A Glimpse of the Red Light District in Bangkok

“As long as a women can be bought or sold, no woman is free.” – Maria Castaneda, Filipina Activist

The brilliant haze of neon lights gives the appearance of daytime.  Hundreds of bodies fill the narrow streets.   It is almost midnight, but the air is balmy and thick.  There is no breeze, no room to breathe.  It smells of fried fish, noodles, opium and sweaty flesh.  Street vendors shout the same phrase in broken English, “I’ve got good price for you.  Cheap, cheap.  200 baht, but for you only 100 baht.”

The consumers, white men and women, sun kissed from days spent lying lazily on the pearly sand beaches of Phuket, elbow their way to the front of lines to pick over cheap trinkets, bartering in mangled Thai, bringing already reduced prices even lower.

Little brown children meander through the crowds, selling flowers – not for lovers, but for idols – to place in front of spirit houses, to appease the gods of the land for allowing these vendors to use their property to buy, sell, and trade.

Designer baggage, brilliant skirts, and handmade jewelry are not the only items available to buy, sell or trade.  There are men standing on the street corners with menus advertising girls.

“I’ve got good show for you.  One woman.  Two woman.  Three woman.  Only 500 baht.  Very sexy.”

500 baht – the equivalent of US$12.

The menu has pictures of girls in assorted sexual positions and girls doing tricks with different parts of their body, like some twisted human circus that one could only imagine in hell.   What the man is not saying is that for the equivalent of US$17, one could purchase a girl for the entire night.

I look behind the man to the entrance of the bar.  Two pre-pubescent-looking girls are standing in a smoky brume behind the door made of beads.  Red pieces of string and lace barely cover their naked bodies – bodies bearing the straight lines of 12-year-old boys.  Their faces are powdered white, to appear more Western, or to appear less Thai.  And their eyes – their eyes are what make me shudder.  They stare, but they see nothing.  They are lifeless, bored, and empty.

This is Patpong; the infamous area compromising the red-light district of Bangkok, Thailand, where a flesh-seeker can have any sexual wish fulfilled for less than 20 bucks at the expense of a young girl.  Over 100 bars are crammed into two streets that run side by side – an area that can be no more than 1 square mile – with an estimated 4000 women selling sex on any given night.

The sex workers in Patpong represent a small percentage of the total number of commercial sex workers in Thailand.  An estimated 2.8 million men, women and children work in the sex trade of a country with a population of 63 million.  In 2003, the sex industry in Thailand generated US$4.3 billion, 3% of the Thai economy.

Non-profit organizations have discreetly opened shop in the middle of the red-light districts of Thailand to provide rescue for these victims of sexual slavery.  Rahab Ministries is one of the many organizations attempting to rescue women and children from prostitution by providing opportunities for sustainability outside of human degradation.  Rahab operates as an agency by day and a salon by night.

Sex workers file into the salon at nightfall to have their hair and make up perfected before servicing customers.  The hairdressers are survivors of sexual slavery.  Everyone knows the intimacy that is cultivated between an individual and their hairdresser.  These visits turn into opportunities for the hairdressers to say, “Look, I’ve been where you are.  That life is not your only option.”

During this time, relationships continue to develop and trust is built.  The Rahab staff informs the women that during the day, if they are tired, they can come rest at the salon.  There are beds available and food is always provided.  More often than not, these women start visiting the salon during the day, getting to know the former sex workers and staff.  As these friendships develop, the sex workers begin to believe that there is another option to generate income.

With the powerful exchange rate of the US Dollar to the Thai baht, it only takes $300 to rescue a woman from prostitution.  Rahab Ministries spreads this money over six months to provide housing, counseling and education for a woman desiring to leave the sex trade.   After six months, the woman has usually arrived to a place where she can generate income on her own by the skills and education she has developed during that time.

