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.
"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.
Rahab teams average three visits per week to bars in Patpong and Na Na Soi, another Bangkok red-light district. Team members start by getting acquainted, building trust in hopes of eventually sharing the gospel with prostitutes. Speaking in Thai, they strike up conversations and ask about the women's families and whether they have children. They hold the women's hands, embrace them, and comfort them.
"Some ask why we do that," Ning said. "They say, 'only men do that.'"
They can't talk about Christ in the bars, so instead they ask the workers about their health, and whether they want to leave the bars. The response is often yes, Ning said, but the women feel responsible to send money home for their children and families.
Another Rahab staffer, Salisa Mekha (whose nickname is "Toon"), says many of the bar girls are teenagers from the upcountry. They may come as young as 13 and often have had three or four abortions by the end of their teen years. She said all provinces in Thailand have the same problem with young women and prostitution. "They actually have family pressure," she said, adding that some are even urged to leave husbands and children to go earn money for their families. Some women are tricked into marrying a Farang and then are hired out for sex to others.
One way the ministry is able to attract women is through its outside residence for former club workers, Rahab House. They can live there for up to two years while they recover, develop skills for other types of employment, and work for the ministry. Ning says they are always looking for sponsors for the women; a sponsorship costs about $150 per month in U.S. currency. She estimates that in Rahab Ministries' 17-year existence, approximately 600 women have been saved out of the bars and have come to Christ.
Not all the women left their former lives through bar invitations. Some walk through Rahab's doors on their own via the ministry's business venture: a beauty salon. Between 20 and 30 women, who are attracted by the salon's good service and reasonable prices, visit each day before "work." Some former bar workers found new careers in hairdressing with Rahab.
Others who depart the sex trade work in Rahab's other revenue producing business: jewelry making, which sells through distributors in the United States, England, Australia, and New Zealand, and also sells through the internet. The ministry helps others through community college--type training so they can eventually leave Rahab House and support themselves.
A few Bangkok churches help support Rahab. The ministry is increasingly burdened to help the children of women who have left prostitution. With help from Habitat for Humanity, Rahab is constructing an 18-room house for women and their children. Ministries Geneva Global and Samaritan's Purse together fund the project, due to open in December. Currently 11 children (with their mothers) are in the ministry's care, living in rented homes.
According to Ning, Rahab Ministries has an amazing success rate among those who leave the bars. In her time there, Ning saw only one woman go back-for three days until she found another job. All who stayed out ultimately came to faith in Christ. The challenge is persuading them to get out to begin with. "We only get the ones that really, really want to leave," Zook said.
For most of the women, it's an economic decision. "It's hard," Ning said. "We don't have the money to throw at them to get them to come [to us]."