We haven’t even been in Bangkok for 24 hours, and I’m already amazed, and shocked by the things I have seen.
Last night, our small team took two taxis from the airport to the hotel. Although our cab driver was silent, the driver of the other cab had some things to say about the neighborhood we are staying in. We are staying in a hotel in Nana Plaza, an area of Bangkok known to western men as a place to buy Thai prostitutes. When we gave the taxi driver the address, he remarked that that is a place where men go, but not where women go.
Yet, here we are.
As we drove closer to the red light district, you could see many more people walking in the streets, even though we were arriving at the hotel close to 3 am. I had already seen a group of what I thought were middle-school aged children crossing a street earlier in the drive, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to see this many adults out and about at such a crazy hour. I was surprised, though, to see just how blatant and obvious the transactions between prostitute and customer were. All up and down the street we saw middle-aged western men walking with teenage-looking Thai girls, and the Thai girls that were not walking with a western man were clearly seeking them out but reaching out to grab people’s hands as they walked by.
We pulled into the hotel, which was much nicer than I had expected. As we checked in, a white-haired man was escorting his “date”, a beautiful Thai girl who couldn’t have been more than 18 years old, out of the hotel. There was no violence, no anger in the transaction. The man seemed pleased with her service, and she was happy to be paid. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it felt as though such a defiling act should come with more obvious anger and violence.
I learned more today about why this is true, why these young Thai girls willingly sell themselves to western men.
We were able to go into the Home of New Beginnings, the ministry that we will be working with while here in Bangkok. We met several of the girls living in the home that are currently studying in either high school or college; these young girls, as young as 16, have all been welcomed into New Beginnings while working in bars or on the street as prostitutes. I was so taken back by the hope I saw in each girls’ eyes. These were not girls still broken by their past and the abuse they had seen. These were girls with driven by love, passion, and ambition. These girls had met Jesus.
This wonderful ministry was started by Benita, a 70-something year old California native who moved to Thailand with her husband in 2004. The Home of New Beginnings was opened just two years after they moved to Bangkok. This afternoon our team was fortunate enough to sit with Benita and to hear stories about the girls in the home, as well as ones that have moved on from Beginnings to lead lives free of the sin and shame that brought them there in the first place.
Thailand is mainly a Buddhist country, but in a similar way that the United States is a Christian country. There are few that truly follow Buddha’s laws and guidelines, but for many, Buddhism is simply part of family tradition. They go to the temple on important holidays (similar to our Christmas and Easter), but aren’t necessarily an active member in the religion. Nonetheless, Buddhism plays a key role in Thai thinking. Each person has a “scale”, so to speak, of good and bad acts, and the balance between these two determines what kind of life your next life will be. One who dies with more bad acts than good will be reincarnated into something lesser than a person, an insect, perhaps. One who dies with more good acts than bad will be reincarnated into something greater than they were, a king or queen, maybe. It does not matter how much bad you do in this world, just so long as your good outweighs the bad.
As in many countries worldwide, in Thailand, women do not share the same status as men, and so they have to work harder to earn more good deeds. A woman is expected to care for her home and her children as well as work to provide financially for her family. This lifetime of work and sacrifice is what may be able to outweigh all of the bad deeds she does in her life, earning her a higher position in her journey to enlightenment. Men, on the other hand, are able to earn enough “good” to outweigh all of the bad in their lives by doing a short working term (3-12 weeks) in a monastery. After this, men are free to lead their lives however they please: working or not, being kind or not, committing crimes, taking advantage of others, etc.
Most girls that are working in these local bars come from poverty-stricken rural regions in Thailand, north of Bangkok. Each girls’ story is unique, of course, but many of them follow similar plot points. It all starts with how the modern Thai family is structured.
