Michelle Bond concentrated on moving the wooden block carefully from the Jenga tower as the dark-haired Thai woman watched her slide it free. Men in pairs or singly wandered into the bar, buying drinks and starting conversations with bored women who sat behind the counters that lined the building. Outside Chinese tourists following their flag-waving tour guide stopped to take pictures, their flashes exploding into the neon-lit night.
As Bond slid the block out of the tower, she read the flirtatious come-ons written on the blocks and wondered if the young women behind the counter or the johns had written them.
“To experience childhood games in that context was really bizarre,” said the graduate student in Indiana State University’s clinical mental health counseling program.
As part of a study abroad trip researching sex trafficking of children, Bond and eight other Indiana State graduate students visited Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, which is known as the sex tourism capital of the world. “You get to see where the girls end up,” said Catherine Tucker, associate professor of clinical mental health counseling, about the students’ visits to rescue homes during the trip before the team headed into neon-lit night. “This is where they come out of.”
On the crowded street, with dark alleys lined with brothels spider webbing off of it, convenience stores mix with restaurants, bars, karaoke bars and strip clubs while hawkers shove menus of sexual positions in front of potential customers and tourists pose their children with prostitutes.
“The show of it all normalizes it in a way that’s alarming,” Bond said.
“Do not cry for these girls,” said Robert Webber, Destiny Rescue’s country manager for Cambodia. “If you shed a tear, let it be or those who haven’t been found.” Webber knows these girls stories. The 5 year old raped until she was unconscious. A girl whose mother repeatedly tried to kill her until her mother sold her. Another girl who ran away from home only to watch as a karaoke bar owner handed money to one of her teachers, who then walked away.
Through Destiny Rescue those girls, and many more who share similar stories of poverty and sexual slavery to earn money for their families’ survivals, build foundations for new lives. Destiny Rescue, an organization with a mission is to rescue sexually exploited children, advocates for and restores victims of abuse in six nations, including Cambodia and Thailand. Indiana State’s clinical mental health counseling and psychology students traveled with the organization to learn not only about the problem that has grown an estimated 7 percent since 2003 with more than 2 million children forced into the sex trade annually according to the United Nations, but also to see what is being done to combat it.
“A lot of the clients that all of us see, regardless of where we practice, are trauma survivors of one type or another,” Tucker said. “Learning how to deal effectively with different types of trauma and treatment is a really important part of being a competent practitioner.”
The average age of a girl entering the sex trade is 12 in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the government places some underage girls rescued in raids on brothels and karaoke bars with non-governmental organizations such as Destiny Rescue. Other times in Cambodia and Thailand, Destiny Rescue staff members visit bars in teams posing as customers to offer the girls sanctuary and jobs outside of the sex industry.
“When the girl agrees to come out that is definitely the emotional high because everything has been building up to that point,” said Tony Kirwan, who founded Destiny Rescue in 2001. “When we actually lay it on the table and give her the choice of what she wants to do, we are sitting there praying that she’s going to say yes.”
In the beginning, they heard no.
“Not one of the girls believed what we were offering was real because pretty much every single one of them are there because someone they trusted lied to them, betrayed them,” Kirwan said.
By building relationships with the girls, the teams began hearing yes. In 2012, the organization rescued more than 200 girls in the six countries in which it operates. This year it will rescue more than 400. By 2020, the organization wants to have rescued 100,000 children. But the organization does more than remove then girls from the sex industry. It provides counseling, vocational training in jewelry making, cutting hair, sewing and working at a café. It also gives the girls opportunities for education.
“Our vision isn’t getting 100,000 girls making jewelry; it’s to get them out and get them on a healing process and so they’re at a place where they can dream again and whatever their dream is, our vision is to empower them to do that,” Kirwan said.
In counseling the girls in Chiang Rai, Thailand, Sue Seegar sees them arrive “raw and fresh,” emotionally bruised and broken from their experiences. “These children had their innocence stripped away; they had no choice,” she said. As they work through the trauma using group and individual counseling, Seegar said the girls experience flashbacks, nightmares and perform self mutilation. “These girls are so brave. They are quick to live again…There’s an amazing resilience. I don’t know how or why it comes about.”
As the Indiana State students tossed juggling balls, danced to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and played games, the Cambodian and Thai girls blossomed with smiles and rang the air with peals of laughter. The students followed Webber’s advice of “Have some fun with the girls. You’ll see they’re just kids.”
