Linked with our presentation of DEPDC – Thailand.
The Shame: As the gap between rich and poor grows wider, destitute Asians are increasingly selling their most valuable property: their children. Accross Asia, tens of thousands of children from poor families are being sold into slavery, so that customers can use them as prostitutes, as laborers. Time surveys the lives of the region’s youngest victims.
Sompop Jantraka – Thailand
Their families sell them, and then SOMPOP JANTRAKA finds a life for Thailand’s army of female sex slaves. He is the founder and director of DEPDC, Development Education Programme for Daughters and Communities, which has been highlighted by the Skoll foundation in their New Heroes documentary series. The New Heroes is a PBS documentary series that will air on all national television on Tuesday, June 28th and Tuesday, July 5th. Hosted by Robert Redford, the new Heroes tell 12 dramatic stories of daring social entrepreneurs around the globe that focused on self-sustaining programs that gave long-term results for their target populations. (See the new Heroes).
Sompop Jantraka knows who his stalkers are. They show up in the afternoon, in a car outside the school and shelter he runs in the northern Thai town of Mae Sai. At dusk, when Sompop heads home, they follow him, making no attempt to hide. After he locks his front door, the phone calls start. Whispered threats before a click and a dial tone. Get out of town or we’ll beat up your staff. Burn down your school. Get out before we kill you. But Sompop, who has been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, refuses to run. “Sompop is willing to go to any length,” says Christopher Osborn, an American filmmaker who once worked for the crusader. “He will sacrifice his money, position, even his friends-to help children.”
In the fight against sexual slavery in Southeast Asia, few people have made as much of a difference. Since founding the Daughters Education Program more than a decade ago, 44-year-old Sompop has saved hundreds of girls each year from being sold into Thailand’s brothels. With few resources, he and a network of volunteers identify children at risk. Then he persuades, pleads, begs or berates parents into allowing them to attend his school for free. Once there, the girls are taught vocational skills, then given help finding jobs or scholarships for higher education. If they are in danger, he will shelter them. The school, which depends on donations for survival, now also includes counseling services, a library and a legal aid center. “To see girls enslaved in brothels, it hurts,” says Sompop. “If you can protect one child, you protect future generations.”
Sompop wasn’t the kind of kid anyone expected to grow up to be a hero. A street urchin from a broken home in the southern Thai city of Surat Thani, he roamed its alleys, hustling for change. Then he met an American Peace Corps volunteer named Rebecca Pherin who gave him two gifts: the chance to get an education and the sense that he could do something with his life. In 1988 fresh from university and helping to research the causes of prostitution in Thailand, he arrived in Mae Sai to interview girls destined for the sex trade. They begged him for help. Sompop took the $1,600 he earned from that job and paid the families of 19 girls to keep them at home and send them to school.
He was soon making a huge impact, but he was also making enemies. He discovered that, aside from brothel owners and pimps, a wide range of people-many of them outwardly respectable-had a vested interest in perpetuating the sex trade. He calls them part of the “bloodsucker cycle”; in some communities, parents, village leaders, taxi drivers, tour guides, bankers and elements of the police are all involved. In fact, Sompop believes that one of his stalkers is a rogue member of the border patrol.
Sompop says the sexual slavery scourge is spreading rapidly to Burma, Laos, Cambodia and China’s Yunnan province. Nearly half his students now come from neighboring countries. But whenever the struggles-and the threats-he faces seem overwhelming, Sompop walks into his office and talks to Pensri Nubang. Now the program’s business manager, she was one of the first 19 girls Sompop saved. “He gave me a dream of a better life,” Pensri says, “and the chance to achieve it.” Above all, what Sompop imparts is the empowering conviction that a future full of hope and dignity is not beyond anyone’s reach. (See on depdc.org).