COSA - Children's Organisation of Southeast Asia
Here I am teaching English to Srithong, who used to be one of the COSA girls.
Now aged 21, Srithong is doing a course to become a secretary,
and working for COSA in the meantime.
I am very impressed with the number of people who want to have the discussion with me about sex trafficking in Thailand, and hope to help you understand it properly.
The non-profit organisation I volunteered for, Children's Organisation of Southeast Asia or COSA, is battling this most disgusting of crimes by helping girls who are at risk. Their main aim is to provide the girls with an education; their motto is:
''Prevent trafficking. Empower communities. Change lives.''
It sounds simple, but Thailand's sex trafficking crisis is far from it.
History of sex trafficking in Thailand
In the 19th and 20th centuries there was an influx of Chinese migrants to Thailand, going to work in the rice paddies. Far from their families it was only natural that local women realised they could profit from their loneliness and provide a service to them. I would like to point out that this is a completely normal situation; prostitution is the oldest profession in the world. It was a way for the women to supplement their income, and was quite acceptable to society at that time. This was the first demand in Thailand from foreigners for local women to provide these services.
That demand boomed (pardon the pun) in the 1960s with the outbreak of the Vietnamese war. This time the lonely men were American soldiers camped in Thailand. This is particularly the case with spots such as Pattaya, once a sleepy fishing village, then the site of a huge US army camp, now a sex-tourism hot-spot. The soldiers returned to America with tales of the wonderful Thai women, and the sex-tourism legacy began.
In the 1980s tourism to Thailand increased and caused migration from countryside to the big cities. Many people (not only women!) realised they could profit from the sex-tourism industry, and it became a part of life that was left largely unchecked. There are prostitutes in Thailand today who choose to be in this industry, have relatively good lives, and make a decent amount of money to support themselves and their families.
However not all pimps treat their girls well and not all prostitutes choose their way of life. There is a very complex network of traffickers who know where to find a steady supply of women- mostly from the poorer areas of the countryside- to supply demand in the cities.
Recently Thailand has seen a huge economic growth, particularly with the help of the tourist industry. However the rate of growth is very uneven, with the areas in the north of Thailand and elsewhere still very underdeveloped. They simply don't receive the same resources for help on the farms, health care, and education, that the rest of Thailand enjoys. 88% of the poorest people in Thailand come from these rural regions.
One of the main reasons for this is discrimination against minorities- the 'hill tribes' of northern Thailand are originally natives of Myanmar, Vietnam, Lao or China, who have their own languages, traditions, clothing and way of life. They are not recognised as Thai citizens and so live in perpetual statelessness. It is difficult for them to access education and to own property, even though many of these peoples have been living in Thailand for around 15 generations.
When these people first arrived they were opium farmers, supplying demand all over Asia. But recently there has been a crackdown because opium is an illegal drug. So they turned to subsistence farming, which is unsustainable much of the time because they do not have access to enough land.
The Thai government does little to help them, and has even put a cap on the amount of income they can make so that they are kept at a certain level of poverty, and have a lack of options to get themselves out of it. This severe form of poverty and desperation makes it the perfect situation for sex traffickers to exploit.
In the hill tribe culture there is systematic gender inequality. Women are simply seen as lesser than men. This is not difficult to understand, it is the age old story. Some branches of Buddhism also preach this- if a woman behaves well in this life, in her next life she will become a man. Unfortunately people can warp this idea, and I have also heard it said that if a creature or person suffers in this life, they will be better off in the next. A great excuse for inflicting suffering, or neglecting to help those that are suffering. Why help them when their suffering will lead them to a better life next time?
This idea also leads to an obligation of younger people to submit to their elders or to authority, as they know what's best for them. Do not question or rebel, as the elders have complete authority. This makes it easy for people to send their children to work at an early age, and to allow them to leave school. There is surely a 'what's the point in school when you will work in the fields anyway' mentality. As soon as a girl drops out of school she is vulnerable to being trafficked.
Daughters in Thailand have an obligation to care for their families as a repayment for them raising her in the first place. Many girls end up in back breaking work or in sex work because of this. As soon as she leaves the village the family expects that she will be earning more money, and the more money gets to them, the more money they demand.
As warped as all this sounds, you must understand that all people involved see this as completely normal way of life, and don't see that there is anything wrong with it.
