“My older sister finished school, but I can do even better. I want to quit school, move to the city and find a foreign husband.”
This is a common sentiment among village girls in their early teens. Many rural youth will drop out in their early teens. Some because they’re pregnant, others with plans to move to the city to find work with older siblings, relatives or friends.
Some may stick it out through ninth grade, but often succumb to a similar fate as those who quit three years sooner. Even those who finish high school with dreams of further study face a tough future as money is short for university, jobs are hard to come by close to home and the return on the few available jobs simply can’t compete with the jobs in the city.
The economic situation in rural Thailand is bleak, and this lack of opportunity plays itself out in disturbing trends. The blank faces of young girls lacking hope for a different – a better – future are seared into my mind. These girls feel trapped, and they only know to dream of the bright lights and busy streets of the city, imagining a better life there.
Then I sit down to hear the story of a bar worker in Bangkok. She quit school and moved to Bangkok when she was twelve in pursuit of something more. After working in a food shop for a few years, she now works in the same bar as her older sister. Where is she from? A small village in rural Thailand.
I wrestle with this picture. The urban migration patterns are obvious to the naked eye: bus stops in small villages populated with men and women making their way to Bangkok for work. The men most often work in construction, the women in small food stalls, restaurants, or often in one of Bangkok, Pattaya or Phuket’s abundant entertainment establishments (read: sex industry).
Packed buses leave broken villages in their wake. One or both parents leave behind children to be raised by grandparents as they seek work in the city. Kids grow up with little or no parental involvement, no motivation for education or hope for the future.
Abuse. Neglect. Poverty. Brokenness. This is often all they know.
And then they see that their neighbor or relative or sister or friend went to the city and sent home a wad of cash from her work there. Another came back with a foreign boyfriend, and she’s building a house for her parents. Nobody asks questions; at least she has money and a better life.
And now this young pre-teen girl wants a different life too. She decides that’s her goal. She’s going to go find a foreign husband. The best way to do that is to move into the city and find a job, the location of which is a detail often omitted from stories back at home.
What can compete with these trends? What can break the cycle of parents going to the city for work, and daughters and sons following suit? What can restore hope and pride in these rural villages?
These are complicated questions – they keep me awake at night and get me up in the morning. They are the focus of my efforts, the source of both discouragement and hope and the beginning of a dream for breakthrough – Breakthrough Thailand.
~ Cori Wittman, Co-Founder, Breakthrough Thailand
“My oldest daughter is 13 years old; her name is Earn. I don’t want her to follow in my footsteps. I don’t want her to face the same problems.”
Bittersweet filmmaker Dave Baker explores the challenges of life in the rural Isaan region of Thailand, where families discover hope and teens break through generational cycles of poverty and sexual exploitation.
Learning the Landscape
Often referred to as the ‘Land of Smiles,’ Thailand is known for its hospitality, generosity and resilience.
The vibrancy of Thai culture can be found in its colorful textiles, its spicy foods and its annual celebration of Songkran (essentially, the world’s largest water fight).
Despite the moniker, Thailand is not all smiles and laughter. Those in rural Thailand experience the realities of extreme poverty, lack of economic opportunity and the volatilities of farm life. Thai residents in the city are surrounded by bright lights and the amenities of modern culture, but the streets of Bangkok harbor a darker side.
Red Light Districts
Bangkok’s infamous red light districts are, tragically, among its top employers. For women with little education and economic opportunity, the sex trade presents itself as a seemingly legitimate option. But behind appearances are hurting and broken lives, desperate for an alternative.
You’re all out of options; this is the last resort. You show up and sign over your name. They give you a number and you pin it on. It’s your new identity. They make you stand out front so everyone can have a look; they look and they think evil thoughts about you. The nights are long and there is so much pressure. You have to meet your quotas or you will pay. All they care about are numbers. How many men, how many drinks, how many dollars. And that’s all you are to them. Another number. You feel it from your family, too. They’re all counting on you. So you keep going. Night after night, you continue to count. The days turn into weeks and the weeks turn into months. This is your life.
Tonight is just another night. No one has come to take you away yet. You are standing there hoping they’ll like what they see so that you can do what you have been trained to do. Then you will walk away with a large number in your pocket. They live for your number and you live for theirs. It isn’t even a fair exchange. But it’s enough for you to get by.
~ Erin Manfredi, volunteer, The Well Bangkok
Village to City Migration
No one dreams of being a prostitute. At one time, the women in Bangkok’s red light district were just girls with dreams for a better future.
