“Leena,” an Uzbek, was first trafficked when she was 16. A neighbor sold her, and a few others, for $100 each to an agent. They were then smuggled across the border of Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. After waiting for a few months in Kyrgyzstan, they were sent to Dubai. The opportunity to work in Dubai sounded like a good deal to the 16-year-old who wanted to run away from home. When Leena was still very young, a relative had abused her. Her parents were divorced, and Leena did not have a good relationship with her mother. She knew the job in Dubai would be prostitution, but she didn’t really understand what that would entail. Leena said when she got to Dubai, she resisted taking clients, but she was threatened and beaten until she learned to cooperate. Her nose was broken during one of these beatings. One of the other young girls in the group was taken to the desert and beheaded. Leena and the others were threatened that if they tried to escape, the same thing would happen to them. Somehow or other, the trafficking ring was discovered by the authorities and a raid took place. The girls were arrested, placed in handcuffs, and sent back to their country as criminals. There was no intervention, no rehabilitation, and no justice. They returned home broken, desperate, and afraid for their future.
It was only a couple months before another “job opportunity” came along. This time, Leena was sent to Kazakhstan, where she was sold again. She exchanged hands several times in this neighboring country, before being sent back to Uzbekistan empty-handed, and even more broken-down. Leena ended up in a relationship with an abusive man for a number of years. The relationship turned sour, and at 22, Leena was once again, turned out on the street with nothing, but a broken heart, and a broken body.
A close friend connected Leena, by phone, to a woman who offered her a job doing prostitution in Singapore. The one condition was that Leena would need to dye her hair blond. Leena assured the woman that she could be a blond, if that was required. Leena never met the woman who offered her the job, but the woman assured Leena that she would make $10,000 per month. The agent arranged for Leena’s travel, with a transit in Bangkok. The ticket to Singapore would be sent to her once she was in Bangkok. When the ticket arrived, instead of Singapore, as promised, Leena found that she was headed for Hong Kong. The agent assured her that Hong Kong was just a temporary location, and she would still be given the opportunity to go to Singapore. Once in Hong Kong, Leena was dressed in lingerie, and photographed to advertise on the Internet. Leena’s hair, however, was naturally black and would not turn sufficiently blond. When Leena could not be made to fit the desired profile, the boss became angry and verbally abusive. Leena was “fired,” and sent back to Bangkok.
Leena was in a desperate state. Her life was nothing but hardship, abuse, and bitter disappointment. By now, Leena’s mother had cancer. Leena had actually accepted the job in Singapore because the money promised to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments. Leena did not want to return home, to Uzbekistan, a failure. She didn’t want to go home without anything to offer her mother. The burden was heavy.
Leena wandered the streets of Bangkok and was guided to a local hotel that serves as a brothel for Russian-speaking women. “Lionel,” the manager, agreed to allow her to work out of his brothel. Now Leena had a way to make money, but her heart and body just were not in the work. She struggled to compete for the customers. She couldn’t pay her room bill, and she began using drugs to cope with her pain.
When we met Leena at one of our medical clinics, she was working “voluntarily” in prostitution. We knew that we would not get assistance from anti-trafficking programs for her repatriation. She had been given her freedom in Hong Kong. She could have gone home, could have walked away, and could have made other choices, but Leena chose to stay in Bangkok, and in prostitution, to make money. Before she could make enough money though, she went into overstay and her return ticket expired. By law, Leena’s case was a criminal case of illegal prostitution, not of human trafficking. We offered her assistance to go home, and arranged with “Lionel,” her manager, for her release. Leena came into our shelter until we could arrange for repatriation. Not wanting to send Leena back without a support network, we connected her with a local ngo in Uzbekistan. Leena is no longer a minor, however, so the choice of whether or not to accept help, is up to her. We have heard that Leena planned to go to Russia, and work with her sister in a restaurant. Tired of prostitution, and tired of this life, Leena was ready for a new future. But, Leena is honestly still vulnerable to being trafficked again. Unless her situation changes for the better and she finds healing, she is at risk of being sold again.
In my opinion, Leena has been a victim of trafficking since the first time she was sold at 16. The consequences of childhood abuse, the sequential abuses, and the exploitation of sex trafficking, are invisible chains that have kept Leena in bondage, and prevented her from finding freedom. Without proper intervention and restoration, Leena was set-up to be re-trafficked and re-exploited, over, and over, again. If Leena had been identified as a victim while still a minor, she would have automatically qualified for assistance. Once she turned 18 though, the qualifications changed. It is well known, that when girls are sexually abused, a part of their emotional and psychological development is arrested. Turning 18 does not undo the damage of the early years, or automatically unlock the arrested development. The victims do not begin to make wise choices just because they turn 18. When these girls become women, they still stand on the shaky foundation of abuse and exploitation that has eroded the core self of value, as well as their ability to make wise or rational choices. They are in survival mode, and are vulnerable to further exploitation, unless intervention provides healing and restoration.
When we, at NightLight, offer these women the choice of leaving prostitution, (forced or not), we see hope come into their eyes. It will take years of counseling and grace though, to bring healing to the wounds of the past, and to change their perspective of themselves and their future. Sadly, we are too often limited by government and immigration laws, financial resources, and even language to provide the women with all the rehabilitation they need for a successful future. Our part here, in Bangkok, is to find them, to offer them assistance, and to point them in the direction of life-giving choices. We depend on a network of organizations in the source, transit, and destination countries to work together with us to for prevention, intervention, and restoration. Too few human and financial resources are allocated for rescue, but even less is available to assist those who no longer qualify for rescue. For too long, trafficked victims have been identified by age, choice factor, and by the degree of exploitation. Even if they were rescued once, statistics show that women in prostitution are vulnerable to returning several times before successfully exiting. The more we understand the push factors that make girls and women vulnerable to exploitation, the more we can prevent girls from becoming women who are stuck in the cycles of exploitation.
Being trafficked once is bad enough. When a woman believes that being re-trafficked is her best option for survival, she needs a lifeline of hope. She needs to know that there are life-giving choices available to her. She needs to know that we do not blame her for her poor choices, nor do we think the consequences are her fault. She needs to know that she is not alone. We, at NightLight are committed to walk beside her, on the difficult journey to restoration, for as long as she is with us. It’s a long road though, and we cannot be there for her when the road takes her home, or takes her somewhere else across the world. We need others to join her on her journey, to step onto the path of restoration, and to walk with her for a part of the journey. The road is often steep, windy, and full of potholes and even detours. If we walk step by step with her, we will see her through the challenges and into a life of freedom. She just needs a few more companions for the journey, a few more to cheer her on, and a few more to offer her assistance on the long road home.