A Marriage Made In Heaven
a Kim-Gooi.com Exclusive, 2010
Author’s note: In May 1999 Time photographer Peter Charlesworth and I were sent to cover this special story for Life Magazine. I also took some pictures for my own collection. For some reason the story was shelved. This is the original version of the story.
The New Life Center (NLC) in Chiang Mai is probably the biggest and most successful rehabilitation center for child prostitutes in the world. It opened in 1987 with 18 girls, one house and a staff of five. Today there are over 200 girls in four houses, 23 staff and a school in Chiang Rai with 100 odd girls. Though not widely known, it is credited to be the first organization to initiate the rescue of child prostitutes. It also has the best rehabilitation program in Thailand.
Recalling the early days, Rev Lauran Bethell the first director of the center said: “It wasn’t long after we opened tribal parents started coming to Elaine and Paul Lewis, the founders of the center and asked them to rescue their 12, 13-year-old daughters who were tricked and sold into prostitution.”
“The pimps would tell their parents that they could get a job for the girls in the town and end up selling the girls to the brothels,” she said.
“They have been tricked, sold, put in brothels where they are locked up against their will. They were raped, five, twenty times a day,” the Reverend added.
“When they come to us, certainly at first they were withdrawn, they were very distrusting of what is going on but within several months there is a healing process. And they end up leading very normal lives. They will get an education, get married and have children. They are very well adjusted people. All without the kind of intervention techniques we felt are necessary in the West in order for that kind of transition to happen.”
“The success rate is remarkable. None of the girls has reverted to prostitution if they had been there over a year”, she said. “Quite honestly I need someone to come and do a Ph.D thesis on why we do not see aberrant behaviors with the girls,” the Reverend enthused.
A Marriage Made in Heaven!
The tribal people in northern Thailand are marginalized and most exploited in the country. Many of the parents are drug addicts. They will do anything to support their habits, even selling their daughters. Often sending their daughters to work and not knowing what they do and sacrificing them for their drug habit.
Because of their simplicity and trustworthiness they are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous pimps who trick, cheat and even kidnap their daughters and sell them to brothels. Many people are dying of aids in the hills. “We have parents dying of aids. We have HIV positive girls. We don’t know what is the percentage now, but 8 or 9 years ago the rate of HIV infection among the prostitutes was 70 to 80 percent.
“In those days we get girls rescued from brothels but very few now because the brothels are hidden or gone underground and the police are not rescuing child prostitutes like they used to do before,” Lauran said sadly.
“The mere fact that the brothels are driven underground, disguised as karaoke joints, bars and restaurants and the child prostitutes are hidden way, makes the situation worse and dangerous for the girls. They are hidden away and nobody is rescuing them,” she added.
“The government has made a 180 degree about turn from declaring eradication of child prostitutes as the cornerstone of their national policy in 1994 to non-cooperation with NGOs bent on rescuing child prostitutes,” said an official of the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights in Bangkok.
One of the luckiest is Mei Muilay, 21, an Akha girl sold into prostitution at the age of 10. She came out of a hell-hole, rehabilitated, got an education, got married and is now counseling others. This is her story.
“I really don’t know where is my home and I cannot remember my father and mother. When I was very young my father died and my mother remarried. I lived with her and my stepfather until I was six when my mother also died. After that my stepfather sent me to live with many people, shifting me from one place to another, always working and working, washing dishes, taking care of children and various other things. My stepfather smoked opium.
“One day when I was 10 years old my stepfather sold me to a woman who brought me down to Bangkok and sold me to a brothel. I was very scared. I was very small and thin at that time and I told them I was 8 years old. I lied so that they would not make me work as a prostitute. A woman who worked there wanted me to service the men anyway; when I refused they beat me. They finally agreed not to let me sleep with the men because I was so small. But later I was beaten again. While I lived in the brothel I took care of the owner’s children.”
“After three months there was a police raid and I was rescued together with many other girls. I told the police I do not know where is home and they brought me to the Center for the Protection of Children’s Rights (CPCR) in Bangkok where I stayed for one year. Eventually I was brought up to New Life Center in Chiang Mai. I was about twelve.
“The people who brought me to NLC told me they were bringing me to a place where I would be able to study and also would learn how to do handicraft. When I got there, I realized that was very much the case. I also feel there is a lot of warmth that people show to me. When I was in the brothel, there were many times when I considered suicide. But I don’t think about that anymore.”
“I have been in NLC for more than 7 years. I know people want to help me, who will take care of me and who love me very much. I do not have a home. I grew up without a father and hardly knowing my mother.”
“Reverend Lauran is more than a mother. She is both a mother and father to me. She taught me how to read and write by sending me to school and also taught me about God, and showed me there are good people in the world. My life has been changed from a hell-hole to a completely new world.
“In 1998 I enrolled in the Bible College in Payao (south of Chiang Mai). I want to teach people about God and help people in trouble because I have been through all these sufferings.” At the Bible College, Mei met her future husband, an ex-heroin addict and they got married on May 29, 1999.
Recalling the landmark event of her life, Mei said: “At first I took no notice of him because there was nothing about him that attracted me. There were many students who had problems and I was very sympathetic to them because of what I had gone through. I found myself together with him counselling and helping the other students. We were the only two people among all the students with the heart to help others. I began to notice that he is very kind and has a lot of concern and patience for others. This was what attracted me to him and we began to be friends.”
“During the last school vacation he wrote to me and expressed his interest in me. We corresponded and soon he wrote to propose to me and I said, ‘Yes’! “
The young groom, Nopadol Prukpanasan, 21, was a heroin addict for four years. He came from a well-to-do Chinese family in Bangkok. He said that he went to the Presbyterian Rehabilitation Center near Chiang Mai to cure his drug addiction. While there he also learned about Christianity and Jesus Christ, he said.
“On Christmas Day 1996 I became a Christian when I was fully cured and went on to enroll at the Bible College to further my studies,” he said cheerfully. That’s where he met Mei, his future wife, he added.
“Mei told me about her past, how she was sold into prostitution at the age of ten. I understand fully the suffering she had gone through. I pray for her all the time and give her support. I told her don’t think of the past anymore. Now we are starting a new life, God has plan for us.”
The young couple is now working at the Drug Rehabilitation Center and plan to further their studies on social works to help others.
The better part of Chiang Mai’s missionary community and 300 odd tribal girls gathered at NLC’s spacious compound to witness and celebrate the memorable wedding. I doubt Hollywood could come out with a better script for a ‘Love Story’!