Behind the Smiles

April 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment



Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”. Everywhere we travel, a simple greeting of “Sawatdeekah” brings a warm and open smile to the Thai people’s faces.  


As we journey to the north of this country, we let our imagination convince us of why. We see villages tucked in verdant hills; a peaceful and beautiful scene that could easily steal the cover of any exotic travel brochure.


A remote village home in the area of Northern Thailand most at-risk for underage sex trafficking.


It’s easy to see the “normal” despite the apparent poverty of the region. Visitors are greeted warmly and by all appearances, the sense of community seems intact and healthy. 


The Displacement Camp of Mae Sam Laeb lies on the Thai border across the river from Myanmar. Without a Thai ID card, these refugee people cannot leave the village, thereby limiting the opportunities for these families.


Throughout the remote villages, made up of stateless people in displacement camps and other poor ethnic groups, women and men are busy with their daily chores while the sound of children reciting their primary school lessons cascades down the hill from the school building. All seems well.


A woman makes the evening meal in her home in Mae Sam Laeb Displacement Camp.


But if we spend the time, and if we dare to have the courage to look beneath the surface of this idyllic setting and these smiling faces, we begin to peel back the facade of appearances and bare witness to an ugly truth. Behind the smiles lies an unfortunate reality of life for the girls of Thailand, particularly for those in the north. The gruesome reality is that the young girls here are vulnerable and at high-risk for underage sex trafficking. One must be familiar with this remote area to witness it accurately and get to the real truth about life in this region. I am  traveling with an outreach group that has daringly pushed beyond the slight progress made by the government, police, and other public organizations to make a difference in this war against underage sex trafficking in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son.


The newly printed signs displaying the sex trafficking hot line are posted outside the police station at Mae Sariang.


While the government now publicly displays signs broadcasting the central help line to report sex trafficking, and the police make symbolic arrests, the situation requires the outreach team to walk the tough terrain to get to know the impoverished hill tribe communities and their activities, and identify who is most at-risk. It's spending time in the villages with the girls and their families, that allows for the development of personal relationships and therefore, a deep understanding of the issues.

The outreach team routinely makes the arduous trek through tough terrain and wildly flowing streams to reach the targeted remote villages.


One must put aside his or her own cultural norms in order to begin to understand the fundamental issue that fuels the prevalence of underage sex trafficking in these impoverished areas. Young girls are seen as a commodity within the family, not an equal to a male child, but rather, an asset that can be sold to a trafficker through a recruiter who is often known to the family.


“Trafficking” is not even a term used in this area. Instead, the cash transaction for the young girl is known as “compensation for separation”. The family can receive a sum of money that may be well over four years’ of the family’s wages. For the girl, she has been raised to believe her role is a traditional one; to be subservient and please the male, while ensuring that she monetarily takes care of her family. The sale of the girl for sex addresses this role and obligation. This is “normal life” in these communities for the girls, as they have grown up witnessing the older girls in their village taking on this role before them.


For the Northern Thai girls, this means being transported by a middle man and taking on a new life in the bustling mosaic of big cities that make up Thailand and beyond. The environment could not be more different from their remote village yet, it’s not this geographical relocation that is the most striking change for the girls.


The city of Mae Sariang is one of the destination cities for exploited underage girls.


With their petite stature, lighter skin, and demure nature, their new role in life is to work in brothels and karaoke bars, and satisfy the unmet sexual longings and egos of primarily Asian men who prefer girls from this region.


A karaoke bar at the city's bus station was raided the night this story was documented.


The girls are played over and over again each night, being used by a seemingly unending stream of men, and discarded afterwards, worn out like a cheap pair of fancy shoes.


A scene just inside the karaoke bar, caught in the light of day.


Today, it is recognized that education is the way out of this recurrent cycle of sex slavery for these girls and future generations. However, there are many social, economic, and cultural issues that must be overcome to enable these girls to attend school routinely throughout their young lives. At school the girls live a life of structure, safety, kindness, education, promotion of self-worth, and introduction to their potential life of opportunities.


The outreach staff meets with the local teacher and a family whose daughter was deemed to be at-risk and talks through the issues and the available support so that they will agree to having her routinely attend school.  


Keeping the girls in school during these vital teen years, and ensuring they receive schooling beyond the typical 6th grade education provided in the village schools is the key to opening the door to all the opportunities life has to offer, and most importantly, putting them in the driver’s seat to be making choices on how they want to live their lives.


This remote village girl has a greater chance of completing her education through high school and beyond due to these efforts. 


This preventive work allows the teen girls of the remote northern villages of today and tomorrow the ability to recognize their potential and look ahead with realistic optimism. It provides for them a bright future.


In reality, underage sex trafficking is treated as a political issue. Isn’t it time we recognize it for what it is, a social issue…a humanitarian one – one that we must all recognize, face, and ideally support in order to make a real impact for social change?


This girl lives in the most remote village in Northern Thailand, and once had no chance to make choices in her life. Thanks to these outreach efforts, she now has the ability to dream big dreams for her future, and a good chance of making them come true.


~ Karen





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