Archive - January, 2013

From Brothel To Startup. Nat’s Story

How Nat found herself working in a brothel is much more complicated than she told us during our visit with her. Like most people who fall into prostitution in Asia, many have elements of human trafficking in their stories. A family member may have sold them into the sex trade and even if they chose it on their own, they have to contend with corruption and exploitation at every level as prostitutes. We chatted on a busy street where hundreds of women were tugging at Japanese, Russian, Australian and other men from around the world who had come here to pay for sex. Nat, who is 26, is passionate and determined to make a better life for herself, something that I have not seen so far visiting with other women this week who work the streets and brothels of Asia. Loud music blared from behind the pulled curtains of the brothels as Nat became more comfortable with telling the details of her story in well spoken english.

eyesAs a child she was given a great opportunity to study in international schools and achieved high grades through high school. After graduating she was able to attend a university studying economics. She was close to achieving her dream of becoming a business woman when it all came to a halt. Her father, she explained, likes to spend too much money on his many girlfriends. Because of this he decided to no longer pay for her school. Like all women throughout Asia, there are few choices to earn a living. She had to drop out before her 3rd year.

Also, like many young women, she chose to turn to the sex industry and became a hostess at a popular street brothel frequented by the many foreigners who travel to her city for sex. (A city that depends on sex tourism for a significant percentage of its economy.) But like all the girls here, these facts are just the surface of a much darker tale. She admitted her mamasan often gets angry with her when she refuses to accept a client for sex. Unlike many of the women here she does not seem to have a broken spirit. “I will only go back to a man’s hotel room if I can see in his eyes that he is not a bad man. Plus he has to pay a lot.” She says, with an air of determination and several fist hits into her other hand for emphasis. We asked if men have been violent with her before. She nodded yes with a frown.

After explaining how much it would cost to start her dream business, she went into a detailed plan that covered a strategy for a successful startup that would eventually spread to four other large cities, focusing on the beach resorts for the maximum profit. Eventually she hopes it will even spread overseas. Her direct and smart entrepreneurial demeanor and sharp business savviness easily matched many I have encountered in the startup culture in the US. She had a plan and it sounded like it could work.

Nat has been working in the brothel for 4 years, and says she has seen girls work the streets that are underage. She says it makes her very sad. Who knows what else she has witnessed. It is common to cater to whatever the client wants. That often includes very young boys and girls.

While she has had a few boyfriends, she is not currently involved with a man, saying she is waiting to find someone who will treat her right. She jokes that her last boyfriend never payed attention, playing Angry Birds instead of spending time with her. She swipes an imaginary screen mimicking him flinging birds at pigs, and then laughs with a shrug.

I asked her if she has saved enough to start her business. She says yes with several nods to indicate she really does. I asked her why she has not quit to start it. She smiles and does not answer and then glances around to see if someone is listening. Throughout our conversation, a man with a radio occasionally comes over and moves stools around in a strange territory establishing effort, and then leaves. Her mamasan also comes in and out of the conversation asking if we want to go inside.

Many prostitutes have to work off a type of indentured debt, one that is often impossible to pay off. Others are able to earn a sizable savings and retire back to their village or like Nat start something completely new. But a grimmer reality is apparent in all the women working in brothels like hers. Scars are common, reminders left over from rough customers. Many of the women show signs of kidney disease and other related illnesses as a result of the hard lifestyle. Many work 7 days a week, with Christmas and New Years off.

Nat never explained why she has not started her dream business yet. Something tells me she will though. As we say goodbye a real connection seemed to have silenced her isolation through our conversation, for a brief time. Maybe it had reminded her of her dream. And maybe she will take that move and choose a different life before it is too late.

I traveled this month with a group called The Exodus Road whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking with a major focus centering in Asia. You can read about my experience on my Huffington Post page as well as stories here on the blog.

Where are the signs?

As I landed in Asia after a nearly 24 hour flight from the United States earlier this week I could only think of one thing. Where are the sex signs? I had been invited to travel with a group called The Exodus Road whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking with a major focus centering in Asia.

brothelWhen you arrive at the Las Vegas International Airport it is obvious that no one is hiding the fact that sex sells and Vegas has plenty to offer. Amsterdam is similar. Landing at the airports in major cities in SE Asia in countries like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam a traveler can be totally unaware of a dark secret sometimes operating in the very hotel they will soon be staying in. They would have a hard time knowing that there is a shiny veneer covering a thriving sex industry. And beyond that veneer is the darkest of all, the trafficking of children for sex.

