The baking school that means freedom for girls trapped in Thailand's sex industry
For millions of men who travel to Thailand each year, its brothels and sex clubs are a playground. For the girls working in them, they are a place of degradation and hopelessness.
The girls are not there by choice but because poverty means that they have no other options, says Noel Yeatts, president of World Help.
She has seen firsthand the misery of the thousands of girls trapped in Thailand's sex industry, but she has also seen how a new path of hope and opportunity can open up when the girls are given an education, a safe place to live and, importantly, the Gospel.
World Help has just successfully completed a $125,000 fundraising campaign to build a new baking school in Pattaya, one of the centres of Thailand's booming sex industry.
Noel speaks to us here about how that sex industry is keeping girls enslaved and why a baking school can give them a different future.
CT: You've been to Pattaya and seen firsthand the sex industry there. Can you describe a little of what you saw and the impact it made on you?
NY: The red light districts in Bangkok and Pattaya assault all your senses. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and the overwhelming sense of darkness. Even with all the bright neon lights, it is one of the darkest places I have ever been.
"You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know." Those words from William Wilberforce now haunt me, because now I know.
I had always heard the stories. But I finally stepped foot into that world for the first time and it was gut wrenching and absolutely heartbreaking. To see women being treated as animals, with no regard for their life or wellbeing.
By far, the moment that broke me was when I went inside a dancing bar in the heart of the red light district in Bangkok. You see, even the bars have different levels, and I was about to see the worst.
We have all heard the quote that God never gives us more than we can handle. I used to live by that. But I don't believe that anymore. I believe that God often does just that — He gives us way more than we can ever handle on our own.
I don't say any of this to be exploitive or to get a reaction, but simply to tell the truth. Because there are no words to fully describe what I experienced there. What I had seen out in the open on the streets did not prepare me for what happens behind closed doors. What shocked me most was not the graphic nature of the girls dancing but rather the interaction between the girls and the customers.
Each girl was numbered — yes, I said numbered. Small circles of paper pinned to the few threads they were wearing. Numbers that might as well have been branded right into their skin. Marked and tagged like cattle. Men simply call out the number they want as if they are being sold to the highest bidder.
15, 27, 195. Pick a number — any number. And while they were just numbers — they might as well have read "worthless," "broken," "unloved," "slave," "captive," for that is what I saw behind their empty eyes.
We estimated that there were over 200 girls that night in just one bar based on their numbers — they just kept rotating them out on stage for the pleasure of the audience.
It was degrading — disgusting — and completely infuriating. I was surrounded by men, many American, who had no shame in what they were doing.
This all started with the Vietnam War. Soldiers on their R&R came to Thailand. Fast forward 40 years and now you have a booming industry with some estimating as many as 9.4 million men coming to Thailand every year — for sex. And before you convince yourself that these are seedy-looking men — they look just like your next-door neighbor or someone you may go to church with.
This first experience left me a bit stunned. To be honest it took me weeks to recover. I remember sitting in church my first Sunday back home and it was like a blur. All I remember my pastor saying was, "God is with us in the dark places."
I sat there thinking, "No he's not. No he's not. I've just been to some pretty dark places and I did not see God there. I wanted to — I desperately wanted to find God there, but it was like he had disappeared."
CT: What have you heard from girls who are involved in the Thai sex industry about their experience?
NY: I have never heard one time that they enjoy this work, that they would choose this work. What I have heard over and over again in all of the heartbreaking stories is that poverty drives this work. This is a sacrifice that they are making for their families.
One story that I just cannot shake is of a young woman who had only been in the work a few months. She hated what she was doing and cried every day. One night she looked at herself in the mirror and said, "You must do. You must do. It is only your mother, your grandmother and your blind brother. If you do not work, how will they eat? Use your head, not your heart ... you must do."
Can you imagine?
I met a woman in a bar one night and began talking to her. I was surprised to learn that we were close to the same age and had sons almost the same age as well. For a brief moment I thought, "Wow, we have so much in common." But then it hit me: we both love our sons and want the best for them. But I have resources and options on how to do that. She has little to no options at all. Poverty has robbed her of those choices.