Although six months may be enough time to establish monetary sustainability, it does not provide enough time to heal the horrific wounds that have been afflicted to a woman’s body or psyche.   Most of the women continue to reside in housing provided by Rahab for several years with other women who have survived sex slavery.  During this time, they learn the truth: that they are not commodities to be used and discarded.  They learn that they are powerful women filled with purpose and value; women who are capable of using their mind and talent to produce an income, not their bodies.

During 2006, Emily worked as an independent researcher and client advocate for Rahab Ministries.  If you would like to participate in supporting survivors of sexual slavery, please visit http://www.rahabministriesthailand.org.



Abolishing Modern Day Slavery at BUSPH

On Monday, October 26, the Boston University School of Public Health held an event entitled Abolishing Modern Day Slavery.  Emmanuel Otoo, West Africa Regional Coordinator for Free the Slaves, was the keynote speaker. Panelists included: Benjamin SkinnerAuthor of a Crime So Monstrous, Fellow at Carr Center for Human Rights Policy of Harvard Kennedy School; Dr. Timothy McCarthyDirector for Human Rights and Social Movements, Harvard Kennedy School; and Susan Goldfarb – Executive Director for Support to End Exploitation Now (SEEN).

Mr. Otoo gave a riveting presentation on modern day slavery in West Africa.  “Almost a quarter of the children in Ghana are engaged in hazardous labor.  Many of them have been trafficked from various regions in West Africa and work as many as 14 hours in a day,”  he said.  Mr. Otoo emphasized that slavery is predominantly rooted in poverty and that many of these children are attempting to pay off family debts that increase daily.  Most of his efforts with Free the Slaves focus on slavery prevention through community development, education, and empowerment.

Mr. Skinner has traveled extensively on five continents researching modern day slavery as a journalist and is one of the few people that has infiltrated the ring of traffickers themselves.  Mr. Skinner has often posed as an interested customer to draw into the light what is hidden in the darkness of brothels.  After uncovering the staggering details of how these humans are exploited, Mr. Skinner took his facts to the local authorities and said, “Here is the information.  You can either deal with this the right way or I will make you famous.”

Dr. McCarthy, award-winning teacher and advisor at Harvard Kennedy School, spoke of his personal journey of discovering modern-day slavery.  After years of researching the history of slavery, he was shocked when he read Kevin Bales’ Disposable People and realized how little he knew about the slavery that existed today.  He stated, “We are so hesitant to call what is happening today slavery because America has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from our past with this issue.  Using the word ‘slavery’ acknowledges that we haven’t done enough work.  By using that word, we admit that we are complicit, that we are the demand.”

Ms. Goldfarb struck a chord in the audience when she wrapped up the evening by relaying countless stories of slavery and exploitation among women and children in Boston and its surrounding areas.  “Slavery is not something that just happens in Southeast Asia or Africa.  It’s happening in our own backyards,” she said.   Ms. Goldfarb emphasized the fighting slavery must be a collaborative effort between all relevant interest groups.  “There may not always be a lot of love between government agencies and non-governmental agencies who are working on this issue, but we must lay all of our differences aside and come together over the common goal of eliminating slavery.”

All of the panelists agreed that the first step in abolishing slavery is letting people know that it still exists today. Mr. Skinner ended the evening with a challenge that had recently been posed to him by a colleague.  “If all of you tell 10 people that human slavery still exists, then those 10 people will tell 10 people, and those people will tell 10 people…”  If we ignore slavery or pretend that it does not exist, we are just as guilty as the perpetrators.  We must tell the stories.  We must acknowledge that we are the demand.

This event was a collaborative effort between Free the Slaves and BU’s Rotoract and Health and Human Rights Caucus, with the help of Emily George.IMG_0431

Believing in Justice, Believing in You.

IMG_3964I recently read the book This I Believe, a collection of  essays taken from the NPR program initially launched by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s.  Naturally, this prompted my own reflection on what belief I would want to proclaim to the world in 200 words or less.

