Kon Tum City, Vietnam — Y Hanh, a Xodrah ethnic girl who dropped out of school, has to work on her family's farms every day to support her eight-member family, which regularly can manage to have only one meal a day.
Hanh needs money to study further and support herself, but she has no vocational skills and is not aware of risks young women face of being forced into slavery or sold into brothels.
However, the 17-year-old girl who just finished ninth grade has recently found a chance to learn vocational skills and avoid taking false job offers that could end up putting her into dangerous situations.
"I must learn a professional skill and personal values to get a proper job so that I could escape from poverty legally and safely," Hanh said. "It is dangerous for me to take a job offer now."
Hanh was one of 250 young ethnic women who attended a gathering held in late August by Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul sisters at Kon Trang Church in the Dak Ha District of Kon Tum province in Vietnam's central highlands.
Sr. Pascale Le Thi Triu, an organizer, said the gathering aimed to raise awareness of risks of human trafficking, slavery, sex exploitation and other mistreatment of unskilled female workers, especially vulnerable ethnic minority women.
Triu said most ethnic minority groups live in remote and mountainous areas and are terribly disadvantaged due to the lack of access to education, information, transportation, health care and other services. Ethnic villagers live in extreme poverty so they need jobs and turn a deaf ear to potential danger.
Kon Tum province is home to 28 ethnic groups with 268,548 people, more than half of them living on one dollar per day, according to 2014 government statistics.
Fr. Paul Nguyen Duc Huu, pastor of Kon Trang Parish, said the parish has 6,432 Catholics from the Ro Ngao ethnic group, and 1,756 from the Kinh majority. On average, ethnic families have six to seven children each, some have as many as 12.
He said most children finish only elementary or secondary schools and often drop out because they cannot walk to a high school miles away from their villages.
Huu said local women usually get married early, have many children and work on farms for a living.
The priest said people from other parishes near Kon Trang have been illegally sent to work as slaves in Malaysia and have no money to send back to their families.
During the first ever meeting held in the district of Dak Ha, participants watched video clips showing cases of migrant women workers from rural areas being forced into prostitution and infected with HIV, or sent to work as slaves in factories or on farms or to marry foreigners from China, Malaysia and South Korea, or, in rarer cases reported by relatives, sold abroad for their organs to be harvested.
The Public Security Ministry reported that, from 2011 to 2015, more than 2,200 cases of human trafficking with nearly 4,500 trafficked victims were recorded — an increase of 11.6 percent in total cases compared with the previous four-year period.
Victims of human trafficking are mostly people coming from rural, mountainous, remote and isolated areas. Most of them face economic hardships and lack job opportunities and education.
Other domestic women workers sell food on the streets and work for other people informally. This means they are without social protections, labor contracts, unemployment insurance, work-related accident insurance or access to health care services. Low and unstable incomes and lack of social protection make them particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Triu told young women that, "These victims lack understanding of their rights and have no opportunities to develop their characters and professional skills." She also warned them not to take lucrative job offers from mediators to illegally work in other places.
She advised them to take courses in vocational skills, study further, learn how to manage their lives and get steady jobs before marriage. "You should not leave your life to chance and other people," she said.
Triu introduced participants to the Housemaid Training Program for disadvantaged young women. Her congregation has conducted yearlong courses at Phuoc Loc Vocational Training Center in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province, southern Vietnam, since 2006. The program also prepares young women to fend off traffickers and nefarious employers.
The courses teach trainees how to do household chores, including cooking and serving food. They study English and learn how to manage time, keep financial records as well as save water and separate garbage for recycling or composting. They are also taught problem-solving skills and moral values, such as honesty, self-respect and good behavior toward other people.
Triu said hundreds of housemaids have well-paid jobs, with time to enjoy life, finish high school and enter college, build houses and buy farms for their families.
Some housemaids shared their stories with participants at the meeting.
Pham Thi Tham, a housemaid who finished the course in 2013, said that she now works for a family in Ho Chi Minh City with a salary of 8.4 million dong ($370 a month) plus accommodations. She had just graduated from high school and was set to enter college last fall.
"I am proud of my job that helps change my life," she said.
Y Blong, an ethnic woman from Kon Tum Province, said she and her sister graduated the course on Aug. 6 and started new jobs. Blong gets a salary of 5 million dong ($220 a month) and her sister gets 6.6 million dong ($291).
"We try to work hard to have money to help my parents pay off debts and pay for medical treatment of my mom," said Blong, who has eight siblings.
The 20-year-old said, "We are deeply grateful to the nuns who give me good opportunities to have good jobs and develop our abilities."
The 12th grader wishes to become a nurse to serve her villagers in the future.
During the meeting, participants played traditional games, acted out songs, expressed wishes about their future and got advice from the nuns. The sisters provided them meals and reimbursed them for transportation costs.
Many parents registered with the nuns for their daughters to take the new yearlong course that was launched in mid-September.
A Ra, 41, said he asked the nuns to allow his 19-year-old daughter to attend the course.
"We trust the nuns who work for the interests of our children. We hope the course will bring a bright future to our children," the father of seven said.
Triu said this year the nuns were looking for 50 candidates, who all must be referred by local sisters and priests. Of the 43 enrollees, 38 are ethnic women, a record since the housemaid-training program was launched 11 years ago, she said, adding that, before then, only women from established families were selected.
Last year the nuns held the first gathering at Tan Huong Church in the same province and recruited 40 candidates; 32 of them graduated the course. Some students left the course because they missed their families, and others were not suitable for housework, the sister said.
[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report based in Vietnam.]