To be a poor girl in Thailand can sometimes mean being dispensable, a “possession” easily traded for money, and then used for sex.
Human trafficking, or modern day slavery, is a horrifying reality for its victims. The desperately poor and uneducated are easy targets. In Thailand, where the sex industry thrives, girls as young as 10 often end up working as prostitutes.
Not many people understand how widespread this problem is, especially among young girls. In 1998 the director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Thailand and his staff were working in a rural area and noticed that girls in the village weren’t in school.
It soon became clear why. Even though education in Thailand is free, it is possible to be too poor to attend school. Students must pay for books, transportation and uniforms that can cost about US$400 a year. It is easier for parents who are struggling to survive to send their children to work to help support the family. But often there isn’t sufficient work in these small, poor villages. So when men and women come from the big cities proclaiming the abundance of jobs as maids in big houses or as waitresses in restaurants, parents often succumb to the allure. Parents are often given as little as US$100 for their daughters with the promise that their daughters will work and send back money.
A recent ADRA handout on the subject explains: Many of the targeted girls are ethnic minorities who live in the hills. Their parents are uneducated and earning only US$7.50 a month (when they’re able to find manual labor about four months of the year). When offered $100 as payment in advance for their daughter’s work—an amount that they can only dream of—many are deceived. The promise of work for their child, a regular income and the fact that they’re told she will eat three meals a day, is too much to turn down. They believe that it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.
“What most parents don’t know is that their girls will end up in brothels where they are expected to have sex 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Greg Young, ADRA director in Thailand. “Often these girls can’t get back home. If they are sent back to their villages, it is with some sort of health problem or disease like HIV.”
“When we realized the extent of the problem, we came up with the idea to facilitate their education, because if they are going to school their parents will not try to sell them,” Young recalls. “These families don’t want to lose their daughters, but if they are not an added expense then they can keep them at home and in school.”
ADRA staff started working with these girls in 1998 through the Nowarat Project. The staff would go to the schools and talk to the principals and teachers about girls who used attend school. This was how they found the girls they helped. ADRA Thailand helped pay for books, uniforms and transportation. Last summer the ADRA staff wrote a proposal and started a full-scale operation called the “Keep Girls Safe Project.”
“Now we have a system of target areas and have a dedicated full-time staff in the areas of great need,” Young says. “We have also set up an operations center. We’ve talked to local government authorities and talked to other nongovernmental organizations about doing this project. We work with local authorities, with schools and the local village elders.”
This is such a huge problem that Young says there are many other organizations doing similar projects. “There are so many that need help but we chose to focus on protecting girls who are the biggest targets for sexual or labor exploitation.”
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked [worldwide] every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labor or for sexual exploitation.”
One of the girls in the program is 16-year-old Maei*. When she was 14 years old her mother arranged for her to marry a Korean man for US$500. At the time Maei was too young and the paperwork for the certificate did not go through. With a 6th grade education, no father in her home, a mother who is HIV positive, and four siblings who depend on her, Maei had to find work. She has worked in an orchard, on a farm and rice paddy and as a construction worker. Maei told ADRA workers that many times neighbors and relatives have pressured her to work as a waitress, a masseuse and a prostitute.
Maei now lives in the ADRA shelter and is learning how to be a hairdresser.
“We set up a shelter in Chiang Rai. This is not an orphanage,” Young emphasizes. “We think the best place for these girls is in their communities with their families. Right now we have about 18 girls in the shelter with a house mother who facilitates their education in local community schools.”
The shelter in Chiang Rai can accommodate up to 50 girls. The program also supports about 50 additional girls who are living in their communities. Young says the goal is to be able to help about 200 or 300 girls.
At the shelter the girls learn a variety of skills, such as how to look for a job and be a good citizen and even about dating. At the shelter “we tell girls about their rights as women and children and where they can go for help,” Young explains. “Many don’t even speak Thai because they are from many different ethnic groups so when they go to school they don’t even understand what’s going on. Because of that we have Thai language classes in the evenings.”
The Keep Girls Safe program also has staff dedicated to educating communities on what really happens to young girls who are promised jobs in big cities. The field coordinator also works with the health department and the social welfare department.
Young says ADRA Thailand is working on a vocational component of the program so girls can learn a skill. They are also planning to set up a small business where the older girls can learn relevant business skills and at the same time earn an income with profits going toward the shelter operations.
“We see a lot of opportunities for girls,” Young says. “If a girl can get an education and earn and income, then she is an asset to her family. She can become a nurse or a teacher, which is certainly a better choice in life than being locked in a brothel.”
For more information see www.adra.org.
*The name has been changed to protect the girl’s identity.