“She’s not a human being! She sells her body!” The fruit vendor on the street spoke with disgust and her words left me shocked. I felt anger rise up in me. She was justifying her attack of a young Uzbek woman earlier that evening.
We were winding up our outreach where young Eastern European and Central Asian woman are trafficked for prostitution. All of the sudden, a fruit vendor on the curbside angrily threw a bucket of water at a young foreign woman. As the woman stood there, dripping and in shock the vendor began attacking the woman with her plastic cooler. Again and again she went after her while a crowd of men gathered around to watch. A few laughs filled the air as the woman turned and ran into the street.
Quietly, but quickly I went after her. She was crying and disoriented. I asked if she was okay and then I saw blood gushing from her hand. I started to guide her to the nearby hotel. She panicked and said, “No, no, not there,” afraid of this hotel used so regularly for sexual services. “We need to take care of your hand. Its okay, we’ll take care of you.” In the hotel bathroom, as the water rinsed the blood from the wound she cried out in pain and shock. “Why? Why did she attack me?”
The blood would not stop and I said, “We have to take you to a doctor.” She looked frightened. “No, I no money.” “We’ll help you.” I tried to console her and explain that she had to see a doctor. We jumped in a taxi and rushed to a nearby hospital. The young woman, Lina, was frightened but tried to look composed. She said, “Okay, I okay. You go. I go.” I tried to reassure her, “You are alone. You are scared. We will help you.”
At the emergency room the nurses took down information. She is 23 years old and from Uzbekistan. This is her first trip to Thailand. They asked us for more information and we told them we don’t know anything. The doctor was puzzled. “You don’t know her?”
The doctor looked at the damage on her hand. Her finger was not broken but the tendon looked crushed. They injected the wound to numb it and she cried out in pain. She clenched my hand with her other hand which was also cut. The doctor began to stitch up her hand. Blood from the wounds on her back was seeping into the bed sheets. We turned her on her side and tried to comfort her.
Lina spoke very little English. One of our volunteers could speak a little Russian. We tried to communicate what was happening with piecemeal Russian and English, translating the doctor’s Thai. He asked if she had a tetanus shot recently. “Tetanus” was not one of the vocabulary words our volunteer knew. Lina called her friend and we tried to explain. “Has she had a tetanus shot?” “Yes she has passport!” Her friend answered. Still uncertain, the doctor said it would be safer to give the vaccine. When her hand was stitched and bandaged, they dressed her other wounds. The eyeliner that darkly outlined her beautiful brown eyes was smeared from the tears she was trying to hold back. Every now and then her shoulders quivered as she held off the cries that were building up inside.
We went to the lobby to wait for the bill. An Arab man approached. “Let’s go,” he said to her. I said, “No, she is waiting for her medicine.” He said, “We’ll get the medicine outside.” “NO!” I said strongly. “She will wait for the medicine the doctor has ordered.” One of my team began to ask questions. He became uncomfortable. “I just came to help her go back to her friend.” I tried the naive approach, “Do you live in Bangkok?” “No, I’m on vacation,” his eyes were evasive. “Where are you from?” (Dubai) “Are you enjoying Thailand?” I tried to dissolve his suspicions. The man was uneasy. He went outside for a cigarette and made a phone call. Lina answered her phone. The man disappeared and Lina changed her story. She no longer had a “boss.” She had come to Bangkok on her own. I looked her in the eyes and said, “Lina, I know. I understand about the Uzbek women coming to Bangkok. We want to help you.”
When the bill was paid, Lina thanked us. We exchanged phone numbers and the cultural three- kiss-on-the-cheek farewell. She insisted she was waiting for her friend. We said good-bye and with a deep sadness, watched her walk off into the dark alone.
Regretfully, we headed back to the area of the attack. I approached the fruit vendor and politely asked what had happened to make her so angry. The woman said, “She was hanging around here.” I asked again, “What did she do to make you angry at her?” “She’s a bad person. She sells her body!” She made an obscene gesture with her own body to illustrate. “She’s a human being,” I said. The fruit vendor rudely cut me off, “She’s not a human being. She sells her body!” The anger surged in me. “You caused her harm. Her hand was badly wounded and we had to take her to the emergency room where she had stitches and injections.” “No, that’s not true,” the woman lied. “It was a different person.” “It is true and you know it,” I retorted. “Prove it!” a man said. I got the receipt and waved it in the air before the vendors and the crowd of men. The woman replied with scorn, “This has nothing to do with you!” “It does have to do with me and with you and with all of us!” I pointed at the growing crowd. “This is about community. We must show respect for each other as human beings. We have to help one another.”
I left frustrated and angry. The woman’s attitude summed up so much of society’s attitude toward women in prostitution. “They are not humans. They sell their bodies.” From this distorted belief stems the growing exploitation of women and children around the world through prostitution and trafficking. They have been so devalued that their human identity is denied and they have become commodities available and dispensable. Trafficking in human beings is now tied for second place in illegal global crime. The attitude runs more rampant than we would like to believe. Community values have broken down. The value of a human life is up for bargain.
Tonight, a young Uzbek woman lay on a hospital bed, crying in fear and pain as she struggled to communicate in broken English to strangers in a foreign land. The image will haunt me. Her physical wounds were treated, but when Lina left the hospital and our care, she returned alone to another form of violence that will leave invisible scars not so easily forgotten.
Lina’s humanity was denied in a violent attack. But, God in His mercy was present through us to convey to her His message. “Yes, Lina, you are a human being! Men may exploit your body and label you ‘for sale,’ but I, God, created you in my image. You are precious, and of great value to the one who knows your real name.”