BANGKOK -- Most of us can read about sex trafficking with a sense of detachment. It is only when we see its results up close that we are forced to confront the full extent of its horror.
Nana Plaza is one of several "red light" districts in Bangkok. It is less than two blocks from my upscale hotel, but worlds away from it, a distance, you could say, separating Heaven from Hell. Girls -- and that's what many of them are -- wear almost nothing. They are there to please. My guide points out a three-story structure. "The higher you go," he says, "the raunchier it gets." It looks raunchy enough on the ground floor.
In the song "One Night in Bangkok," a line describes my feeling: "I can feel the devil walking next to me."
Prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, but the Thailand Government Public Health Department estimates there are 75,000 prostitutes in the country. Some nongovernment organizations put the figure much higher. "Sexual tourists" come here, their visits set up by travel agents, as if they were booking people for a cruise or a trip to the beach. The newspapers constantly rail against corrupt officials who tolerate the sex trade and turn a blind eye to exploited women.
Into this den of iniquity have come Bonita and Roy Thompson, two Christian missionaries. Eight years ago they gave up careers as California educators to come to a place where they make less money and receive little notice.
Their payment comes in the lives of those girls they are able to save from a life of prostitution. Their ministry is called Home of New Beginnings
At a Christmas party they give annually for the "bar girls," more than 200 prostitutes show up to play games like musical chairs and to hear a message from a former prostitute who tells her story of redemption, offering them a new life if they will only trust God.
A few respond. One is called "Nim," not her real name. Nim says she was abandoned by her mother and later sold by an opportunistic "auntie" to a couple who needed her to care for their aging parents. Nim says her work proved unsatisfactory and she was sold again to a bar where she was forced into prostitution.
When the Thompsons rescued her they took her to a doctor who estimated her age at 11 or 12. She had no formal schooling, but they tutored her and she is now in a regular school. Nim recently received a "character pin" from the oldest daughter of Thailand's king in recognition of her changed life and academic success.
The rescued girls live in housing run by the Thompsons. They receive an allowance that partially compensates them for lost earnings. Many send portions of their allowances to family, which they used to do with their income from prostitution.
"One of our girls," says Bonita, "is in her senior year at a university, studying chemical engineering. She is currently interning with a company that expects to hire her upon graduation. Another is in her senior year in textile design and has been selected by one of the top designers in Thailand to work with him on a project."
At a recently concluded conference on women's rights in London, attendees were told that ever-younger girls are being forced into prostitution because of declining economic conditions in many parts of the world. The Straits Times reports that, according to The International Labour Organization, "About 21 million people ... are in forced labour, meaning they have been coerced or deceived into jobs which they cannot leave. ...
about 4.5 million of these, mainly women and girls, were victims of sexual exploitation..." Overall, cites the ILO, "...the human trafficking trade was estimated to be worth US$32 billion (S$39 billion) a year."
The Thompsons are doing their small part, though the numbers seem overwhelming at times. Think of these girls as someone's daughter or granddaughter and even though some of those relatives may have sold them, the message of love and self-worth sometimes breaks through, even in the red light districts of Bangkok.