For many of us, the holidays are a time of great expectations.
I expect to spend time with family and friends. I expect to go to holiday parties. I expect to dress in festive clothing and eat delicious treats and open presents from the people I love.
I expect these things because they are all I have ever known. Even in my toughest seasons, Christmas has always been a meaningful time. But for generations of impoverished women in Thailand, this has not been the case.
Recently, I traveled to Bangkok and was once again reminded of my privilege — and my responsibility. World Help, the organization my father founded and that I now run, has been working in Thailand for a number of years with women forced into the sex industry by poverty and lack of education. This was not my first trip there, and it won’t be my last. But this trip was special. I was there for a Christmas party.
We walked bar to bar through Bangkok’s red-light district inviting sex workers to take a night off and celebrate the season. But before they could leave, we had to pay a “bar fine” — the amount of money the bar owner would have made selling them for the night.
I watched as a club owner made a list of numbers — not names, just numbers representing the girls — and checked them off as we handed over the bar fees.
It was infuriating knowing that in addition to having their dignity, freedom, and, in many cases, their health stripped away, these women also no longer had their names — and knowing that it was happening in so many other bars and clubs across Thailand.
While prostitution is technically illegal in the country, there are currently around 250,000 workers in Thailand, says Havocscope, a source for estimates about the global black market. Other sources say the number could be as high as between 800,000 and 2 million.
There is clearly much work to be done to address this egregious problem.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see these women filing out of the bars, headed to a party where they would be known by their names, not by a number.
During the party, the girls received gifts and were treated to games and a wonderful meal. They were also told about the opportunity to live at a Freedom Home where they could receive schooling and vocational training if they wanted a way out of the sex industry.
After all, most of these girls are trapped in this work because they have been denied a quality education. While public education is free in Thailand, the country’s education system has been ranked 35th among 40 countries. And many girls are forced to drop out after the compulsory age of 14 so they can work and help provide for their families. This was the case for many of the women at the Christmas party.
One of the highlights of the party was when a former sex worker shared her story. Having grown up in poverty, she felt it was the only choice she had.
“I used to work at night like everyone else here,” she shared with the crowd of girls. “I felt tired and depressed. I had no happiness. Then, I met someone who invited me to a Christmas party.”
This young woman was one of those girls marching out of a bar last year.
After hearing about the Freedom Homes at the Christmas party, she decided she wanted out of the sex industry. And on New Year’s Day, she began a new life. She went to vocational school for baking and is now the proud owner of her own business.
“Now I am happy,” she says, with a huge smile on her face.
As she shared her story, I looked around the room at all the precious women who were listening to her. They each have so much potential, if someone will just fight for them, invest in them, and give them a chance to reclaim their name instead of being known by a number.
So, this holiday season, I want to set a new expectation for myself, and I challenge you to do the same. Christmas is a time of generosity, and I don’t want to let another Christmas go by without speaking out on behalf of the girls in Thailand waiting for a chance at freedom. I want to do whatever I can to help set these girls free.
Noel Yeatts is an active advocate for social justice and humanitarian needs around the world. With over 20 years of experience in humanitarian work, Noel is an author, speaker, and the President of World Help, an international, Christian humanitarian organization serving the physical and spiritual needs of impoverished communities around the world. Noel regularly takes the stage for speaking engagements and advocacy events around the country and has been widely recognized for her groundbreaking book, "Awake: Doing a World of Good One Person at a Time." To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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