CT: Why do so many girls in Thailand end up in prostitution?
NY: I don't refer to this as the "P" word. We call this special work, because this is a sacrifice that these women are willingly making. This is not a choice they make, it is a choice they make because they have no other choice. What we find in Thailand is cultural slavery, and this is driven by extreme poverty. Culturally, it is the responsibility of the daughters to provide financially for their families. This is so hard for us to understand, but the pressure these women face is unimaginable.
They come from rural areas and head to the big city looking for work. But with no experience and no education, they quickly find themselves without a place to live or way to support themselves. The bars offer them a "safe" place to live. They start off innocently as a cashier, and one thing leads to another and before they know it they are trapped in a lifestyle they never dreamed of.
CT: What kind of support do they need after they have left the sex industry?
NY: These women need a safe place to live, counselling, an education and an opportunity to choose a different path for their lives. They find all of this and more in our freedom homes.
One young girl named Pin was taken from her village when she was just 11 years old and sold to an elderly couple in the city to care for them. But when she could not physically lift them in and out of bed, she was sold once again but this time to a bar. I can't imagine what she must have endured.
But you would have never known that when I met her. You see, today she is living at one of our freedom homes where she is receiving counselling, an education, and hearing about the love of Jesus.
But what I have seen in the work we are doing the heart of the red light districts of Thailand is this: what transforms these young women's lives the most is not just getting off the streets and away from the bars. Yes, that has to happen. But what impacts them the most is the powerful message of the Gospel. Hearing that there is a man who will never leave them or abandon her, never hurt them and loves them just as they are - that completely transforms their lives.
Pin has graduated from high school and now hopes to become an environmental engineer.
CT: Is there also an element of danger in helping girls leave, perhaps pimps who 'own' girls?
NY: There is a bit of a myth here propelled by the movie "Taken". Although there are many stories of women trafficked around the world that is not the case for most Thai girls. Again, that is why we refer to this as cultural slavery. They might not have a "pimp" but they do work for a bar who will quickly kick them out and find a new girl if they are not performing or don't show up for work. And if they don't work, they can't send money home to feed their families. It is the chain of poverty than enslaves these girls.
CT: Why has World Help chosen a bakery school as a way of helping some of these girls?
NY: Baking is cutting edge in Thailand. Most people do not have ovens in their homes. But cafes are becoming trendy and baked goods are in high demand. A kitchen where the girls can learn to bake will open the doors for incredible job opportunities in the future.
We just completed raising the funds for this important project. Once the school is up and running, our hope and prayer is that it will impact hundreds of women in the years to come.
Everything about this programme is centered around the love of Jesus and the hope found only in the Gospel message. The girls living in the home will have the opportunity to attend this school. It will also be open to non-residents as well.
CT: What is World Help's hope for the girls after they have been trained at the school?
NY: Our hope and prayer is that this baking school will give girls a second chance and a way to provide for themselves and their families with dignity. And for some, it will prevent them ever going into the work to begin with.
CT: How does it fit into the bigger picture of what World Help is doing to tackle the Thai sex industry?
NY: Everything that we are doing is about interrupting lives with freedom. I wish I had a chance to explain to everyone why I am so passionate about this work. There are many worthy causes and many that can give you a lot of "bang for your buck" so to speak.
This work is a bit different. At face value the numbers are staggering and it can be a bit overwhelming on how to make a difference. But here is what I love: if you help just one girl — just one — then that means her daughter will not go into this work, and her daughter, and her daughter and so on. You can break the chain and literally end this vicious cycle for generations to come. To me, that is pretty powerful and something that each one of us can do.
Thinking back to my first trip, what I came to realise is that God was not absent, but I was actually the one who had made him disappear. I had decided that this place was too dirty and too dark for God. But the truth is, where did we find Jesus in the Bible? Who did he hang out with? And where would we find him today? In my world, or in this one?
Jesus was found in the darkness. And if we want to join him in his Kingdom work, then we have to be willing to join him in the dark places of our world.
To give to World Help's work in Thailand, visit https://worldhelp.net/freedom/