But somewhere along the line, those dreams were hijacked by the illusion of adventure, opportunity and wealth.
Desperation, teenage pregnancy, family pressure, or the allure of money and modernization are among the factors driving women into the sex industry in Thailand. They come for different reasons and from different walks of life, but there is one consistent trend that stands out: Many of these women are from rural Thailand, particularly the region known as Isaan.
The Northeast (Isaan) region of Thailand is considered the “rice basket” of Thailand, but is also the poorest area of the country. Isaan covers approximately one third of the nation’s land-mass and is home to nearly one third of its population.
While agriculture – more specifically rice production – serves as the economic engine for the northeast region, the land is not particularly well-suited for cultivating crops. Prone to both drought and flooding, the Isaan agriculture industry is subject to extreme volatility. And the soil itself is not easy to cultivate and suffers from overuse.
However, the lack of other industry and economic opportunity has meant that families continue harvesting rice crops while the younger generations migrate to the city for work.
As Cori explains: “In many communities, much of the visible wealth came as a result of an influx of foreign money, often through a foreign husband. The allure of foreign wealth is a significant contributing factor to young women migrating to the city — and to the red light districts in particular — to find a husband.”
Parents migrate to the city, leaving behind children to be raised by grandparents. These children grow into teens lacking parental authority and role models for education, thus contributing to a belief that education will not lead to opportunity. With little motivation or incentive to pursue schooling beyond their early years, teens drop out at a young age. Left with limited options, these youth then follow the same path as their parents, moving to the city in search of employment. They often find their only viable option in the sex industry, sometimes ending up pregnant and alone, with children of their own to provide for. They return home, leaving their children back in the village to be cared for while they go back to the city to make a living. And the cycle continues…
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." ~ Thoreau
The stakes are high, and the challenges are great: Poverty, broken family structures, inadequate education systems, deeply ingrained class systems, cultural tolerance for abuse, hopelessness – all devastating, all preventable.
This is where Breakthrough Thailand steps in. The work of addressing the needs of women in Thailand’s sex industry is critical. They need aftercare services and alternative employment opportunities. And Breakthrough Thailand supports and partners with organizations doing that important work. But it also strives to do more. It strives to address the root causes of urban migration and sexual exploitation, to end the cycle and prevent these patterns before they start.
Breakthrough Thailand began as an effort to grasp the root factors leading to the migration of women from the rice fields to the red light districts and invest in areas that will help break the cycle in a holistic and sustainable way.
Entering the lives and communities of individuals in Thailand’s rural Northeast (Isaan) region, one quickly sees a web of complex challenges keeping individuals from reaching their full potential.
On the surface are drug and alcohol addictions, teenage pregnancy, high drop-out rates and rampant migration to urban centers to find employment, often in high-risk sectors such as the sex industry.
A closer look reveals cycles of brokenness – broken family units, education paradigms and economics – being passed from generation to generation leading to widespread social challenges.
This complex web also happens to be what is helping to fuel the continuation of sexual exploitation in Bangkok and in other parts of the country.
And so, in order for any effort at breaking the cycle to be sustainable, it must address these root causes.
Season of Learning
Before establishing Breakthrough Thailand, Co-founders Cori Wittman and Benjamas Phaypromnuek (known to friends as “Jub”) set out on a fact-finding mission. They dedicated a year to simply learning from and investing in Isaan communities. They shared meals, played with children, volunteered in schools, partnered with local service organizations and asked a lot of questions. Their main question, though, was ‘why?’ Why do young people leave their homes for the city? Why do so many end up working in the sex industry? Why do young girls return home pregnant and alone? Why does this pattern of poverty, urban flight, teenage pregnancy and exploitation continue to repeat itself?
The answers Cori and Jub received were fairly straightforward: family breakdown, educational underachieving and lack of economic opportunity were all major factors contributing to the cycle of poverty and sexual exploitation.
Young Isaan moms and dads often don’t have the means to stay in their home villages and raise their children. Facing financial pressure and a lack of economic options in the village, they resort to leaving their young ones with family members and migrating to urban centers to find adequate employment, sending money back home to support their family and their young ones.
Thai culture places an extremely high importance on family — a beautiful aspect of the country’s unique culture. However, with this family loyalty comes a responsibility to contribute to the family income, even at a young age.