In my short life, I have witnessed some of the worst acts of human degradation.  In Bangkok, I worked with sex slaves and saw women and children who were victimized daily by men in ways that could only be mentioned in hell.  I met 18 year old girls that had undergone complete hysterectomies because STDs had ravaged their insides.  I witnessed men take little girls by the hand and lead them into hotel rooms.  I listened to women tell of the endless sexual violence and abuse they endured nightly only to receive $10 on payday.

In Ghana, I saw 4 year old children scooping water out of boats for hours without eating a single meal.  I saw children sleeping on the ground with scorpions while their masters slept on a bed within four protective walls.  I heard these children’s stories of repeated abuse, and touched the scars that were on their heads and backs from being beaten with oars or pushed into open fires.

After sharing these stories with people, I often am asked, “How can you not lose hope when you see such immense suffering?”  The answer is simple.  The answer is because of you.

When those former sex slaves or child slaves would run to me and embrace me and I would look into their eyes and kiss their faces, I never forgot for a moment where they had come from.  Their hope, their joy, their laughter, their dreams, their very life was a miracle in itself.  They were products of someone’s great mercy and compassion.  Some human, somewhere, made it possible for them to be free…to sleep in a bed with a full belly and wake for school each day. Some human made it possible for them to feel safe, loved, and wanted.  And that is why I do not lose hope when I see injustice.  Someone, somewhere is making justice possible every day.  And I am very grateful for that someone.  I am very grateful for you.

Child Slavery in Ghana: The scope of the problem


Child Slavery: Approximately 25% of children ages 5-14 years in Ghana were working in 2000.  In rural areas, children can be found working in picking, fishing, herding and as contract farm labor. Children also work as domestics, porters, hawkers, miners and quarry workers, and fare-collectors[1].

The Children’s Act sets the minimum age for employment at 15 years.  The Children’s Act prohibits children under 18 from engaging in hazardous labor.  Employers who operate in the formal sector must keep a register with the ages of the young people they employ.  Failing to keep this register can result in a fine of 10 million cedis (USD$1,121) or 2 years in prison.  However, child labor laws are not enforced with any effectiveness or consistency.  Labor authorities carry out routine annual inspections of every workplace in the formal sector, but seldom monitor the informal sector where working children can be found.  Furthermore, other law enforcement authorities, including judges and police, lack adequate resources to prosecute and are largely unfamiliar with child protection laws[2].  The U.S. Department of State described enforcement of child labor laws within Ghana as “inconsistent and ineffective[3].”

Child Trafficking: Sufficient data is unavailable determining how many children have been trafficked in this region, but some organizations have put this number in the thousands.  In 2005, Ghana passed the Human Trafficking Act prescribing a minimum of 5 years imprisonment for all forms of trafficking.  However, according to UNHCR, arrests for suspected traffickers have been minimal.  Numerous reasons for lack of prosecution have been cited by government officials, including the need for more national sensitization to the law and insufficient evidence to convict trafficking suspects[4].

Presently, several international organizations and non-governmental organizations are rigorously advocating for increased prevention, protection, and prosecution.  The U.S. Government Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons placed Ghana on their Tier 2 Watch List in the 2009 Trafficking in Persons report.  This means that Ghana is making efforts to combat trafficking, but does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

[1] TheChildren’sAct, Sections89-90.

[2] U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports- 2006: Ghana,” Section 6d. See also U.S. Embassy- Accra, Ghana:

Update on Worst Forms of Child Labor, para 3B.

[3] U.S. Embassy- Accra, Ghana: Update on Worst Forms of Child Labor, para 3B.

[4] Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 Ghana


The Process of Rescuing a Child from Slavery

IMG_3181Many of you have asked, “How do you actually rescue a trafficked child from slavery?”  In this post, I will do my best to explain the process. (Thank you, Liz, for your amazing editing.)

