Saturday, April 25, 2009

Minister calls attention to plight of exploited women

The Call

BURRILLVILLE — When Lauran Bethell was working as a missionary in Bangkok in the 1980s, she’d walk every morning to language school where she spent hours each day learning the Thai language.

To get to her class, she had to pass through Patpong Road, one of the world’s most notorious red light districts and, in those days, a center for Thailand’s prostitution industry.

What she saw on her daily walks — gogo bars, massage parlors, sex shows and prostitutes as young as 12 years old — shocked and saddened her. Later, as she began befriending the Bangkok prostitutes of Patpong Road and teaching them English, Bethell began to realize there was a common thread in how these girls ended up in the heart of Bangkok’s sex industry.

“What I found out shocked me,” says Bethell, an American Baptist missionary and global consultant with International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches, based in Prague, Czech Republic, and former director of the New Life Center in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“What I discovered is that these girls were working to support their families,” she said. “In that culture the female is economically responsible for the family. These girls knew they were sacrificing themselves for their families.”

Rev. Bethell, one of the world’s leading authorities on the problems of international sex traffic, spoke to a group of about 40 people Thursday at the Berean Baptist Church in Harrisville. The talk was arranged by Donna L. Landry, a member of Berean Baptist Church, American Baptist Women of Rhode Island, and the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Rhode Island.

Bethell says it soon became apparent to her that she had to do her small part to help fight the trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation. “I thought to myself who is offering alternatives to these young women?”

Bethell would end up answering her own question when she became the first director of the New Life Center, established in 1987 in Chiang Mai, north of Thailand. In that role, Bethell pioneered projects in Southeast Asia that specifically addressed the issue of child prostitution and trafficking of women and children, offering care for them “in Christ’s name.” The Center was started with 18 residents in an effort to offer young tribal women an opportunity to receive an education and vocational training which provided alternatives to prostitution and other forms of exploitation.

“I often tell the story of a 12-year-old girl from Burma whose mother had died, leaving the father to raise her and her siblings,” Bethell said. “The father would eventually give the children away to a family in Thailand because had they stayed in Burma they would have starved.”

“At the time, the girl was thinking, ‘what can I do as the oldest daughter to help my family,’” she continued. “A man came to the village and told her he could get a job for her in the city. She trusted him and ended up in a brothel where she served five to 10 men every day and night.”

That girl would end up at the New Life Center, which Bethell directed for 14 years. At various times, there have been as many as 200 girls and young women in the center’s houses in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The center also sponsors at-risk girls who are attending schools in their villages or living in hostels and operates an adult school in Chiang Rai.

Though the New Life Center primarily focuses on preventing girls with high-risk factors from being exploited, the ministry also offers rehabilitation and life alternatives to those who have come out of prostitution and other exploitative situations.

“These girls do heal,” Bethell says.

The New Life Center has received international recognition and awards for its work, and has been the subject of many television documentaries as well as newspaper and magazine articles. In 1995, Bethell received an award on behalf of the New Life Center from the Prime Minister of Thailand.

While the sex industry and human trafficking in Thailand has improved dramatically over the years due to media exposure and pressure by human rights advocates, “it is still a huge situation that plagues Thailand and other Asian countries,” Bethell says.

“In Cambodia, child prostitution is huge,” she said.

Just this week, for example, U.S. senators urged Malaysia to probe claims by refugees from Myanmar that Malaysian immigration officials handed them over to human traffickers on Malaysia’s border with Thailand. The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations released a report Thursday that claimed illegal Myanmar migrants deported from Malaysia were often turned over to human traffickers and forced to work in brothels, fishing boats and restaurants in Thailand if they had no money to purchase their freedom. The report was based on a yearlong review by committee staff who spoke to migrants from military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, and human rights activists.

What Bethell says she has come to realize over the years is that trafficked people are usually the most vulnerable and powerless minorities in a region. They often come from the poorer areas where opportunities are limited, they often are ethnic minorities, and they often are displaced persons such as runaways or refugees.