What is it about these cultures that keep such a secret discrete even in the face of international pressures to address the issue? While the awareness of this crime has entered the world stage through the efforts of NGO’s and government campaigns, sex tourism still stands as a major economic giant. Most of these countries have passed legislation outlawing human trafficking, Myanmar joining them as late as 2005.

According to the International Labor Organization 4 Asian countries depend on the sex industry for 2% to as high as 14% of their economies. UNICEF reports in The State of the Worlds Children 2012, that out of the 2.5 million people trafficked in the world it is estimated that 22 – 50 percent of them are children. Of those trafficked some studies show that most trafficked underage women are used in the sex industry. The UNODC’s report: Global report on trafficking in persons 2012 states that much of that activity happens in SE Asia.

So the question remains if these societies will be able to continue hiding those realities. The world is starting to wake up to the facts. No longer is it only the pedophile who knows about the dark profitable places to seek out a child. Just this past week at a major gathering of college christian students called Passion, 60,000 students pledged to help end human trafficking. Coalitions are being formed all the time and groups are beginning to work together from the aggravating work of finding these victims to prosecuting their handlers. Facades can only mask so long what seems to embarrass a culture of honor.

I remember flying into Beijing for the first time right before the commencement of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The government went to great lengths to position everything from signs, reducing traffic induced smoggy skies, and other details to whitewash anything but the best of the city and surrounding scenery. Returning this last summer though, many of these measures had been removed. The city was still a symbol of power, but a truer Beijing was now visible, even with its least pleasant characteristics.

If these less honorable, and even worse, criminal activities against children become known stories then there will be a reduction in the places for them to hide and carry out the activity. Over the next week, as I travel throughout the region, I will be publishing first hand accounts of the people I meet. Some will be industry workers who have witnessed underage trafficking. Others will be investigators, case managers and aftercare professionals from various coalitions. I hope that their lives begin to paint yet another picture of the greater story being told by many, one that is creating an army of people who will not look the other way, one that finds honor only in dignity for all humans beings. While many people have said wise things in regards to slavery, these words from William Wilberforce’s quote in his address to the British Parliament in 1789 stand hauntingly appropriate for our world today. “Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”

A Week With The Exodus Road In Images

Since Wed, Jan 5th I have been reporting from the field along with another blogger in Asia. We have been conducting interviews, visiting brothel areas of major tourist hotspots, and getting a front row seat as The Exodus Road connects with their undercover operatives and coalition partners throughout the region. Here is a slideshow to just give you a preview of the stories I will tell in more detail when they are published. Please let me know if you have any questions about the experience.

Isolation to freedom: my upcoming trip to SE Asia

To be cut off from your family and friends and thrown into complete isolation. Having your only human connection be with those who mistreat, abuse and exploit you for ill gain. There is nothing more dehumanizing than slavery.

girlI have always been passionate about human rights. As a writer, storyteller and artist I could not have scripted how my career would have ever translated into something like this. But it has. Next Wednesday I board a flight headed to Southeast Asia for a week with The Exodus Road. I am one of two writers who are part of a greater network of 67 bloggers telling the stories that come out of SE Asia where The Exodus Road is part of 10 groups working to free women and children, shut down brothels, prosecute those involved and provide the victims successful after care. It is both an intimidating and honorable opportunity to tell the story of these brave individuals as well as the victims that they serve. I can’t think of anything that is more isolating for a person than to be in slavery. When we become isolated we lose connection with our world and the world loses out onundercover all the art one precious life has to offer.

So I plan to tell their stories with everything I have and I invite you to join me. I will be posting primarily on the Huffington Post Impact site daily throughout the trip as part of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. I will add a few more personal posts as stories arise.

redI encourage you to follow along by reading the Huffington posts, viewing my instagram pictures, as well as some planned special content via twitter. Please leave comments and share. These stories need to be told and I can only do that with your help. Your connectedness will help end someone’s isolation and slavery.