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Business proposition

Thailand | To persuade women to leave Bangkok's sex trade, ministries look for economic incentives along with spiritual care

Issue: "All's fair at the fair," Aug. 25, 2007

BANGKOK-By day Patpong is relatively quiet, but at around 4 p.m. its main thoroughfare closes and young men in tank shirts start to piece together the pipes and plywood that form booths where vendors sell their merchandise: watches, clothing, electronics, music, videos, crafts, jewelry-nearly anything you can imagine. When night falls, the merchants serve as only a weak buffer from the surrounding red-light district's constant beckoning.

Go-Go bars, massage parlors, and brothels line the streets of Bangkok's most famous sex tourism quarter. Club names blitz visitors in neon-"Queen's Castle," "King's Cloud" (with "hundreds of girls") and "Safari Disco Go-Go" are a few of the less vulgar names-while pitchmen try to flag passersby and lure them to take in a show.

Rahab Ministries operates in the midst of this commerce and curiosity. The Christian outreach group sends its agents (women only) into the bars in search of girls who appear ill, desperate, or frightened. Most have come to Patpong by choice, or because of pressure from families who want more income than they can earn back in their poorer communities. Dollar figures on Thailand's sex tourism industry vary greatly, but estimates range from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion per year. The opportunity for pleasure fulfillment is ubiquitous.

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"Any man can have any woman in the bars," said Michelle Zook, a Pennsylvania native who volunteered for Rahab Ministries during the past year. "They talk to them and they negotiate a price."

Workers for Rahab Ministries venture into the clubs in order to find those they can rescue. Usually teams of two or three walk into a bar, order drinks (non-alcoholic), and pray. Then they observe.

"We look for someone who looks sad," said Lamduan Jinlee, who is executive director and goes by the nickname "Ning." The workers who develop friendships with bar employees, she said, scan the crowd in search of new faces or someone who looks scared. Sometimes women who know about the ministry approach Rahab's people.

Rahab Ministries doesn't only work the striptease joints at night; their headquarters is in the heart of the district. About halfway down Patpong 1 (its primary road), the nonprofit occupies a floor up four flights of dingy stairs above a not-so-nicely named girlie bar-and two stories above the Chai V.D. Clinic. A staff of about 20 volunteers and paid workers uses the location as a base for strategizing, prayer, Bible study, and outreach.

Patricia Green, a New Zealander with an Assemblies of God background, founded the organization in 1989. She continued as its director until 2004 and helped start ministries to sexually exploited women in other countries.

Green left Rahab under Ning's leadership and started another work in Berlin, where traffickers often bring Thai and other Asian women.

According to the United Nations Center for International Crime Prevention, Germany is the most common destination for trafficking victims from all over the world. Most are women and girls between the ages of 16 and 25 who are forced into prostitution.

Sex for hire is illegal under the letter of Thai law, but it goes largely unpunished. Bangkok is among the most renowned cities for sex tourism, although the country has improved its laws somewhat with regard to child trafficking. The U.S. State Department, which released its Trafficking in Persons Report in June, gave Thailand (and 74 other nations) a mild rebuke for its policies and enforcement against human exploitation. "The Government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking," the report said.

Those "standards" are set by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in October 2000 (and reauthorized in 2005), which devoted resources to combat the trade, expanded enforcement measures, and requires the State Department to report biennially information on steps taken by international organizations to prevent trafficking.

"Where prostitution is tolerated," the State Department report says, "there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery. Few women seek out or choose to be in prostitution, and most are desperate to leave it."

Rahab Ministries has found many spiritual opportunities in the midst of that despair. Some women have been trafficked from other nations, but many come voluntarily from the Thai countryside to earn money for their families. According to the ministry, many don't understand that working in the bars means prostitution until it is too late. Some come to Bangkok hoping to marry a Farang-the name the Thai give to foreigners, usually white Europeans or Westerners.

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