How a girl is trafficked
If a girl drops out of school to go to work in the fields, this is the first indicator that she will be trafficked. She may drop out of school in order to take care of a family member who is sick, while the other adults are working. There is a lack of medical access so the girl may be needed to care for the sick person 24/7. If a girl drops out it is normally around the age of 12, when she has to go to a different school, far from the village where she lives, and pay for the transport to take her there. Many can't afford this transport.
So: poverty + lack of medical access + lack of access to education + lack of alternatives = a girl sold into slavery.
In each village is a local brothel. This acts sort of like a bank as people can go there to take out loans. If they are in debt or simply desperate, people go and can borrow up to 20,000 Thai baht (around £400). And in return the daughter of the family goes to work in the brothel for a year, or for as long as it takes to pay back the debt. Sometimes the girl drops out of school for this, other times she goes to school in the day and works in the brothel at night. Other times a girl will work and save up for her transportation to go to a school up to 100km away.
Teachers might notice a change in the girl, but more often they won't. And anyway, it is socially accepted for a girl to do this: she is simply paying her way and helping her family. Unfortunately some families do take advantage of this accepted system and put their daughter into the brothel to pay off money they use for fancy cars or TVs. This is also socially accepted because these material goods are status symbols within the community.
If a girl is sexually abused at home first, this usually leads to her being trafficked because she has less value. A virgin girl is worth 40,000 baht (twice as much) and so are even more highly valued. By the way, the average yearly income for these families is 10,000 baht.
Let's clear some things up
I can hear some questions in your mind:
1. Who pays that? I thought the sex industry in Thailand was mainly exploited by tourists?
A common misconception. Statistically 70% of the demand for child sex workers comes from local men, 30% from Westerners. The sex industry YOU CAN SEE is used by tourists, who, unless they are paedophiles, avoid and detest child prostitution.
The main customer of the child sex slaves are local men, who see nothing wrong with it. In fact 65% of Thai men have their first sexual encounter with a prostitute- it's kind of a 'right of passage' they go with their friends and make a night of it. Unfortunately though, it usually happens underground because it's cheaper, and this is where the child prostitutes are hidden. The lack of visibility means conditions for the girls are worse and they are at more risk of violence. STIs are rampant, and the girls are often drugged and abused.
I should also point out the figure I mentioned above- 40,000 baht for a virgin, is happily paid by men who 'collect' virgins to prove their social status to the community. The more virgins he can pay for, the richer he is.
2. I thought you are talking about trafficking, but these girls are not taken out of their home villages?
Yes the girls stay in their home communities, but are sometimes taken from their villages and forced to work in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or elsewhere. I think the word 'trafficking' is a bit of a misnomer people usually think it means the victims are taken from their homes or their countries, and forced into labour elsewhere. What we are talking about really is 'slavery'. But people have a problem with this term too because technically these girls are paid for their work (well, their families are), many probably agree to do it (not through choice but through family pressure) and because it's socially accepted. I will use the term 'trafficking' because that is how it's commonly referred. 'Trafficking' is simply a broader term, and can be also used to describe phenomena such as harvesting human organs and other forms of exploitation. I will describe below why I think 'slavery' is a better term for this situation.
3. Why doesn't anyone do anything about it?
There are policies, laws and campaigns directed at tackling human trafficking. The US government recently put pressure on the Thai government to do something about it, by reducing Thailand to Tier 3, which according to the US Department of State website is reserved for: ''Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.''
So the government increased anti-trafficking laws and child protection laws. But the laws do not meet what is needed on the ground, and there is so much corruption in government and law enforcement, that the laws are pretty much ignored anyway. Many officals get paid at the borders to look the other way as sex slaves are smuggled in from Myanmar and elsewhere. If the local police know about it they can usually be bribed to look the other way, or they take a cut of the profits. The laws are changing all the time, so even the uncorrupted officials have trouble keeping up with what is expected. The officals that COSA work with do what they think is right, but there are so many loopholes.
So the campaign posters you may see around Thailand are an attempt to show the US that the Thai government are doing something about it. But it is a smoke screen for something that, when all is said and done, the Thai government don't want to change, because the government profits too. Sex tourism brings in a lot of money, and they are afraid to begin cracking down on it, because where will it end?
Told you it's complicated!
What is slavery?
