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SOLD Featured in Asian Travel Magazine

January 10, 2011

Media / Press

The SOLD Project: How Education Can Change the Lives of Thailand’s At-Risk Children

By Heather & Michael Colletto, SOLD’s Communications Directors

Thailand’s rich natural beauty is no secret. Venture outside the emerging economy of any city in Northern Thailand and you will find yourself surrounded by lush green mountains, fields, and rural villages—home to the countless hardworking Thais who make up what is still a vastly poor, agrarian society. In one such village just outside Chiang Rai city, nestled in the shadow of Doi Chaang Mountain among infinite shades of green, lives a young girl nicknamed “Cat.” She is a tall, shy student at the head of her class whose smiling eyes testify to an incredible story—the story of a tragedy averted, a life forever changed by hope.

In many ways, Cat’s story begins a world away with a young woman named Rachel Sparks-Graeser. As a recent college graduate working in New York City in 2006, Rachel was horrified to hear that child prostitution is shockingly common in our world today—arguably most prominent in Thailand. Long a popular travel destination for its beautiful mountains, quiet beaches, and rich culture, Thailand often attracts tourists of another sort—those looking to exploit the beauty of Thailand’s young women and children for sex.

Since the Vietnam War, Thailand has gained notoriety as one of the sex tourism capitals of the world. Although prostitution has technically been illegal in Thailand since 1960 (and undisputedly so since the passage of The Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act of 1996), it is still widely tolerated and openly practiced throughout the country. In fact, some estimate that sex tourism accounts for as much as three percent of Thailand’s GDP. As a result, many of Thailand’s women and children are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. In every major city in Thailand, women and children can be found for sale.

With a desire to do something—anything—to address the reality of child prostitution in Thailand, Rachel raised money, assembled a small film crew, and flew to Thailand to expose the issue and meet the faces behind the statistics. As her crew interviewed countless workers in the sex industry, they discovered a common theme: the girls—and boys—who worked the Red Light Districts had become caught in a life of exploitation because poverty had left them with no other choice. Too poor to finish school, these children were left unequipped and intensely vulnerable to victimization. Without adequate education or tangible, practical skills, they are unable to find gainful employment to provide for themselves and their families.

What struck Rachel hardest as she spoke with young sex workers was that the exploitation of these children was preventable. If these kids could have just stayed in school, none of them would have been prostitutes.

While human trafficking in its most traditional sense is alive and well in Thailand, particularly among the migrant population fleeing political unrest, it is actually less common for traffickers to abduct or coerce children into prostitution. There is hardly a need for such effort, as Northern Thailand’s poverty and education costs continue to drive uneducated, at-risk children to the cities to look for work. Thailand’s sex industry gains its foothold through poverty, lack of education, and poor social conditions.

When Rachel and the film crew met Cat at age 11, she was a bright, fourth grade student who dreamt of becoming a national athlete—a dream she would likely never realize.  Cat’s father had recently passed away, and though her mother worked long hours to provide for Cat’s education, she knew it was not enough. Planning for the future is a luxury of the wealthy. In Thailand, public government school for one child alone costs about $1/day, more than one-third of a rice farmer’s daily income. Although hopeful she could support Cat through grade seven, Cat’s mother confessed that her young daughter would soon have to drop out of school to help bring in an income for the family. An undereducated girl from a rural village would have great difficulty finding a suitable job in Cat’s small hometown of Chiang Rai. Cat would most likely have to look for work in a bigger city, and her mother, a former sex worker, knew firsthand what dangers awaited Cat in the urban landscape.

Rachel and her team were deeply moved not just by the gravity of Cat’s situation, but by her magnetic innocence, optimism, and kindness. They had spent months traveling all over Thailand and recorded countless stories of the young men and women in Red Light Districts—stories that, had the women only had continuing access to education, might have been completely different.  Now, finally, here was the beginning of a new story—an opportunity to change the seemingly hopeless cycle in Cat, a young girl who liked to run.

