She runs to me and holds up thin brown arms. In the universal language of children, she is asking me to pick her up. She knows our car is leaving for the day, and she wants to be held as I walk towards it. A hundred yards, maybe. And so I heft her up in my arms, and she wraps her legs around my front like a little monkey. I start across the grass, and I hear a whispered thought: “Walk slowly.” Walk slowly, because the affection this 6-year-old receives in the brief steps to the car might be all she gets for the day. And so I do; I slow down. I rub her back, and I smell her sweaty hair. I bounce a little and make her giggle. And I whisper into her ear words that her mother should be saying.
Her name is Neeleni*, and she finds refuge from the dangerous world that is hers at Breanna’s House of Joy, a Christian Girls Home in Thailand, which my husband currently directs. Neeleni is from the impoverished hill tribes of Northern Thailand. And like so many other young girls in this part of the world, the odds of her falling into prostitution are high.
Eight months ago, little Neeleni’s story wasn’t even a blinking light on the radar that was my life. Homeschooling our three small children as a pastor’s wife, I was becoming contentedly rooted in our small town in the Rocky Mountains. Creeks with my kids in the summer and fires with friends in the winter, my personal version of the American dream was coming true.
Except for one thing. My husband and I were both continually being stirred to compassion on behalf of the “least of these”—particularly gripping were the atrocities done to women and children in many corners of our globe. We would read articles on human trafficking and go to bed feeling sick to our stomachs. We would watch news reports of starving orphans and feel outrage, and we would learn of violent military regimes and feel despair. For months, we asked God what piece of the puzzle fighting global injustice had been given to us, and we restlessly hoped for the faith to use it. When an opportunity arose for my husband to direct a Christian non-governmental organization focused on rescuing girls before they enter the sex industry, our loudly spoken ideals begged for action. And as my family of five prepared to move overseas to Chiang Mai, Thailand, my American dream got dismantled and placed in the back of a dusty storage closet, along with the family photos and the wedding china.
And several months later, my arms became filled with 44 new Asian daughters—6-year-olds like Neeleni, who are born into a world where dreams rarely have the hope to be birthed in the first place.
Were it not for her opportunity at Breanna’s House, little Neeleni could likely become one of the several thousand child prostitutes in Thailand today. Many of these girls are forced into the sex industry by traffickers, but oftentimes prostitution is a desperate choice made by girls who are out of options. Young women in the Northern villages of Thailand are born into a culture which expects daughters to financially support the family. Since their villages offer few outlets for income, girls will oftentimes travel to the nearest city in hopes of obtaining a job. When they arrive, they find that their 3rd-grade education doesn’t afford them viable employment. Under pressure from their families to earn money or pay off debt and within a culture where prostitution is prolific and largely accepted, many girls turn toward the only job they can find. They end up selling themselves to locals and tourists for about $8 a night.
While Thailand itself has seen a decrease in native women forcibly trafficked, the entire region of Southeast Asia is still a hotbed for the sexual exploitation of women and children, with Thailand remaining its major hub. In countries like Cambodia, 60 percent of those involved in the sex trade claim to be forced into it, and an estimated one-third of these prostitutes are children. UNICEF reports that more than 1 million children globally enter the commercial sex trade every year and are forced to serve five to 10 clients a day. Refugees from Myanmar, impoverished women from Laos, uneducated girls from remote villages—these are the faces behind an industry that is grossing several billion U.S. dollars a year.
An article in the Harvard International Review cited Heather Montgomery’s study of a small Thai slum in 2001. This well-known lecturer and anthropologist found that every household studied had at least one child working as a prostitute. Sadly, their ages ranged from 4 to 15 years old. In this part of the world where prostitution has a long history of being both lucrative and prolific, selling sex has become a common means to an end.
The realities of child prostitution worldwide are both sickening and overwhelming. And while none of us can save the world, none of us should walk away from its injustices, either. Jesus Himself told us to protect and care for the little ones in our midst. Following that command can translate into a million different actions, but it can never translate into inaction. Each of us holds a piece of this puzzle. Perhaps it means sponsoring a child through Compassion or maybe it means offering prayers on their behalf at mealtimes. Maybe your role in fighting injustices toward children is donating money or fostering a teen or volunteering at an orphanage overseas for a week. Or maybe it’s even simpler—as simple as walking slowly to a car with a little girl who is being saved from a dark future.
*Neeleni’s name has been changed in an effort to protect her privacy.