A Bangkok go-go bar area where many young women provide sexual services to support their families in rural Thailand. (Photo: UCA News)
The girl is only 16 but her grandmother apparently considered her old enough to provide sexual services to men in exchange for money in the popular resort of Pattaya, which has long been known for its thriving sex industry.
In a case that has highlighted the sexual exploitation of children and young women in Thailand, a 57-year-old woman in Pattaya is standing accused of forcing her grandchild into prostitution so that she could pay off her gambling debt. The woman is facing several charges including human trafficking and aiding prostitution.
The girl’s 33-year-old mother reported the abuse by contacting a local charity that rescues women from the sex trade. The mother said she had learned from friends and neighbors that her daughter had been forced to sleep with men so that the grandmother could pay back money she owed to a loan shark.
A shocking case, yes, but it’s hardly unique in a country where prostitution, although technically illegal, has been a conspicuous source of national income for decades.
Around the country, especially in tourism hot spots like Pattaya, seemingly countless massage parlors, beer gardens, karaoke bars, go-go bars and even curbside kiosks are staffed by young women and transwomen, known locally as “ladyboys,” who offer sexual services to local and foreign men.
Many women working in Thailand’s sex trade are young single mothers from villages in the agricultural northeastern region who have turned to prostitution to support their children and often extended families back home.
Yet often the sexual exploitation of minors is mixed in with sexual services offered willingly, especially in the case of teenage girls whose relatives, friends or acquaintances may coerce or cajole them into prostitution, social workers say.
Much of this practice remains ignored, however, until some high-profile or egregious cases make headlines now and again.
In 2018, for instance, a 47-year-old Indian tourist vacationing in Pattaya was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old girl for money. He was charged with statutory rape and other crimes.
In another recent case, eight girls and young women, including a 13-year-old school student, were found to be offering sexual services to men in their thirties, forties and even sixties in the town of Nakhon Sawan in northern Thailand. The men were charged with various offences.
Earlier this year, meanwhile, it came to light that a well-known massage parlor in Bangkok called Victoria’s: The Secret Forever had been engaged in large-scale prostitution with many of the sex workers being underage. At least one of the working girls was only 15 while some others told police they had started working in the industry when they were primary school age.
“They told us that they had been forced into the flesh trade when they were just between 12 and 13 years old at Victoria’s: The Secret Forever. After spending a few years there, they were sent to Malaysia,” said Supat Thamthanarug, a senior police officer who heads the Department of Special Investigations’ Bureau of Human Trafficking Crime.
Many of the youngsters working in Thailand’s sex trade are migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who are trafficked into prostitution, begging and other activities by criminal networks, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which released a report in August. Lured with promises of good incomes, they are easy targets for unscrupulous traffickers, experts say.
“Higher wages and the demand for labor in certain industries, combined with the lack of income-generating opportunities and widespread poverty in the source countries, especially in rural areas of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, are the main pull factors that draw migrant workers to Thailand,” the UNODC notes in its report.
“Trafficking in persons from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar to Thailand for the purpose of sexual exploitation involves mostly women and children. However, boys, particularly those living in tourism hot spots, are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation.”
And the problem of trafficking and exploitation could get even worse as endemic poverty deepens across the region, especially in already underprivileged communities, in the wake of severe economic downturns in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia triggered by the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The economy of Thailand itself is expected to shrink by 8-10 percent this year, causing massive disruptions to livelihoods. Many more young people might turn to prostitution and other illegal activities to support themselves and their families, experts warn.
Despite a social stigma attached to it, many young women, men and transgender people from underprivileged backgrounds already believe sex work is their only chance for a better income.
“I only have a high school diploma, so for me finding a good job is very hard,” a young woman from Sisaket in eastern Thailand, who works in Bangkok's nightlife industry, told a UCA News reporter. “I can make good money by going with customers.”
As Thailand has kept its borders closed to mass tourism since March in an effort to keep Covid-19 out, the tourism sector has taken a plunge, leading to massive job losses. Those losses have also affected Thailand’s sex tourism industry, but it is likely to rebound, at least to some degree, once normal travel resumes.
Yet even as sex tourism remains a pillar of the country’s economy, which “generates a massive income [for the country], there is no mechanism to protect [sex workers],” according to Surang Janyam, director of the Service Workers in Group Foundation (SWING), an organization that supports sex workers.
As a result, a group of Thai sex workers backed by the Empower Foundation have launched a drive to have sex work decriminalized so that sex workers can come out of the shadows at last.
Decriminalization could also help tackle the trafficking of underage youngsters and other illegal activities, the move’s proponents say, because people working in the industry would be less likely to fall prey to unscrupulous traffickers and business owners.
“The [current] law punishes sex workers, 80 percent of whom are mothers and the main breadwinners for [their] whole family,” said Mai Junta, a representative of the Empower Foundation. “It turns us into criminals.”