From the Field
We work with kids who are at-risk. We are aware of the risks and challenges they face every single day. We see many close calls. We see families confronting impossible decisions. We see children who must exhibit the fortitude of people many times their age. This is the job. For the most part, The SOLD Project operates in service of children and families who would make different choices if they only were given the chance and we try to offer that chance.
But, what happens when a child is given every possible opportunity, and despite all your best efforts, you are left to watch as the sweet, innocent child transforms before your very eyes, and despite all her amazing potential, makes her slow descent into the bar life? Where do you draw the line? Do you chase after her and lock her up in safety “for her own good”? Do reach a point where you let go?
One of our students is in just such a situation. Two years ago, at the age of twelve, she was the very picture of innocence: happy-go-lucky, with plenty of friends, and though life wasn’t easy, she had a family who cared for her. But then she started dressing more provocatively. She turned teenager and began pushing boundaries. She got into trouble at school—sometimes the result of poor decisions on her part; sometimes she faced outright abuse at the hands of a teacher. Then (considerably older) boyfriends started showing up and she began experimenting with sex and more problems ensued. (Much like in the U.S., by Thai law, sex with a minor is considered rape.) All along the way, we’ve had regular, serious talks with her, with her mother and sister, and with her friends, trying every avenue we could imagine to understand why she continued to make such poor decisions and to try to stop her from continuing on this path before it was too late.
Then, a few weeks ago, we found her dressed like a prostitute, working at a karaoke bar. She is fourteen years old. It was her first night there, and luckily our staff were able to intervene before anything happened. There was a lot of high drama with the bar’s mama-san, as one can imagine—and a lot of hurtful words of between our student and her mother, whom our student scorned for being a former prostitute. Our staff were able to help defuse the situation and get her home safely. But then someone unknown to our stuff picked her up late at night and she ran away again. Again, SOLD staff intervened and brought her home. When she ran away a third time, we decided she needed to be taken out of the situation and away from the boyfriends and mama-san who were isolating her from family and friends and luring her into the sex industry. We moved her to a different city, where she is now staying with a trusted family and we’re working with counselors see if we can still reach her and turn things around.
The situation goes to show just how compelling the lure of the sex industry is for these kids—that even if they do have a chance to stay in school, the inducements of the industry and the determination of the people working it to prey on children are stronger than those of us who’ve never personally experienced it can imagine.
We asked our student, “If you could change anything, what would you want to change?” She said she wouldn’t want to have her first boyfriend because she had sex with him, and then she felt like after that it was just downhill. We think this is telling of her frame of mind, her sense of self-worth, and perhaps even her sense of the inevitability of the path she is on, though we do think it’s only the surface of what is going on with her and that there are a lot of factors contributing to the choices she has made.
However, it’s not just about her either. She is from a small village and the community is privy to what happens to one of its own. We can give her chance after chance, opportunity after opportunity, and hope that by being continually supportive (both financially and emotionally) we can encourage her to come back home to us. But then, what message does it send to her peers? How fair is that, given limited resources, to another student who needs the support just as much (or more) and who makes the choice to stay in school and do well for herself? What message does it send about the number of times it’s safe to mess up and keep messing up and expect to still receive a scholarship? Her needs are great, but they must be weighed against the needs of 140+ other kids who are all watching this unfold as well.
These are tough questions we all face in this battle to keep kids safe from those who would prey on them. But this situation has only shown us how important it is that we don’t shy away from them, even when things get difficult. Especially when things get difficult—because her life is at stake, as are the lives of her peers. We can’t give up, and we don’t let go. These kids, nameless on our blog posts for the sake of privacy, are not nameless to us. We’ve lived with them day in and day out for years, we see them for the beautiful souls they are, and we love them like our own. It’s tempting to try to point the fingers of blame, but in situations like this, you quickly need more fingers than you have on your hands. We can only continue to try to rise to the challenge, and we can continue to have hope that we haven’t lost her yet.