SHE Thailand is a non-profit helps women working as bargirls or sex workers in Phuket’s bars and clubs.
On my transfer flight from Bangkok to Phuket, I, in one of those sleep-deprived deliriums, asked myself what sorts of trouble and adventures I would be getting myself into this time. I was traveling alone and only knew one person in the entire country. My little game of “worst-scenario possible” ended when my two neighbors noticed and laughed at me, drifting in and out of sleep, and told me to keep awake for the landing because the descent was not to be missed. Phuket, for them, was their veteran vacation spot, and they said that watching the plane land was one of their favorite parts. As I took their advice and stared out my window, I understood why this province and city continues to attract scores of tourists each year: it is gorgeous. Nonetheless, I knew that its natural beauty aside, something else rather disturbing also attracts tourists to Phuket: its sex industry. Those four days I spent in Phuket, I did not get myself into trouble but I did get a glimpse of a non-profit organization that dared to stir trouble in the streets of Phuket.
My friend, Rory, was busy the night I was due to arrive. As a result, I arranged for a young Thai woman named Rina to drop me off at the SHE Thailand house. Rina was a taxi driver and spoke little English but we managed to converse through simple sentences. When I asked how she knew Rory, she explained that it was through SHE. From there, I started to see the scope of this non-profit and the impact it made on women’s lives.
SHE Thailand is a non-profit started by a justice-loving English couple to extend a hand to women working as bargirls or sex workers in Phuket’s bars and clubs. SHE was my residence for the time being, so I was able to learn a little more about the organization and its Spring 2012 team. SHE stands for “self-help and empowerment,” which describes their core mission and its approach in reaching out to sex workers. I am a firm believer in two kinds of change: change that comes from within, and change created in a grassroots manner as opposed to force and implementation by outsiders. Needless to say, I was moved by the goals of this organization. Moreover, SHE continued to surprise me and debunk my preconceived notions and concerns in regards to the organization’s affiliation to an established religion. I had cringed at the thought of SHE teammates trying to evangelize at bars, which I considered ineffective and impersonal for both evangelistic causes and for women in the sex trade. However, I was proven wrong when I bonded with SHE teammates through meals and daytime outings. I witness the high level of anxiety they experienced to hear from the women they met the night before and how eager they were to set up meetings, or “dates” as they called them, with new acquaintances. I saw how hurt SHE individuals became when they recounted seeing their new friends walking off in other men’s arms. I realized that SHE teammates were not missionaries, attempting to place religion onto women. But they were merely building meaningful relationships with them; to establish rapport and give them hope as well as options of a better life. When I understood that someone genuinely cares for another’s wellbeing, regardless of differences and barriers, my soul stirs.
Besides jewelry-making, baking cookies, English teaching, skill training, and other services that SHE offers, I asked Rory (who had previously worked there,) what she would want people to know about SHE. She indicated her support for the non-profit’s cultivation on “sustainable jobs that are accessible for women” and that SHE is an investment that combined with love and prayer. It could bring change to an issue as crucial as commercial sex trade. Rory continued to say, it is important for us, as outsiders, to not view victims as projects but as people – women just like Rory and I, with the same goals and dreams in life. In order to impact change, we have to start seeing similarities we share as humans instead of allowing the differences to drive us apart. That, says Rory, and believing that we can make a difference, is the ultimate formula for change.
On the night of my arrival, no one was home except for Summer, a SHE teammate praying at home while the other teammates were helping victims at bars. She led me on a tour of the three-storied house and stopped at a room with a map of Phuket’s bar streets spread across the wall. She explained that one particular area was filled with 200 bars. One could imagine the number of bargirls surrounding those 200 bars. SHE is comprised of 10-20 people throughout the year, depending on the fluctuation of volunteer applications. Nonetheless, it’s organization focuses small-scale change to overthrow an unjust large-scale system. I finally understood: humility, patience, and ambition, mixed with a whole lot of love, is certainly something our world needs more of.
*All names in this article were changed to maintain individuals’ privacy.
Articles & photos by Cherrie Chen.