Extending the Thailand trip

I got an e-mail today that I decided to share that is giving me a lot more to work with on my trip this December.

The following is a slightly edited version of the e-mail I received, but in short: I have more information and possibly reasons to extend my trip there this winter, hopefully to work with these wonderful people from the Warm Heart foundation and Urban Lights.

I/we understand the numbers and the rhetoric around “trafficking” – but on the ground we have found that the reality is immensely more complicated than the good guys-bad guys, predators-victims picture so luridly depicted in the  statement [note: see previous entry and pdf attachment]. At the heart of the story is the grinding poverty they note and extraordinary levels of both family and village dysfunction resulting from generations of out-migration to find work (much of it in commercial sex).

But from our point of view – and as our starting point for working effectively with communities – the essential point is that “trafficking” is really a matter of choice, not coercion. What is truly terrible about the sex trade is that our people live under conditions that make entering the sex trade the BEST choice available. THIS is the horror of it, not that nasties are available to facilitate the passage. (And by the way, in our experience, most “recruiting” in the sex business is done through village and family linkages, not through the predators described here. It is common to find that all of the girls or boys working in a given bar or brothel are from the same village and that their mothers, etc. worked there before them.)

We understand, of course, that it is hard to explain this in a PR release and that it is politically incorrect for many, many reasons to make this case (mainly at the level of the UN, the United States government, the Thai government, etc.), BUT it is hugely important to understand if you are actually going to go into the villages to do something. We, for example, work with the children of villages that supply large numbers of young women and quite a few boys to the business. It is patently obvious that several of our kids are the offspring of the business. We recently had a kid added to our program because his mother abruptly went back to work when her parents demanded a nicer house, etc. OK, as a practical matter, how do we talk to our children about “trafficking” and the sex business? When we go into a village in which great grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and some daughters are already in the trade – at the same bar – how do we talk about the business? Specifically, how do we frame what we are doing?

You see the problem?

You cannot pretend that this is a plague visited on the village by gangsters from outside. And if you present it as a plague that only gangsters would bring to a village, you can imagine how welcoming your reception will be.

See the problem?

So we just take the business as part of the portfolio of livelihoods that families and villages include in their survival strategies. And those portfolios are very complex and very intelligently constructed. Kids are deployed in a wide variety of forms of employment to ensure that at any time at least one or two are able to support the family. These are real, smart, rational people making really hard survival decisions about how to allocate the only resources they possess.

So what do we do?

Urban Light takes the boys on their own terms. They love them just the way they are, pat ’em on the back when they go off to work and drop in on the bars to visit them in the evenings. Then they do everything they can to give the boys the opportunity to express what they think they really need to get out of the life and be able to do better for themselves and their families.

Warm Heart gives kids from the villages access to school and remedial help so that they can succeed; we ensure equal access to basic health services and we train families in much higher value-added crops and farming techniques so that someday….

Trafficking? Never mention it.

Long sermon, but a big warning. Be very, very careful about how you choose your words and frame you story as you talk to people about what you’re doing.

[…]I am always available on email and would love to work with you. Never short of words and would love to have you look at what we are doing – and visit some of our villages (nothing like visiting a really fucked up village to understand the whats, whys and wherefores of the choices that get made.)

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