Liberating Vulnerable Teens from Exploitation

Project Liber8 is on a mission to empower youths from all walks of life to be more informed about human trafficking and safe migration

Vinodh Pillai
Participants take part in a game during an high school session
27 July 2022

KOTA KINABALU: The audience of 30 to 35 high school students listens with rapt attention in the small and cramped hall of Stairway to Hope Alternative Learning Centre as Su Shern New shares her story. 

The story always starts the same way - by talking about a video she saw when she was 19. In the video, a victim of human trafficking, a young girl, revealed how her parents inadvertently trafficked her in their effort to find her a job. 

"Obviously, the parents didn't want to harm their child," Su Shern, now 30 and a social activist, says, "but because they didn't have that awareness, they unknowingly ended up ‘selling’ their daughter to a sex trafficking brothel." 

Human trafficking is rampant across the world, and Malaysia is no exception. Promised the stars and the moon, victims are lured, tricked and forced into doing manual labour or selling their bodies. Anyone can be a victim, even children.  

Project Liber8 founder and president at a high school session
New Su Shern, Project Liber8 founder and president, at an Advoc8 High School Edition session at the Afghan Learning Centre, Ampang, Selangor, on 16 April 2022. Su Shern has been working towards an end to human trafficking and exploitation for 11 years.

Ever since she saw the video, Su Shern realised that awareness-raising played a big role in ending human trafficking. Eleven years on, it is now her life's mission to educate the public about trafficking and end the cycle of exploitation.  

Su Shern's current passion project is Advoc8 High School Edition. Supported by the European Union and UNICEF, the programme consists of a series of workshops and follow-up activities designed to educate young people about human trafficking and safe migration. 

The interactive workshops include presentations on exploitation and human trafficking, mock scenarios, games and quizzes. Students also get the chance to come up with their own awareness-raising and advocacy campaigns and are supported by volunteer mentors. 

Spanning well over two years and run by Su Shern’s nonprofit organisation, Project Liber8, the project has benefited more than 3,000 high school students in public and private secondary schools, as well as alternative and community learning centres (for marginalised youth and children not in the formal education system). 

Students watch a video on human trafficking and exploitation
Students from Stairway to Hope watch a video on human trafficking and exploitation during an Advoc8 High School Edition session by Project Liber8 in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, on 22 March 2022. The programme aims at raising more awareness and interest on human trafficking and exploitation among youths.

The project also engages children affected by migration, including migrant, refugee and undocumented children (both in the peninsular and East Malaysia), all of whom are more vulnerable and prone to be targeted by human traffickers.  

"We want to bring the knowledge and awareness to the students so that they can be the change in their communities and create a youth movement to bring this issue (human trafficking) to the forefront in Malaysia," Su Shern told UNICEF in a recent interview.  

Back at Stairway to Hope, 16-year-old “Brian” (not his real name) is recounting how he helped his classmates manoeuvrer out of the earlier mock scenario: a worker whose friend had tricked him into working at a factory, desperately wanted to escape. It was Brian’s answer that saw the worker finally making a break for it. 

"I enjoyed today's session by learning so many things that I don't know and by knowing the bad things that I can prevent later," he says with a smile, explaining that he now knows what to do if he were in a similar situation, as did four others that UNICEF spoke to. 

A student holds up a guide on safe migration
Stairway to Hope student, Brian, holds up a guide on safe migration after the Advoc8 High School Edition session by Project Liber8 in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, on 22 March 2022. Children affected by migration are at a higher risk of being trafficked and exploited.

Brian and his schoolmates are children of Filipino parentage who were born in Sabah, and lack identification papers. As a result, they do not have access to formal education. Stairway to Hope chairwoman, Marilou S. Chin, shares why and how her students are especially prone to being exploited.  

"We give education to these children from the age of six to 18, but after they graduate primary six, they stop going to school,” she tells UNICEF. Some might not see the point in furthering their studies as they would not be able to get proper jobs anyway; their informal schooling is usually not recognised by employers. 

“And what job can they do?” Marilou continues. “They will be doing menial jobs, jobs that don’t need a lot of technical skills or specialised jobs that's in the market, and their salaries will be very low. So, they must understand this, the illegal recruitment of teenagers and adolescents and the risks of being exploited.” 

Marilou, 64, who founded the centre a decade ago, wants more in-depth sessions about forced labour, forced marriage and human trafficking for her students. She believes if they know how to avoid such situations, they too can avoid getting into the cycle of exploitation and not become victims. 

Stair of Hope chairwoman at the alternative learning centre
Stairway to Hope chairwoman, Marilou S. Chin, at the alternative learning centre in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Marilou wants more in-depth sessions about forced labour, forced marriage and human trafficking for her students.

Su Shern has received similar feedback since the Advoc8 High School Edition programme started in February 2020. As such, she and her team at Project Liber8 are always hard at work customising each programme to be a wholesome experience for all, as well as relevant and accessible.  

It has not been easy, however. Although the original plan was to do the programmes in person, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Project Liber8 team to shift gears and move everything online. Moreover, addressing exploitation and human trafficking had to take a backseat as COVID-19 prevention became the primary focus for schools. 

"One of the biggest challenges that we faced was the ability to make the module fun and interactive for the participants, especially when the topic was so heavy," Su Shern added. So, she and her team checked out interactive online modules and online games to see what could be replicated in their sessions. 

Sixty sessions later, it is clear that their hard work paid off. Su Shern shared how the programme has received mostly positive feedback. "Some comments include how interactive the sessions were and that it was probably one of the best experiences that they have encountered, especially during the pandemic.” 

Rohingya students taking part in an interactive quiz
Rohingya students taking part in an interactive quiz during one of Project Liber8's 60 Advoc8 High School Edition sessions at Al-Islamiyah Alternative Education Centre, Kajang, Selangor, on 19 March 2022. The programme is so successful that it has been taken up by school teachers, with some even replicating the teaching method in their own classes.

Teachers and school administrators too found the sessions inspiring, with some even replicating the entire module and teaching it themselves to their students. Others modelled the same structure used by Project Liber8 in their teaching, keeping the spirit of the programme alive.  

Project Liber8 also carries out regular training of trainer sessions for their “community of trainers”, as Su Shern put it. This sees the programme facilitators having a refresher course and sharing about what they learnt during their respective sessions, allowing for the programme to be fine-tuned as it goes. 

As they look to the future, Project Liber8 is also considering some programme participants' requests to be trainers as well. While this depends on whether the programme is funded for the long haul, carrying on with the programme is definitely on Su Shern's agenda.  

"We saw how students really benefited from the sessions. The students were especially inspirational for taking ownership and leadership to carry out awareness campaigns within their own capacity in their schools and communities,” she said, beaming. 

UNICEF Malaysia supported Project Liber8’s Advoc8 High School Edition programme from February 2020 to April 2022 through the “Protecting Children affected by migration in Southeast, South and Central Asia” project co-funded by the European Union and UNICEF.  

Read the Impact Assessment Report for Advoc8 High School Edition here

This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or UNICEF.