of the places where children spend the most time other than their homes. Schools equip students for their futures and provide gateways to opportunities in adulthood. They are also often key sources of safety and stability for children, particularly those who live in unsafe neighborhoods or home environments. While learning to read and write, children also learn social skills and life skills at school, which can increase feelings of confidence and self-efficacy.

Unfortunately, lack of funding for schools and educational programs frequently leads to decreased student engagement. Without funding, schools cannot hire adequate teachers and counselors, provide extracurricular opportunities, or meet the cultural and language needs of their students. All of these issues make it hard for students to truly engage with their coursework and school community and often lead to issues such as chronic absenteeism are known to arise, making youth vulnerable to exploitation such as human trafficking. Similarly, the financial situation of a student’s home life can also present a barrier to education access. If a student’s family cannot financially sustain their livelihood, the student may choose or be forced to leave school in order to work. Such financial instability creates vulnerabilities that traffickers frequently exploit.

Removing these barriers and promoting access to quality education can help reduce vulnerability to issues such as human trafficking. For instance, an education can equip students for stable employment as adults, and access to a living wage is known to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking. Furthermore, teachers spend an immense amount of time with their students, and as a result often form close relationships and important bonds with them. As such, teachers and school officials are well poised to notice and potentially intervene if one of their students begins exhibiting odd behavior patterns that may reflect a vulnerability to human trafficking.

While there may occasionally be obvious signs of human trafficking, it is important that teachers understand the complex, hidden nature of this crime. Instead of aiming to “spot the signs,” educators and school staff should seek to “know the stories” of both their students and of human trafficking survivors. “Signs” alone often do not tell much unless there is context behind them.

Choosing to “know the story” means developing authentic relationships with students, paying close attention to their wellbeing, offering support when needed, and taking time to inquire about concerning behaviors in a nonjudgmental way. It also means taking time to learn directly from survivors about the complexity of human trafficking. If a teacher is aware of their student’s background, family life, possible disabilities, and interests, they will be far more likely to notice when a student is in need. And if that teacher also has an understanding of the complexity of human trafficking and how to address it, they will be equipped to intervene should one of their students need help. Intervention from a teacher may mean having an honest conversation to try to understand what the student needs, notifying a guidance counselor or other school professional to offer support, or involving law enforcement if necessary.

Teachers and school officials can also educate their students about the issue of human trafficking. United Way of South Africa recently partnered with the United Way Center to Combat Human Trafficking to launched anti-human trafficking programming in their community. One of the first components of this new program will be to educate high school students about human trafficking. In partnership with A21, United Way of South Africa will equip teachers to educate students on the reality of human trafficking. Educational programs like this have been shown to empower and equip both students and educators to understand and prevent human trafficking. United Way works with a number of other organizations that offer educational resources for schools, educators, and students, such as Rising Worldwide, Survivor Alliance, and Polaris as well.

Education as a Tool for Survivors’ Success
In addition to serving as a tool for prevention and intervention, education can also be a tool for survivors of human trafficking to rebuild their lives. Educational opportunities often serve as gateways for survivors to learn essential skills, connect with their community, regain stability in their lives, increase confidence, and plan for their future. However, survivors frequently encounter barriers to education access. For instance, a lack of financial resources may preclude survivors from affording high tuition costs, and if they need support and time to repair their credit, they may not be able to secure student loans. Other issues such as language barriers and mental health issues have been known further prevent survivors from accessing education.

An example of the power of education can be seen in the story of *Sarah, a young woman involved in United Way of Greater Atlanta’s anti-human trafficking programs:

After participating in a United Way-sponsored professional development program and moving into transitional housing, Sarah, a survivor of human trafficking, decided to pursue a college degree. Leveraging the things she learned in the professional development program, Sarah began an accelerated business degree program at a local university. She is now nearing graduation and has recently achieved two additional milestones: 1) she has moved out of transitional housing into her own apartment, and 2) she has received a promotion at her job, now managing a survivor internship program in which she formerly participated. Not only will this role put Sarah’s new business degree to good use, but as survivor and former program participant herself, Sarah will be able to provide a level of understanding and trust that will ensure that future program participants are able to thrive. As she reflects on her journey, Sarah is amazed at what can be accomplished when you have the right support in place, someone gives you a chance, and quite simply, you believe in yourself.

Without educational opportunities like the professional development program or attending college, Sarah’s journey after experiencing human trafficking may have looked very different. Access to education has allowed Sarah to build a career that sustains her livelihood and creates a positive impact for others.

At United Way, we’re fighting to increase access to quality education so that tomorrow’s leaders can build a better foundation today. With an approach to education that spans from cradle to career, we’re combatting human trafficking by ensuring every child gets a strong start in life, teenagers have the tools to learn and grow, and adults thrive in the job market. 

We encourage you to learn more about United Way’s education work here and continue learning about the intersectionality of education access and human trafficking via the resources below.

*This name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

Additional Resources:

Other United Way blogs:

Special thanks to Annie Barbour, Brooke Wheeler, Khadija Rahman, Marjorie Blum, and Tamia Ingram for their research to support the creation of this blog.