When The SOLD Project began in 2007, we were inspired by a single story. The story of a young, vibrant, beautiful at-risk girl named Cat. But without having seen Cat’s story in our documentary, would you have known how at-risk she really was?
We wouldn’t have. Unless we had spent hours in the red light districts, interviewing women and children working in prostitution. We wouldn’t, unless we had begun to understand the connection between education (or lack thereof) and exploitation.
But really, is she THAT at-risk?
Did you know that today, more than 600 million girls live in the developing world. And approximately one quarter of those girls are not in school. And out of ALL the out-of-school youth (both girls and boys) 70% are female.
The majority of the world’s trafficked people are in Asia. Some 1.4 million (or 56 percent) of people trafficked worldwide are in Southeast Asia, according to the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT).
Specifically in Thailand, The 2009 Human Rights Report: Thailand estimates that there are as many as 60,000 children involved in prostitution in Thailand.
Within Thailand, there are two main areas that children who end up in sexual exploitation come from: the north and the northeast. The SOLD Project works in the North, where the education system is not free and statistics show that 50% of children drop out between grade 6 and 9.
With such overwhelming statistics, The SOLD Project has taken to focusing on the children in front of us. Our hope is to go deep not wide, and this quote by Mother Teresa is a constant reminder and inspiration.
If you can’t feed 100 people, then feed just one. Or, for The SOLD Project, if you can’t prevent all 60,000, then prevent just one.
Our staff in Thailand is exceptional at this: caring deeply for all 120 of our students. But not just our students: their parents, siblings, and community as a whole. And this depth of relationship and mentorship shows itself in a multitude of ways. Parents come to us seeking advice. The students voluntarily (and excitedly) show up every weekend to participate in our English classes. Older students volunteer their talents on the weekends to influence the lives of the younger students. As Cat mentioned earlier – it is truly a family.
I often tell people that we work on the ‘happy side’ of the anti-trafficking movement. Most of our kids are still in their family structures. Few have ever experienced abuse. Their lives are not easy – 100% of them live in poverty. Many are undocumented. But they are still children. Their innocence, for the most part, is still very much in tact. They play and laugh freely. They dream. They do not know what it is like to sell their bodies every night. They do not know what it is like to be exploited. They are still children.
And as much as we celebrate this – the success that SOLD has seen in prevention – we were harshly reminded this week of just how at-risk our students are. They sit on the fence between futures and dreams and a life of exploitation.
Fan was one of SOLD’s first scholarship recipients and over the last 4 years we’ve seen her grow from a sweet 9 year old into a precocious 13 year old. Both Fan and her twin sister want to be nurses when they grow up. Their father passed away when they were very young, and their mother, a former sex worker, has since remarried. They are very poor – with 7 people living in their small and barren home. But boy do they have joy. It’s impossible to come to the resource center without falling in love with these two girls. They are funny and endearing and bubbly. At school they are popular, respected and well loved.
We all know how hard it is in your teenage years. Fan’s been getting in trouble at school, sneaking out to be with her boyfriend, and has even been busted for drinking at school a couple of times. Not behavior to be proud of, and our staff was hopeful that she was just ‘at that age’ where she was exploring herself, making stupid choices, and would eventually move on from them for the better.
Because our staff has such a close relationship with Fan, and trust has been built, we quickly learned that Fan’s issues were much deeper.
We discovered that a few months ago, she met a 22 year old woman. This woman befriended Fan and bought her a cell phone – a rare and expensive gift for someone Fan’s age. And this woman, unbeknowst to Fan, was trying to traffic her. Was winning her over by showering her with gifts. Further research on part of our staff showed that this woman was in charge of the escort service industry in Chiang Rai – the nearest city about 20 minutes from Fan’s village home.
All of a sudden her unexpected behavior was explained. And the more we dug into it, and the more Fan shared, we realized that she wasn’t the first. A couple of our other students (not to mention the children that are not in our programs) are also becoming friends with this woman. And a few of our older students who had gone through difficult seasons were also, at one point, targeted by this woman.
All of our students who have ever been in contact with her have gotten into trouble. Two have dropped out. Realizing how close we are to the cliff, realizing how close FAN is to the cliff, is not only very personal for me, but also very personal to anyone that has ever visited our work and met Fan. And it reminds me what we, The SOLD Project, are fighting for every day. Prevention of child prostitution.
Prevention is not flawless. Does it work? Absolutely.
The SOLD Project has seen the drop out rate decrease from 50% down to 5% amongst our 120 students in the last 4 years.
And all of this made me realize. That even our failures are our successes. Our staff is constantly asking – what can we do better? How can we equip children like Fan to say NO to women like this? How can we, how can we, how can we…
And then I remind myself. Fan came to us. Her family came to us. They sought out The SOLD Project as a place of refuge, and our staff for advice. The students who dropped out are not working in prostitution. They have jobs. And are healthy. And thriving. There is still so much work to be done – there are still the other children that this woman is trafficking that we have yet to meet – but for now, we have made an impact on the one. And so, in this, in these failures – they are still successes.
I shudder to think of where Fan would be without the education and support she’s received the last 4 years. And for today, for now, I am thankful that we have the opportunity to prevent this one child, with education, love and support, from falling into sex trafficking.
Because it’s more difficult to rescue women than to prevent it in the first place.