“It was a lot of fun, but also sort of saddening,” said Michelle Ertl, a doctoral student in psychology, of playing with the girls. “I wanted to focus on the positives, but also remember what they had gone through.”
In the following days, as Indiana State’s students interacted with the girls in Cambodia and Thailand, they also recalled the girls’ pasts. Some of focused activities involved art therapy through projects to help them identify dreams for their lives and to express who they are.
“Art has been used for millennia to help people understand their problems and deal with them,” Tucker said. “It’s a natural means of expressing your feelings that people have.”
Vanessa Granger-Belcher sat on the floor with Cambodian girls in the care of Destiny Rescue sitting in a semi-circle around her. Through the help of an interpreter, she led the girls through an art activity in which they drew pictures of their dreams for their lives. When she asked them to share, one girl displayed the sewing school she dreamed of owning and another showed her drawing of a television and a bed in a home where she could play with her brother and sister. A third said she wanted to own a house with beautiful trees and flowers near a rice farm.
Granger-Belcher listened to girls thinking of their lost childhoods and how they carried the weight of their families’ cares.
“It was amazing to hear how positive and hopeful they were for their own futures,” she said. “Having already experienced so much trauma in a such a short amount of time, they still held such positive views of the world and people. Time and time again, they mentioned wanting to own a shop of their own and take in other girls and teach them the skills they had learned. Their belief in the good is simply amazing to me and speaks so much to the strength and resiliency of these amazing young girls.”
In another project, Candace Williams assisted the girls in making paper origami boxes, which they decorated with flowers, butterflies and their names. “This is their hope box,” Williams told the girls through an interpreter. “They need to write down their hopes and put it into the box.” The girls’ heads bowed as they began writing down their dreams on slim slips of paper.
“Language is a barrier, but we can all play games together,” Williams said. “It’s still a way to connect with people…We can laugh together even though we can’t necessarily understand each other. It’s a way for us to bond.”
In the art project that focused on the girls’ identities, they created themselves as birds. From hearts with wings to peacocks, flamingos and Angry Birds, the Thai and Cambodian girls drew their bird portraits, which they then cut out and pasted to poster boards.
“As they make their own individual birds, they’re all beautiful and unique in their own way,” master’s in clinical mental health counseling student Kayla Spalding said through an interpreter to the girls gathered around her. “As they come together as a flock, they can be strong and work together.”
As Spalding watched the girls play and interact, she noticed, “It was like a sisterhood. They were already kind of a flock. They didn’t need us to tell them that. It was good to see.”
As pink began to streak across the early morning sky, which slowly faded from black to gray before the sun’s fury, the students stood on a low stone wall to watch the ancient Angkor Wat greet a new day. Interwoven throughout the days watching Destiny Rescues’ mission in action were explorations of Cambodia and Thailand. “I’ve been able to see the things you should see when you go to Cambodia or when you come to Thailand, but also that we are learning so much about the organization,” said Brittany Catania, a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling.
They learned of Cambodia’s recent violent history during a visit to the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh and from a tuk-tuk driver’s story at a temple where a statue had been worn down from soldiers’ sharpening their knives. They boated the Mekong River, exploring the divide between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand while visiting the Golden Triangle. They swayed atop elephants as the mighty beasts plodded through the jungle.
Through it all the multi-layered problem of sex trafficking unfolded, deepening the students’ experiences, from interactions with rescued girls to meeting with Miriam Awad with the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, a partner of Indiana State. Awad spoke about the Trafficking In Persons report, which ranks countries and allows the U.S. to engage foreign governments on human trafficking. “We’ve been trying to educate people on what it is,” Awad said, adding that the U.S. can’t tell Thailand or another country how to handle its trafficking cases. “Smuggling is different than trafficking. Trafficking involves exploitation and use of force. You are forced to do something against your will.”
When she learned the students had visited Pattaya with its tourism focused on sex, she said the beach town where white-haired Europeans and Americans hunt for young Southeast Asian women is an area of concern.
“It’s a systematic issue,” Williams said about the trafficking. “If there were no demand there would be no supply. People come here for a reason and getting at the root of that reason is important. It impacts us as well as them.”
Though Thailand and Cambodia lie 35 hours of travel away from Indiana, Tucker said what happens in one corner of the globe affects elsewhere through the loss of potential whether it’s because of the number of children involved in illegal enterprises or because of the inequality of women.
“If women were really seen as being equal to men, we would not have prostitutes and we certainly wouldn’t have child prostitutes,” she said. “There needs to be a global decision made on the part of every individual person that it is not ok to rape children.”