Free the Slaves organisation estimates there are between 21 and 36 million people enslaved today. 22% of those are in sex slavery. (Not all are women).
There are 400,000 slaves in Thailand. Most of the females are in the sex industry and most of the males are in the fishing industry (why I have stopped eating fish, but that's another story).
Free the Slaves defines as slave as:
Someone being forced to work without pay, under the threat of violence, and being unable to walk away.
The girls we are talking about fall into this category exactly- forced by their family to work without pay, under threat of violence from brothel owners/ family, unable to walk away for fear of violence or abandonment by their family.
I believe the word 'trafficking' puts a gloss on the issue. Call a spade a spade: call a slave a slave.
What is COSA doing about it?
COSA has been working with several communities in northern Thailand for 12 years. The organisation was set up by Mickey Chootesa, who built up a wonderful friendship with these communities. COSA understands that the main indication that a girl will be trafficked is if she is taken out of school prematurely. So it works hard to keep girls in school. The 31 girls who currently reside at the COSA shelter near Mae Rim, just outside Chiang Mai, have been caught at the moment they are taken out of school- as a preventative measure. However some have already had abusive home lives or worked in brothels.
The philosophy of COSA is 'prevention through education'. If a family denies a girl the right to education, COSA steps in. If the family don't or can't guarantee the girl will get an education, COSA offers to take her to the shelter for her education. In this way, COSA acts sort of like a social service. Usually the negotiation is amicable and the girl is rarely forcefully removed from her family. Please remember that the family only sell the daughter as a last resort, and they do love their daughters. This is why most of the girls are able to go home and visit their families during the school holidays.
Most girls at COSA arrive around age 12 (not all- our youngest at the moment is 8, and she arrived age 5), because this is when they need to go to a school further away: the family can't afford to pay for transportation. When the girls arrive they are often 2 years behind their friends at school, and so lose motivation because they have to be in classes with younger children. If they don't go back to school after being away for 2 years, there is little chance of them going back to school at all. And unfortunately it is far from perfect, as the girls are quite unlikely to fulfil dreams of becoming doctors and teachers, simply because they are of ethnic minorities and therefore many doors are closed to them in Thailand.
Branches of COSA
The shelter I worked at is called Bann Yuu Suk (BYS), and is just one branch of a network of organisations under COSA that help these communities.
Others are: MOSAIC, that supplies medical clinics, medical supplies to schools and emergency transportation (reducing the need for girls to be taken out of school to care for sick relatives).
PASS provides school transportation- in one community they have a truck to take the girls to school, in another a boat transports them. This is also a great opportunity to provide local employment for the drivers.
OASIS is the newest branch- Outreach And Special Intel Services. This organisation does casework on rumours of traffickers, girls likely to be trafficked, makes sure the safe houses are funded and liveable, and works with local authorities to gain information about the community. It provides a place for police and other authorities to go if they need help supporting a child.
So, COSA provides everything the girls need: access to medical supplies, access to education, intel so the girls have an authority to go to if needed, and BYS - a safe house to prevent them falling into that cycle.
The main aim of COSA is to create a generational change. These are the first girls to break the cycle, but their children will be even less likely to fall into the cycle, because their parents will see the value of education. So while at the moment doors are closed to them because of their ethnicities, future generations may open those doors.
One girl, who still lives in her community, is sponsored by COSA, and is the first girl from that community to go to university. She is a fantastic advocate for education, and will inspire future generations, as all the COSA girls will. They will be great role models for other young girls, and parents will want for their daughters what the COSA girls have got: education.
Would you like to help?
I know how you feel. I volunteered for COSA for 5 weeks throughout April and May, and I will be going back for 6 more weeks in September. Most of the time I was there the girls were on school break, so only a few girls were left at the shelter. My job was to do activities with them, such as crafts, and to take them on trips to Chiang Mai, markets and to the swimming pool. We did an Easter egg hunt at Easter, and took them out to join in the big water fight at Songkran (Thai New Year). I also got involved in the administration side of the organisation: helping with social media and writing letters to sponsors.
Since the time of writing the BYS branch of the organisation COSA has closed due to a lack of funding.
You can still help out with the other branches of the organisation (see my ''Branches of COSA'' section above.)
I will post an update on what is going on with the organisation and the girls soon.
Here I am teaching salsa dancing to Gig, age 17.
She loves sports and dancing.
She loves sports and dancing.