Rachel offered Cat a scholarship to stay in school, and this story is the foundation of the team’s documentary, The SOLD Project: Thailand, which was released in 2008. As viewers in the United States watched Cat’s story unfold and realized there were countless others like her, they too wanted to provide scholarships for at-risk children in Thailand.

Thus began The SOLD Project. Soon, working with the local people, SOLD evaluated the most common and most dangerous risk factors affecting children in Cat’s village: orphaned, family in the sex industry, poverty, alcoholic parents, parents with HIV/AIDS, etc. Children deemed at-risk—which is over 90 percent of Cat’s village—were offered scholarships. For $1/day, sponsors are covering a student’s entire cost of education, plus a few extra dollars to save for college. Today there are more than 75 students in SOLD’s scholarship program and another 90 that have recently applied.

SOLD’s scholarship program has recently grown into a holistic prevention program, offering students education and supplemental resources like mentorship, after school programs, tutoring, and more. This on-the-ground prevention work, The FREEDOM Project, is run out of SOLD’s new Resource Center in Cat’s village. Every day after school, scholarship kids ride their bikes up the dirt road to the Center, a seemingly impossible amount of laughing children often piled onto a single bike. Some come for homework help with a locally-hired tutor, others come for English games, and a few come to beat the staff, yet again, in a heated game of badminton. On Saturdays, children fill the Resource Center for English classes and an afternoon of lessons and games. These children of local farmers are speaking English with more and more confidence every day—a skill that could truly change their future.

In the film, when Rachel offers Cat and her mother a full scholarship, the smile on the weary, lined face of Cat’s mother is hard to comprehend: the direction of her daughter’s life has just changed.  Cat’s mother says to her daughter in their native Thai, “Now you can be a doctor.”  To which Cat shyly responds, “But I want to be a national athlete.”  Some things are universal.

When Rachel’s film crew interviewed Cat after she received the scholarship, her awareness of its significance is astonishing. She begins to cry—a rare occurrence in Thai culture. Wiping away tears from her eyes, she says, “I told Ms. Rachel that I wanted to be a national athlete, and now that might actually happen.” Cat, then a fourth grade student, knew that her dream wouldn’t—couldn’t—come true. Until that moment, it had been just a dream.

Today, Cat is a young woman at the top of her class. She is also an orphan. Her mother passed away from a liver condition shortly after Cat received her scholarship and SOLD completed filming. (Many former sex workers die from problems related to alcohol abuse, a common condition in their line of work.) Were it not for the support of The SOLD Project, Cat would be on the fast track to a life of exploitation. Instead, Cat now lives with her half-sister and helps care for her nephew, lovingly nicknamed “Ling Ling,” or “monkey,” because he is so playful and rambunctious. The other kids in the program call her “Pi Cat,” or “Big Sister Cat.”  She is now hoping to become, as her mother dreamed, a doctor. And as she practices her English at SOLD’s Resource Center and takes advantage of resources that equip her to accomplish her dreams, she is sure of one thing: Now that dream might actually happen.

——

Cat’s story is a beautiful illustration of the power of prevention. And prevention is really the heartbeat of The SOLD Project.

There are many wonderful organizations seeking to rescue women and girls out of exploitative situations and even more working to rehabilitate these women and helping them to find their feet again, and this is important and necessary work. But, even if these organizations somehow managed to rescue and rehabilitate every child prostitute or trafficking victim today, they would have to start over again tomorrow because there’s an endless supply of vulnerable kids. We are never going to solve the problem if we don’t address the problem at its core.

Please consider contributing to The SOLD Project’s important work in Northern Thailand. For just $4/week, you can provide resources for one scholarship student in Cat’s village outside Chiang Rai: art classes, English lessons, tutoring, computer skills, mentorship, human trafficking awareness, and more.  These skills will change a child’s future.  These skills will change a child’s life. Go to thesoldproject.com/givefreedom to make your gift today.

Sex sells. Children. Help stop it before it begins. Learn more at thesoldproject.org.

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