Daughters for Sale

May 28, 2011

Family pressures in Lao exacerbate trafficking.

890 Returning to the village can be tough. Photo: IRINTrafficked girls have few prospects upon their return home and often the family pushes them back into leaving, warn aid workers.

"We have to consider that often someone in the village convinces them to leave and sometimes it's one member of the family. So the risk is that when they go back home they end up going back to Thailand again," Isabella Tornaghi, empowerment and protection officer for the French NGO, Action for Women in Distress (AFESIP), told IRIN.

According to statistics from the International Organization for Migration, 145 human trafficking survivors were returned to Laos in 2010. The majority returned from Thailand and 119 of those were younger than 18.

The country is a source, and to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for women and girls who are subjected to trafficking, specifically forced prostitution, the US State Department's 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report stated.

Tet* was 14 when she was promised a job in a Thai restaurant. "My friend said we should go but when we got there they took us to a factory to make gloves," she said.

For the next two years Tet was forced to work in dire conditions. "If I failed to reach the day's production quota I would receive no food or drink and was sometimes beaten."

Unable to escape, it was only until another girl managed to run away that the authorities were informed.

After 12 months at a transit centre in Thailand, waiting for the judicial process to be completed, Tet returned to Laos.

Under a 2005 Memorandum of Understanding between the Thai and Lao governments, trafficking survivors are repatriated and housed in a government-run transit centre in the Lao capital, Vientiane, for up to seven days before returning to their communities.

At this point, NGOs such as AFESIP get involved to try to help the most vulnerable and offer rehabilitation.

"In our shelter we give medical, psychological and legal support to the girls. They have the possibility to choose some vocational training and we give some computer skills," said Tornaghi.

AFESIP provides support to families while the girls are in the shelter, including supplying food and water and contributing to house repairs when necessary.

"It's to avoid any pressure on the girl, who is expected to be working," the aid worker said.

Tet spent six months in the AFESIP shelter and learnt to sew. But on her return to her village in southern Laos, the problems began.

"I fulfilled my dream of opening a small sewing shop but after three months there were no customers because people bought ready-made clothes."

Xoukiet Panaya, the Laos coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP), sees this as a pivotal moment in the reintegration process.

"After vocational training they might not be able to do what they wanted to and/or they could not manage their business. Sometimes they go back to Thailand and are re-victimized," she said.

According to Keomany Soudthichak from the NGO Village Focus International (VFI), some families rely on income from their children, which is often more lucrative when trafficked than what they can earn in their community.

"She goes back home, opens a shop and the money from the business is not enough for the family. Everything that the family uses has to come from the money that she makes," she said.

But Tet's problems were not just confined to money. On return to her community she also faced possible stigmatization. "I met with my friends... they saw that other people were not talking to me so they thought I wasn't a good person," she said.

Such social stigma, according to Tornaghi, can also push women back again.

"But it is a result of a lack of knowledge, people just don't have information about human trafficking and how traumatic it can be for the victim," she said.

And while NGOs such as AFESIP, Village Focus International and World Vision are making inroads in creating a conducive reintegration environment for survivors and their families, the time spent apart can sometimes be too much.

"If they've been trafficked for a long time, of course they change. When she gets back she's not the same person. That's a hard thing for the family to accept and for her to accept the family," Soudthichak explained.

*Not her real name


This article was first published in IRIN.