George Achibra founded PACODEP, a non-governmental organization based in the Volta Region of Ghana, which was initially focused on caring for orphans and widows.  The issue of child trafficking and slavery became his passion after a former child slave, John, showed up at his door after running away from his fishing master.  John had been beaten severely and was covered in bruises and blood.  George cared for John and eventually found his mother and returned him to his family.  A few months later, George learned that John was re-trafficked and sold again to another fishing master.  After hearing this, George was determined to find John and rescue him again.  He began renting a boat several times a week and scouring Lake Volta for this young child.  During these visits, he saw hundreds of “Johns,” and was desperate to end this cycle that is ultimately rooted in poverty.

More than half of the people in Ghana live below the poverty line, so when parents hear of work opportunities on Lake Volta, they do not hesitate to send their children because it is one less mouth to feed.  They often view it as an opportunity for their child to learn a skill and earn income, even if it means they miss out on their education.  However, most parents do not know that their child is sleeping outside, working 12-16 hour days without pay, eating only one meal, and subjected to various types of abuses.

In order to search for these child slaves, George rents a boat on a weekly basis and journeys out onto Lake Volta.  He stops when he sees a boat with children working and questions the fishing masters about the children.  George asks common questions about their age and where they live, but mostly he is studying faces.  It is often said that George Achibra never forgets a face.

George has several “informants” working for him on the islands.  These informants are generally community leaders that know all of the masters and the trafficked children.  The informant will give George the necessary information to find the child’s parents, usually within days.

When George finds the family, he explains the abusive conditions on Lake Volta and that their children are in fact not being paid.  He talks with them about the importance of sending their child to school so they can provide for their families in the future.  In many cases, the families are too poor to adequately provide for their rescued child, so George explains that as an alternative option he can sponsor the child to give them shelter, send them to school and provide them with health care.  Then, the parents sign formal documents stating that they want their children to leave the lake and reside under George’s care.

George then returns to the lake with this documentation to find the child.  Sometimes his search can take six months or longer because the fishing master has fled to another area of the lake.  Other times, the child is easily located and George explains the law, presents the signed documents and asks the fishing master to release the child.  Generally, the masters will release them, but if they are resistant, George can threaten arrest.  So far, George’s rescue process has been successful and he has been able to save every child he has pursued.  These children are sponsored by Touch a Life and reside near George’s home in Kete Krachi.

Please feel free to leave questions, comments or feedback.  More information on George’s work and Touch a Life can be found at: http://www.touchalifekids.org.

When Obama visits the slave castles in Ghana, what will he see?

In just a few short days President Obama will be arriving in Ghana to mark his first presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa.  It is widely known that Mr. Obama has insisted on visiting the slave castles that line the Cape Coast to witness remnants of the horrors from when thousands of African slaves were being sold to Europe and the Americas.

I had the privilege of visiting the largest of these castles, St. George, on my recent trip to Ghana and was overwhelmed by the evidence that remained of human degradation.  Despite the hundreds of years that have passed and the continuous use of caustic cleaning agents, the pungent odor of dead bodies, blood stains and human excreta still remain in many of the rooms. Finger and toe marks still remain on the walls where the slaves struggled for their lives while in chains.

My hope is that when Mr. Obama stares out over the castle walls to the Guinea Sea to reflect on how far humanity has come that he will remember that human slavery has not been completely abolished.  My hope is that he will look at the empty dungeons that once held men and women in chains and see the 246 million children that are still enslaved today.  Mr. Obama does not have to look but a few kilometers away to Lake Volta to witness this slavery first hand.  The children working on this lake may not be wearing chains or kept in dungeons, but they may as well be.  These children, some as young as 4 years old, wake at 3 a.m. to begin their day.  They are fed only one meal and forced to work until dusk.  Some are beaten.  Others are molested.  Most are forced to sleep outside.  None go to school.

The dungeons of St. George castle may be empty, but Lake Volta is still crawling with slaves today.  Mr. Obama, do you see them?


I warmly welcome your feedback.  Please feel free to leave a comment or start a discussion.