“Trafficking is exploitation of vulnerabilities,” said Bethell, who travels extensively throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, teaching, preaching and consulting.

Trafficking in human beings and sexual exploitation in developing countries, she says, typically grows out of economic need where teenage girls are required to help their families earn income to help provide for food and basic necessities. In developed countries, a majority of women in prostitution are victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Women are particularly at risk from sex trafficking, she said. Criminals exploit the lack of opportunities, promising good jobs or opportunities for study, and then force the victims to become prostitutes. Through agents and brokers who arrange the travel and job placements, women are escorted to their destinations and delivered to the employers.

Upon reaching their destinations, some women learn that they have been deceived about the nature of the work they will do. Most have been lied to about the financial arrangements and conditions of their employment and find themselves in coercive or abusive situations from which escape is both difficult and dangerous.

Trafficking of children often involves exploitation of the parents’ extreme poverty. The latter may sell children to traffickers in order to pay off debts or gain income or they may be deceived concerning the prospects of training and a better life for their children. In West Africa, trafficked children have often lost one or both parents to the African AIDS crisis. Thousands of male (and sometimes female) children have also been forced to be child soldiers.

The United States, Bethell said, is principally a transit and destination country for trafficking in persons. It is estimated that 17,500 to 18,500 people, primarily women and children are trafficked to the U.S. annually. The Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act of 2000 enhances pre-existing criminal penalties, affords new protection to trafficking victims and makes available certain benefits and services to victims of severe forms of trafficking. On December 10, 2008 the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victim’s Protection Reauthorization Act was signed and really strengthened many of these provisions from the 2000 TVPA.

While trafficking has often been thought of as a problem occurring in other countries, it is rampant in the United States, as well, and American women and children are increasingly used in trafficking, she said.

Sex trafficking linked to Rhode Island’s ‘prostitution loophole’

According to Donna Landry and the Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Rhode Island, circumstances or evidence found in a number of localities indicate that sex trafficking exists in Rhode Island. Some officials claim that trafficking is linked to the decriminalization of prostitution indoors, which has been referred to as Rhode Island’s “prostitution loophole.” The “loophole” originated 28 years ago when female prostitutes sued, claiming they were discriminated against by the police based on their sex.

With no law against prostitution indoors, Landry says, the number of traffickers has only increased, mostly since it is difficult to prosecute, and there have been no successful trafficking cases to date.

Bethell is originally from California. After graduating with a Bacherlor of Arts degree in psychology, religion and education from the University of Redlands, she taught elementary school in Central California for six years and then at the Hong Kong International School for four years. She returned to the U.S. to complete a Masters of Divinity from the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, California, from which she was later awarded a Doctor of Divinity for her pioneering work with women and children in Southeast Asia.

In 2004, she founded and directed the first International Christian Conference on Prostitution bringing together the leaders of faith-based organizations involved in this work. Second and third similar conferences were held in 2006 and 2008 with representatives from more than 40 countries. From the ICCP, the International Christian Alliance on Prostitution has developed, networking and providing resources for Christians involved in ministry with people in prostitution.

Bethell was honored in 2005 with the Human Rights Award of the Baptist World Alliance, which was presented to her by President Jimmy Carter. She was given the Courage Award by the Whitsitt Society in 2007. She serves on the Anti-Trafficking Committee of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), providing resources to EBF churches in an effort to both prevent trafficking and offer after-care to victims.

Bethell has collaborated with governmental agencies, non-government organizations, and a broad spectrum of Christian ministries. Because of her personal contact with hundreds of women involved in prostitution and victims of trafficking and her experience of pioneering new projects, she was invited to testify before U.S. House of Representatives and Senate committees as they drafted and revised the U.S. trafficking legislation in 2000 and 2007.

In her presentation Thursday, Bethell called on all Christians to address the international crisis of women and girls who are trafficked into prostitution.

“Because this is such a huge and complex issue doesn’t mean you can’t get involved,” she said. There has to be a grass-roots effort to fight this because laws and legislation can only go so far.”

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