…The daughter of missionaries, Annie Dieselberg founded NightLight in 2005 to help women who have been trafficked into sex — or women, like Mint, who worked as prostitutes.
“Any woman who is either at high risk of being exploited in the sex industry or is exploited in the sex industry, is our target,” says Dieselberg. “For me, it’s more the issue of meeting the need of the wounded, the vulnerable, exploited, hurting, and trying to do it as holistically as possible.”
…Currently, NightLight employs about 50 women. But it is constantly reaching out to more in Bangkok’s sex districts, offering them the promise of a better life. There are dozens of evangelical-minded groups, large and small, doing similar work throughout Thailand.
Dieselberg says there is a huge need for NightLight’s services. Every other week, she says, news headlines announce a new raid at a Bangkok bar employing scores of underage girls.
The headquarters of the Royal Thai Police Anti-Trafficking Division is where those raids are planned out. Sitting at his desk, General Chavalit Sawaengpuech looks rigid as he responds to the latest US State Department Trafficking in Persons report, which criticizes Thailand for not doing enough to target all kinds of human trafficking. The US government has threatened Thailand with trade sanctions if it doesn’t improve its record on human trafficking.
“This current government has given priority to anti-human trafficking issues,” Sawaengpuech says. “We are always calling on all the agencies to take action against it — from the police, to the shelters and the NGOs helping victims. And last year, the Royal Thai Police ordered all police units to spend at least 10 days each month doing anti-trafficking work.”
In other words, law enforcement here is trying to meet a quota — largely by staging rescues at brothels instead of going after the traffickers — even where there isn’t data or evidence indicating the sex workers they are rescuing are victims after all.
“As good as their intentions may be, I think there are a number of potential problems with attempting to rescue someone from their plight, in particular, rescue a sex worker,” says Dina Haynes, a law professor at the New England School of Law, in Boston. “I understand that there is an argument, a feminist argument even, that sex work can’t be consensual. It puts people in the victim role, but it also doesn’t allow conversation about how to solve or resolve; why people choose this course.
Haynes says many American Evangelical groups working abroad often impose their abolitionist agenda, focusing only on sex workers and sex trafficking — instead of other more common forms of human trafficking such as those found in the fishing, farming or construction industries. It’s an uncomfortable topic, she says, but some of these women have chosen sex work as the best paid job they can find. Trafficking isn’t the issue here, she says; it’s poverty and lack of opportunity, and the evangelical emphasis on rescue doesn’t really address that.
…Mai, 28, is originally from Burma. She’s worked as a maid, a dishwasher, baker and street food vendor. But none of these jobs allowed her to make as much money as she now makes as a prostitute in Chiang Mai.
“There are good and bad things to any job, but when I came to do sex work, I realized this is a job that gives me enough income to really look after my family and move ahead in life,” she explains. “I was not tricked into it, and I don’t see myself as a victim.”
Mai says a friend introduced her to sex work — a friend who was among many rescued in a police raid at a brothel a couple of years ago.
She’s since gone back to prostitution.