CHIANG RAI – There are no circumstances in which using children for sex is acceptable. HIV Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Shirley Mark Prabhu says: “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been signed by all countries in this region, is very clear on this point. There is no such thing as a child prostitute. Any child under the age of 18 is a victim of sexual exploitation. It violates their rights to health, education and a childhood.”
Saeng* was forced into prostitution at the age of 14. After falling out with his** parents and running away from home, he found himself on the street with no money. Desperate and too young to understand the risks involved, he ended up in the sex industry, exploited by adults. Bars wouldn’t allow him to work on the premises because he was underage, so he sold sex on the streets.
“I fought with my Dad because I wanted to be a kathoey and he couldn’t understand,” recalls Saeng, who is now 18. The Thai term he uses is colloquial for a range of transgender identities. “I went to stay with a friend who sold sex in the bars around Nana district. I would hook up with foreigners who paid me 500 baht (US$15) for sex. If I got enough customers, I could spend the night in a hotel. Otherwise, I would sleep on the streets. I didn’t know much about HIV.”
Adults who exploited Saeng put him at grave risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Some committed acts of violence against him. “One time a customer forced my head into a hotel basin and wouldn’t let me go. I shouted for help and the receptionist came and rescued me.”
There were also issues with acceptance. “There was a kathoey mafia in Nana,” he says. “They would slap or beat me for working in their territory.”
Saeng also had a run-in with the police. “Another time a customer was getting money out of a cash point for me,” he says. “The police came up behind me and dragged me away. They arrested three of us. They let the others go for 1,000 baht each, but I had no money. They kept me in jail overnight and released me the next morning.”
In the dark backstreets
The area where Saeng ended up, Nana, is a sex district catering mainly to foreign tourists. Other areas see a different clientele. In dark backstreets and along canals in Sanam Luang near the Grand Palace, women sell sex to Thai taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. They rent plastic chairs along the pavement where they advertise themselves. Once the deal is done, they move on to seedy hotels that rent rooms by the hour.
Nathee Sornwaree is a social worker for Issarachon Foundation, which reaches out to sex workers and people living on the streets in the area. While the majority of people selling sex are adults, Nathee says that children are also involved, occasionally starting at a very young age. “We have found boys as young as 8 years old being sold for sex,” he explains. “Girls start from 11 or 12. When schools are out, they come and work along the canal.”
The reasons that children are drawn into prostitution have changed over the years. “In the past, they did it to help support their families,” Nathee says. “But society is changing. Now, children from poorer backgrounds do it to get money to buy smart phones and other consumer goods that they couldn’t otherwise afford. We’ve also seen more gay and transgender sex workers. They can meet customers more easily on social media.”
In Thailand, soliciting sex is illegal, so people doing so cannot go to the police for help. “Sex workers often get into trouble with the police,” Nathee says, a situation that Saeng’s experience bears out. “If they’re under 18, they can be sent to a juvenile detention centre. Often, what they most need is a friend, someone who won’t judge them. Most of them know about HIV, but they don’t think about other sexually transmitted diseases.”
In the evenings, Nathee walks the streets, distributing condoms, helping sex workers access health services – and trying to find them alternative employment.
Concrete action for change
UNICEF is working to prevent young people like Saeng from being forced into prostitution in the first place. We also work to ensure that governments meet their obligations to protect and care for sexually exploited children, including by ensuring access to health care services and information about HIV/AIDS.
Working with partners, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific has produced guidance for researchers (pdf) on how to obtain data about at-risk adolescents and young people, while guaranteeing their anonymity. “This is a hidden population,” says Ms. Prabhu. “The first step is getting reliable data about them. We are now working on a guidebook to help youth organizations use and understand data, in the style of a comic book.”
In 2014, UNICEF Thailand produced a report (pdf) on young people affected by HIV, which found that Thailand is facing a new rise in sexually transmitted infections, with 70 per cent of all cases occurring in the 15–24 age group. UNICEF has used these data to talk to the Government about reducing the age of consent for HIV tests to below 18, providing training for health workers on working with at-risk young people and expanding HIV education in schools. In December 2014, the official guidance on HIV tests in Thailand was changed in line with our recommendation.
A better life
For young people like Saeng, there are alternatives to selling sex. Two years ago, outreach workers from another NGO, Dton Naam (Source of Water), approached him while he was sleeping rough on the streets of Nana.
Dton Naam works with Thailand’s transgender community. Executive Director Celeste McGee explains that this group faces particular challenges. “Their options in life are very limited,” she says. “They can only do certain jobs, such as in the entertainment industry, and it’s easy for them to transition into prostitution. They can use the money for cosmetics, hormones and surgery, but it becomes a vicious circle, and they need to keep on selling sex to maintain their lifestyle.”
Thanks to Dton Naam’s work, Saeng is no longer on the streets. They helped him to reconcile with his parents and get medical treatment. They provided alternative employment, including working in a coffee shop, and making arts and crafts. Now, he visits the organization once a week for counselling and painting classes. He missed out on years of education – but it is a start.
“My parents treat me much better now,” Saeng says. “My mum doesn’t shout at me anymore. She’s much calmer and kinder. My father still doesn’t like my kathoey lifestyle, but he has accepted it.”
As far as Saeng’s plans for the future, “I would like to go back to school, and then work as a chef or an artist,” he says.
*Name has been changed.
**Saeng’s gender assignment at birth was male. Saeng’s gender identity and expression are not fixed, and he speaks using both male and female indicators. As interviews showed his self-identification, including language and choice of clothes, leaned more often towards male, masculine pronouns have been used through this article.
Andy Brown is Regional Communication Specialist for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.