Emily, tell us about the work you’re doing.
NightLight is a registered Thai jewellery business to employ women out of the sex industry. Currently NightLight emplys 85 Thai women who now have a job that gives dignity and life-giving opportunity. As well as giving the women a new job the women become part of a community which cares about them and it's a fun place to be! We begin each morning at 9am with communal worship, lunch is provided free each day with the women taking turns in daily preparation. Once a week, every woman is involved in a small group session and all of the women come together for games or life-skills training one afternoon a week.
I am based at NightLight during the week and work alongside the women in various aspects of running the business. A large part of my time here is spent doing outreach into the red-light district and follow up from that. Twice a week we go into the red-light district to build friendships with the women working on the street or in the go-go bars. This is where we first met many of the women who now work at NightLight. We also visit areas where women are trafficked from other countries into Bangkok for the sex industry.
How did you get involved in this?
It's a long story but here's a brief version. When I was younger I had always thought that I would work in Southeast Asia one day; apparently I told my best friend on the first day of secondary school that I was going to go and work with women prostituting in Thailand when I grew up. In the years while I was 'growing up' and studying Theology in London I used to visit and talk with women caught in London's red-light district in Soho.
My compassion for women trapped in these circumstances began to grow and then in December 2005 I made a trip to Cambodia and Thailand specifically to discover where I might work on a longer-term basis. At the very end of that trip, on the morning before I flew back to London, I met with Annie Dieselberg the founder and CEO of NightLight. I spoke with her about the newly formed work of NightLight and the work that they were doing in bringing women out of the sex industry, it sounded amazing and just what I had hoped to be involved with. So six months later I packed up everything and moved to Bangkok not exactly knowing how it would work out but knowing that for now it was where I had to be. I've been in Bangkok just over three years now and it's been an incredible adventure everyday since and I'm constantly amazed at the work God is doing here restoring many lives!
What is life like generally for women in Thailand? What opportunities and expectations do they have within Thai culture?
The Thai women we meet working in the sex industry in Bangkok come from every region of Thailand. The majority however have come to Bangkok to find work from the rural rice farming areas of Issan, the poorest region of Thailand. Many of these women migrating to Bangkok were only in education up to the age of 12 and many have been married and have children. When their marriages break down, as many do due to domestic violence, adultery or alcohol abuse, the women are left responsible for their children. With little education and few job skills, these women have few options and are then easily pulled into and trapped in the bars of Bangkok.
In Thailand, once a daughter is of age she is culturally obligated to care for her parents. Especially once marriages have broken down she needs to find a way to provide for her children who have usually been left to be raised by grandparents in their home town several hours from Bangkok. Most women readily accept the responsibility to meet the needs of their family, no matter that that often requires the sacrifice of selling their body in Bangkok.
Can you tell us about someone NightLight has helped?
Often we are asked by people who see only the terrible side of Bangkok's red-light district how we can keep going into a place like that. But thankfully we also get to see lives that are being wonderfully restored. To pick just one example out of many I could tell you is Aye's story (not her real name). Aye came to NightLight having been introduced to it by another woman who also used to prostitute. Through prostituting Aye contracted HIV. Shortly after arriving at NightLight she became very ill and was close to death. Friends from NightLight went to visit her in the hospital and to pray for her. She began to show signs of recovery and it was in this time she moved in with me for a short time to be closer to NightLight.
Today, a couple of years on from when she nearly died, you wouldn't know to look at her she had ever been so close to death, she looks so healthy. She is full of life and loves being at NightLight and contributing to the community there. For example she is one of a few women who stays behind each evening to help clean one of our buildings and leaves flowers for the staff each day. She is also a leader at the church begun by NightLight. I love that Aye's story has had such a significant impact on her family also; seeing how Aye's life has changed has, in part, led to both her younger brother and sister discovering that Jesus gives life to the full.
Are many women trafficked into Thailand, or within the country?
We meet many women who have been trafficked into Thailand from around the world. When I first arrived here and we were on the street meeting women there were only a couple of Africans working the streets. Sadly that number has increased and now there are between 10 - 12 African women out per night. The majority of trafficked women we meet come from Central Asia, predominately Uzbekistan, although we've met women from many other countries also, including Kazakhstan, Turkey, Iran, Morocco. On any one night there are approximately 80 women in the area we visit who are being exploited in the sex industry. Some women come to Bangkok having been told there are all kinds of opportunities for work and don’t know what really is expected of them here.
