Thursday, 3 April 2008

A NightLight for Bangkok's sex slave women

Julie Ascosi

She was a 12-year-old Cambodian prostitute in Bangkok. While others her age may be selling flowers or shining shoes to make money, she was "going with the men". But she was not alone.

American missionary Annie Dieselberg discovered there were four girls, ages 9-12 who were in the sex trade and eventually there was a bust. The girls were sent back to Cambodia. But within a few months they were back at the bars. All but one. The fourth girl was gang-raped at the border and disappeared. Within a short time, two more girls disappeared and were under the care of a Danish man somewhere in Bangkok.

"Those events gave me a vision to start a children's center," Dieselberg said. Dieselberg hoped to start a ministry that would be a light in the midst of the dark reality of sex tourism in Bangkok.

About 12,000 children per year are trafficked for sexual exploitation in South East Asia, mostly to Thailand according to research by the International Labor Organization (ILO). But children are not the only ones being exploited.

"[I discovered] that there were large numbers of women trafficked from Eastern Europe and Central Asia in this other area of town," Dieselberg said. "Their issues were not being addressed either and I began to pray for opportunities to help them."

Dieselberg and her husband had worked in various ministries in Thailand for years, reaching out to prostitutes, but Dieselberg felt called to something more.

"I was bursting with vision but there was no room for it in the other ministry. That ministry was well established and I finally realized that God did not want me to stay in that setting but to take the vision He had given me and begin a new work," Dieselberg said.

Dieselberg left her ministry and spent a couple months in prayer and fasting.

"At the end of that time, I came together with four other women who were seeking ways to minister with women in prostitution," Dieselberg said. These women had been part-time volunteers with another organization but had left, hoping to start something new and soon embraced Dieselberg's idea to light the way for the prostitutes.

In the West a nightlight gives comfort to children and lights the way to safety. Acting on her vision and playing off of this imagery, Dieselberg established NightLight in 2005 in Bangkok, Thailand. NightLight doubles as a business and ministry. Specifically the ministry reaches out to women and children working in the bar areas of Nana/Sukhumvit. While most organizations for prostitutes focus on vocational training and discipleship, NightLight is unique as a for-profit ministry that reaches both women and children in prostitution and trafficking regardless of their ethnicity or place of origin.

"We believe that the women most urgently need a decent job," Dieselberg said.

As a registered Thai business, NightLight makes a profit by selling the jewelry that the Thai women have been taught to design and make. They sell the jewelry online at and through a network of churches throughout Thailand and the U.S. By providing the women with a job complete with good wages and benefits and providing assistance to children, NightLight helps them stay out of prostitution and move forward.

But NightLight is much more than just a business.

"Deep down, we believe that they have other more significant needs…Our program includes then the other areas which they need healing and restoration such as spiritual, family, wounds, physical, education, training, and financial," Dieselberg said.

There are eight paid staff, six of whom are Thais, and more are being added to their number. In addition to the eight are about twelve more staff who establish trusting relationships with the women and children in the bar areas in order to provide them with alternatives and assistance.

In Thailand, trafficking is a 500 billion baht (U.S. $15.3 billion) annual business, which is 50%- 60% of the government's annual budget and more lucrative than the drug trade according to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. In addition, a study published by the ILO, says that the sex industry accounts for between 2% and 14% of the countries' gross domestic product. It is no wonder that the authorities are hesitant to get involved in stopping such a lucrative business.

In addition, alleged corruption and apathy among police can be disheartening to those trying to help especially in emergency situations.

"One time, I witnessed a woman being held at knifepoint by a man. She was crying and resisting. As she was across the street, I looked around for assistance. Behind us was a [man] who was watching but not doing a thing. I asked him if he was going to do anything to help her and he said, 'It's just his girl.'" Dieselberg said. "I laid into him but he was nonplussed and just walked away. The woman was dragged into a car and driven off."

Despite attempts at befriending various cops who often attend the bars, situations such as these have taught Dieselberg and her staff to rely on reputable links who know who to best turn to for help.

Part II "But the darkness has not overcome it" will be featured in next week's issue.

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