The pressure to provide financially often results in decisions to prematurely stop pursuing an education. It also encourages migration to larger urban centers where higher paying jobs might be found, resulting in geographic separation and, often, employment in the sex trade. Sometimes the migration comes out of financial necessity, sometimes from a broken relationship, and most often a combination of the two.
These migration patterns leave behind them a cycle of broken families. Children feel abandoned, seeing their parents only once or twice a year, if at all. Youth lack healthy role models and are often left without guidance or support during the very tumultuous teenage years. The pattern then repeats itself: Come time to decide whether to pursue education or work, these teens follow in the footsteps of their absent parents, abandoning education for the short-term benefit of additional income.
Underfunded schools and politicized administrative structures make it difficult for rural Thai schools to achieve standards of quality in education. Coupled with weak family structures at home, youth are often left with little motivation or means to complete their secondary education.
Many Thai youth drop out as early as sixth grade (bratom 6). Of those able to continue through the compulsory ninth grade year (mathayom 3), few go on to finish a twelfth year (mathayom 6). Early drop-outs are generally based on some combination of financial constraints/family pressure to work, peer pressure, teenage pregnancy, or a lack of motivation based on a low expectation of success.
Though many parents and guardians are often willing to make sacrifices to send the next generation to school, many Thai children face pressure to help provide for their family, particularly in the event they have siblings to care for. Many of these youth are from broken families — often raised by grandparents as parents leave to find work elsewhere — and have witnessed others in their family sacrifice education and dreams by economic necessity. Many youth feel that they are destined to the same fate.
There is widespread agreement that one of the primary factors contributing to Thailand’s sex industry is a lack of viable economic alternatives, particularly in rural regions like Isaan.
While the country as a whole has experienced economic growth in recent years, development efforts have not translated into widespread opportunities for those in rural farming villages.
Most families would consider themselves small-scale rice farmers – not necessarily growing for profit, but growing rice that primarily serves to feed the family (and sometimes friends and neighbors). In the event they have enough land, many will supplement their rice plantings with sugarcane, cassava or, depending on access to water, other specialty crops. Although Thailand’s agriculture economy is relatively strong, many technical advancements have not been adopted by more isolated villages. Opportunities for stronger incomes from agriculture are limited by education, access to water, land, technology and debt, to name a few.
Beyond agriculture, economic opportunities in the village are largely limited to food or small vendor sales, factory work, mechanic/small repairs or similar jobs.
There is a saying in Isaan: "haa chao, gin kam," which roughly translates to "earn in the morning, eat at night." This adage typifies the lifestyle of many Isaan farmers: earn enough for each day, no more. Families that have relatively small plots of land will often plant some combination of rice (for consumption), sugarcane and/or cassava (for sale), and then seek out day labor jobs whenever they don't have to tend their own fields. They live mostly off of the daily wages, supplemented by remittances from relatives/kids that have migrated for work in Bangkok or elsewhere, and use earnings from the other crops to pay off debt, improve their modest homes, invest in new technology or send kids to school.
Any income generated from ‘cash crops’ is minimal and usually spent/committed to be spent long before the crop is even harvested. Most families have debt to pay off, so funds available for investment in education are scarce.
These challenges are deeply embedded into the culture, and Breakthrough Thailand is not offering a quick fix. The organization did not arrive with glamorous (or empty) promises of immediate change. Rather, Breakthrough Thailand made a partnership with its local community, a commitment to offer assistance and pursue answers to these plaguing questions. And this effort has yielded creative solutions that both strengthen and support the Isaan community.
There’s something beautiful and mysterious about seasonal rhythms of cultivating, sowing, fertilizing, waiting, believing and reaping. But like a piece of art, a description of its beauty and mystery can’t do justice to entering into the rhythms yourself.Cori WittmanCo-FounderBreakthrough Thailand
Cultivating Creative Solutions
A single mother finds local employment opportunities so that she is able to stay at home and raise her daughter. She teaches her the value of an education and encourages her to stay in school, giving her hope for a future beyond the red light district of Bangkok or the rice paddies of Isaan. Sacrifices are made, but the young girl is able to stay in school. And with these choices, one generational cycle is broken. The girl plans and dreams for the future – a future together with her family in Isaan.
Breakthrough Thailand is working to create a safe and healthy community environment for youth in Thailand’s rural Isaan communities. It is a prevention effort built on relationships, grounded in education and committed to the holistic growth and development of Thailand’s next generation. It seeks to strike at the roots of sexual exploitation by restoring and transforming families, education systems and economic paradigms.