Many, however, know that a life of prostituting awaits them in Bangkok. As I've found in conversation with these women it is the poverty and lack of opportunity in their own country that has made them easy prey for traffickers. They feel trapped in their country with no prospects and a life prostituting is viewed as better than no life at all. This leads to them taking their chances with someone who offers to bring them to Bangkok, where in a couple of nights they can make the equivalent to what they would earn in a month back home. Yet they pay a large price to do this. They have to pay back a sizeable debt to their trafficker which sometimes is impossible to repay, but they also take the risk every night of going with strange men who are at liberty to treat them however they choose. The hopelessness that overwhelms the place we go to meet these trafficked women is tangible.
Up to this point we have been able to help over a dozen young women return for whom the trade here as become too terrible. Their traffickers for the most part have made constant demands for money and given them nothing in return other than beatings and verbal abuse. They contact us in a desperate desire to escape. It is always a huge adrenalin rush receiving that phone call from a woman wanting to escape (usually in the early hours of the morning!) and working out when and where we can meet to make the escape possible. Then from there we house them safely and work on getting the necessary documents and appropriate help to see that they are repatriated effectively.
In your area of work, is it true that it’s women who are largely exploited and damaged while it’s men who are doing the exploiting and causing harm?
Good question! I'm often asked if the work that I do leads to me hating men. And sometimes it would be easy to despair believing that all men are perverted in this way, especially when so many of the men I meet and see are here for the sex industry. Sometimes I get angry at the way the men treat the women and sometimes I get angry at inappropriate comments that come my way also. But the truth is it didn't take too long for a compassion for the men I see here to grow. The women are exploited, but it doesn't mean they are the only ones hurt by this; I’ve had numerous conversations with men who are evidently hurting and broken too. Unfortunately they often discover too late that this behaviour of exploiting the women simply perpetuates their hurt and causes them greater harm.
How can we encourage young people to have respect for each other as young men and women, that will make this kind of exploitation less common and even less acceptable?
A few weeks back I walked into one the bars in the red-light district and saw two young men sitting down. I decided to take a seat next to them. I struck up a conversation and discovered that they were two 17-year-old boys on holiday from Ireland. They asked me what I did and I told them I worked here. "What here?" one of them replied, completely shocked at the thought. I explained that I didn't work in the bars but with women who had this as their only option and that I visited the bars to build friendships with women who feel trapped at the thought of that.
It was interesting to me that these boys felt like it was acceptable for Thai women to be doing this but were surprised that I might be working there. If it's not OK for me then it shouldn't be OK for these women either. A lot of people come to Thailand thinking that using women here is fine because it's just what happens here. One man, even once asked me what I thought this 'F******** country' was for if it wasn't for buying the women for sex.
I was able to talk to these teenage boys about the fact that these women did not want to be performing on the stage in front of us and that in most cases they did this work to support their families. These boys shortly after moved a little way away from me, perhaps so they could try to enjoy themselves without me spoiling their fun. I carried on my night as usual talking with a couple of different women and praying with one. I know that the boys were watching my interactions and it wasn't long before they got up and left the bar, giving me a friendly sheepish smile as they did so. Later that night as we were beginning to head home I passed the two boys on the street and one of them said to me 'Keep doing what you're doing.' I think that he had seen that these women were human too and it was then that to sit comfortably watching the exploitation was no longer an option.
In other conversations with the men I've had in the bars I often talk about the fact that in exploiting others we will only destroy ourselves. We weren't created to use one another but to love and it is in discovering and loving the humanity of the other will this exploitation become unacceptable.
Do you think Christians in the UK need to be more aware of trafficking and sexual exploitation? What could we do to take action?
Yes! We should always strive to make ourselves aware of how people live and suffer and to see where we are able to help alleviate it. As I mentioned above so many of the men I meet here in Bangkok are broken and hurting... and many of these men also happen to be British! They are coming here to Thailand to try to escape their brokenness and exploiting others in the process. Many don't need to travel to Thailand to do this; they are able to do this in the UK also. As the church we should strive to be the safe place where sexual brokenness is dealt with in a way that is restorative. This also includes addressing the issue of pornography which is the cause and/or the beginning of much sexual exploitation.