As described above, a Thai mother works to support her family, while her husband is free to do as he pleases. Often when a family has many children, or they are very poor, an eldest daughter is required to go out and seek work to help support the family. From rural regions, the eldest daughters will find jobs working in factories in the cities, and then as they find new jobs with better pay, they often eventually find themselves in Bangkok. The promise of great pay working in the bars is typically what attracts a young girl to work as a prostitute. They carry the burden of having to help provide for their family, and they can make much more money working as a prostitute than they can in any factory.
Sometimes their families back home know the type of job their daughter has, but they won’t persuade them to leave that work. They, instead, will accept whatever money the daughter sends. It is what we would call in the U.S. a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of situation. Some families do not know what kind of work their daughters are doing, but are nonetheless pleased with the large sums of money their daughter is able to provide for the family.
Many of these young women have been abused before they ever work in the bars. Some are physically abused, others sexually abused, and some even ostracized from their family because they are the product of rape. They carry these wounds and scars with them to work everyday as they serve western men’s sexual fantasies in exchange for money.
Benita was able to share with us a few redemptions stories, tales of girls the ministry has helped.
We heard the story of a girl who was the product of a violent rape. Her mother kept her, but did not accept and love her as her own child. She had a great relationship with her grandfather, who sadly passed away before the girl’s sixth birthday. After that, her mother and grandmother kicked her out of their home, which is when she fashioned herself a bed in a tree in the family’s rice fields. She lived in the rice field for a few years on and off until her mother married and had younger children. This girl was useful now as a babysitter, and was allowed back in her home, still not as a full member of the family. At the tender age of eleven, this young girl hopped on a bus to find work in a factory. She worked long hours, sending her family money in hopes that her mother would love her for her sacrifice. She didn’t, and after a few years working in factories, this girl fell into working as a prostitute in a local bar. She earned even more money there, and was able to send a great amount to help her family. Still her mother was not pleased with her. So she took a husband at the age of 15 (which was not terribly young for a rural Thai girl). He was not a kind man, and he beat her. After she was hospitalized three times by this man, the girl came to Beginnings, the ministry she had heard about from outreach in the bars but had never been to. It was there she met Jesus and devoted her life to him. She finished high school, then began attending a Bible College in Thailand. Soon after she learned that her younger half sister was going to be sent to Bangkok, and she knew that it could only be for one purpose. Heartbroken, this girl approached Benita, begging her to take in her sister, even at the cost of going back to the bars to work herself. “I can go back there again,” she said. “I have Jesus now, so I will be okay.” Of course, both girls stayed at Beginnings. The older sister was able to finish Bible College and is now married with one child. The quality of life she enjoys now is miles above the life she once lead. Her little sister, whom she had been willing to sacrifice her life for, went on to finish high school and college; she is currently a chemical engineer, making more money than she ever could working in the bars.
Most of the bar girls are sending money home to help support their family, and many of them are doing so to help keep a younger sister from sharing their fate. Some of them have hopes of saving up for a college education and finding a job away from the bars.
The truth of the matter is, though, that often these girls are so bound by their obligation to provide for their family that they are unable to save up enough money for their education. Others may not live long enough to realize their dream of an education because they have succumbed to a sexually transmitted disease.
The Home of New Beginnings exists to give these girls a true chance at education. They are taught not only basic skills like cooking, baking, sewing, and crafting, but they are provided education through high school and university. For many of these women, this is a huge sacrifice for their family. Although Beginnings is able to minister to and help the prostitute, it does not send supplemental income to her family, and so the family loses income that it used to depend on.
It can only be by the grace of God that these girls are able to step away from the job that provides income for their families to receive the healing they need. Some of them are able to reconnect with and regain a relationship with their families, visiting them regularly. After they are educated, often paid for by resources at Beginnings, these girls are able to find better, more fulfilling jobs that pay more than they were able to earn working the bars. They are then able to help support their family again, but are not living in shame to do so.
Finally, for those of you worried about my safety, the Lord gave me this last night before bed:
“Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city”
Sitting down with Benita and meeting the girls at Beginnings really affirmed for me that God is here, and He is working. And I am so thankful to be a part of His plan here for this short time.