Creative solutions begin with a counter-narrative to the current focus on metropolitan development, foreign wealth and urban migration. Breakthrough is working to contribute to a collective mindset that addresses problems before they start – a mindset that invests in the local economy, underscores the long-term value and importance of education, and is committed to keeping families together.
Through a partnership with Step Ahead Integrated Community Development, the Breakthrough community is exploring ways to create new income opportunities for individuals and families within the community. The hope is that these locally-driven income opportunities will enable individuals with young children to remain in the village rather than migrate to urban centers in search of employment.
The goal of the Step Ahead partnership is to train and ultimately employ a number of individuals in the community to create products that can be sold locally and internationally. Funds generated from these sales return to employ more workers or support additional economic development projects in the community. In addition, Breakthrough is investing in opportunities to train community members with usable skills that can be applied in the community.
One young woman returned from Bangkok to participate in a basket weaving training program in hopes that she might be able to return to the village to care for her aging grandparents while still being able to generate some income for her family. A second young woman, eight months pregnant, hoped to find employment that would allow her to stay and raise her baby.
These two lives demonstrate the need and importance of new local employment opportunities that will empower families to remain together.
Breakthrough also offers a support system for parents and guardians in search of much-needed resources. This includes healthy parenting practices, education assistance and guidance as parents and children try to build stronger relationships.
Transforming Educational Systems
Education must be a key cornerstone of sustainable change and development in Isaan communities.
For this reason, Breakthrough Thailand has created a residential leadership development program for at-risk youth/teens that would otherwise likely be unable to continue schooling if left in their home environment. A scholarship program supports teens who have a family structure in place, but lack the financial support to continue their education. Breakthrough also offers tutoring and opportunities through its after-school and school break programs.
A community center ‘living room’ gives kids access to a library and music lessons and provides a safe place for youth with nowhere else to go.
For many of these youth, simply having a mentor who believes in them or a tutor to help them with their homework can be the support they need to continue believing in themselves, to keep their dreams alive, and to spur them on in pursuit of an education.
Shifting Economic Paradigms
In order to curb the flow of migration of young men and women to Bangkok or other urban centers for work, the Breakthrough community is looking to find and develop economic alternatives.
Breakthrough Thailand partners with local organizations that have experience in economic development in an effort to develop employment opportunities that enable families to stay together, capture and build on the local knowledge and creativity of Thai people, and to create sustainable, competitive alternatives to migrating to urban centers.
Breakthrough is also helping to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit by providing youth with opportunities to participate in micro-enterprise projects. For some of the teens, the chance to transform a fertilizer rice bag into a grocery tote bag is a transformative experience. While to some, a jewelry-making or metal-working or leather-crafting project may seem like a small hobby, for these teens, it opens the door to a new way of thinking – a new world of opportunities.
Breakthrough Thailand is also operating several agricultural projects, teaching sustainable farming practices to grow rice and sugar-cane and using the harvesting process to demonstrate the value of a long-term mindset.
A soon-to-be established Teen Center will serve as a place where education, family mentoring and innovative economic development can happen organically among all ages, but with a specific focus on teens.
Teens will have a drop-in learning and tutoring space, athletic courts for sports, a music room, library and computer lab and an open lounge area. This physical space will provide a positive, drug-free, safe hangout for youth and will be focused on learning and growing together in community. There will also be a residential component available to those in need of a safe living environment.
Parents and guardians will be invited and encouraged to be part of leading activities at the center, while still being able to access trainings, resources and support.
The Teen Center will also operate as a workshop space for micro-enterprise projects. It will be available to the community as a small business incubator where teens or young adults can experiment with creative small business ideas and contribute to the growth and development of innovative and creative economic opportunities for the region.
Number 35. Not a name, just a number – That’s what a woman in Thailand’s sex tourism industry is reduced to. Not a human being, just an instrument for momentary pleasure to be used and discarded.
The destructive and exploitative effects of the sex tourism industry are well-documented, but statistics and analysis could never fully capture the heartbreak of its victims.
Cori Wittman has seen the devastating impact of sexual exploitation time and time again. She spent years helping women and young girls trapped in Thailand’s red light districts. She listened to story after story. Some began with a boy, many with absent parents, and still others with false promises of wealth and fast-paced city life. All led to hopelessness.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Breakthrough Thailand is changing the landscape. And as a result, young girls are breaking through the cycle of hopelessness, brokenness, poverty and exploitation.
Even amidst the darkness, hope remains.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly