For hours on end, you can find young boys crowded around sleek, flat-screen monitors in Thailand’s ubiquitous game parlors. Around the Kampang Ngam slum area in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, these stores are often filled with children from the slums. The brightly lit and often air-conditioned rooms are a huge contrast to their cramped houses. But the game parlors’ easy access and low cost have created a dangerous problem.
At all hours of the day or night, young boys, some as young as 6 years old, will exchange their lunch money for time in front of a computer at the cost of only 25 cents an hour. Captivated by the online games, they are not unlike addicts. They are unable and unwilling to cut the ties to the only escape they have from their challenging lives in the slums.
But the game parlors hide a sinister and dangerous secret. These always-open, unsupervised establishments full of impoverished children make prime target areas for recruiters looking to pull boys and young men into the sex trade.
How Children Become Part of the Sex Trade in Thailand
Wanchai Wankasamsan is the director of a Compassion-assisted child development center at the Chiang Mai Acts of Grace church. He has been working with families in the Kampang Ngam slum for more than five years. When he started, children as young as 10 were often approached in these game parlors by their peers or older children who are already actively selling their bodies to foreign tourists. The impoverished children are enticed by the lure of easy money and accommodations much nicer than their own homes.
“The older boys recruit younger ones from these game parlors. They are all paid by foreign tourists. The foreigners often then take the boys to nearby hotels,” Wanchai says. “Sometimes the foreigner will become attached to a particular boy, calling him his boyfriend, and sending money from the foreign country to this boy.”
But how does it get to that point? Where are the parents? Wanchai answers with a heavy sigh, “The problems begin at home.”
Why It’s Difficult for Parents to Prevent
“Their parents work in the night markets,” he explains, referring to the many late-night, open-air markets often aimed at tourists. Residents of the city’s slums peddle handicrafts and cheap plastic toys in these markets at night, dressed in their traditional clothes to draw attention.
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“The parents don’t have time to watch the children at night. The children will run off to the game parlors, sometimes spending days there.”
When asked about where the young boys get the money to sustain that lifestyle, Wanchai explains how they pool their allowances. “The parents give each child as much as they can afford, on average about 80 cents a day for lunch at school. The children might spend a small amount of that on food. Then they use the rest in the game parlors.”
Most of the parents are illiterate and don’t understand the dangers their children face. They think their children are learning computer skills. They do not realize the children are becoming hooked on online games or looking at inappropriate material. Parents also think the gaming parlors are a better alternative to their kids being on the street — joining gangs or getting addicted to methamphetamines.
Without a clear understanding of the dangers that their children face, parents were often at a loss when they learned their children had entered the sex trade. To Wanchai, seeing the children in that lifestyle was indescribably sad. With tears in his eyes, Wanchai says, “And once he’s in there, it’s almost impossible for us to bring a young boy out of it.”
The Dire Consequences of Entrapment
The access to quick money and the culture surrounding the lifestyle are like drugs themselves, holding the young boys in their grasp until it’s too late. HIV/AIDS and a host of sexually transmitted diseases inundate Thailand’s sex trade, affecting both males and females. Entrapment in the sex trade hurts every other aspect of their lives, including family ties, education and mental health. Often, it leads to death.
“But we don’t wait for them to get to that point,” Wanchai says. “We want to get to them before they’ve entered the sex trade or are addicted to computer games. We have to pull them into our community.”
One Church’s Mission to Fight Back
The struggle to get these rowdy young boys into a church or Sunday school class is understandably difficult. Having grown up with almost no adult supervision, the thought of sitting still and listening to stories is more or less a dream. “We tried that,” says Wanchai, “But it didn’t work. After a while, the boys just didn’t want to come at all to the church.”
That’s when they changed their strategy. In 2013, the church started a soccer ministry to the vulnerable children. All the children in the slum were invited to join a team of children from the church and learn to play soccer. The opportunity to be coached by a real soccer coach, a volunteering member of the church, was also a big draw.
The program grew quickly but so did the costs. There were needs for uniforms, shoes, sports equipment and renting the field.
But at this time, Compassion began to partner with the Acts of Grace Church to join in its mission to help children in poverty and rescue these boys from the sex trade in Thailand. Through Compassion’s partnership, they were able to hire a coach and purchase equipment and clothing for the children.
“After we joined with Compassion, we were able to increase our reach to 30 children and counting!” says Wanchai.
Why the Soccer Strategy Works
Almost every young boy in the slum is now enrolled in their soccer program. These boys are not only given a sports alternative to the dangerous gaming parlors but are taught in so many other ways. Children who had no good male role models to look up to, often suffering abuse from their own fathers, now look up to the coach and trainers from the church as examples to follow. The men leading the program are not only church members, but also compassionate, skilled coaches and trainers who have a heart for raising these children.
One of these men is Phithack Phaodee, the head coach of the program. He has used his personal connections to occasionally let the boys practice on a professional practice field at a local soccer club. His fun, but firm, practice sessions are orderly and disciplined. It’s clear that the boys look up to him with respect.
Parents Join the Battle
“Parents have told me,” said Wanchai, “that in the past, when they had to go work, the children would go missing all night. Now, because they’re so tired from the soccer practice, they sleep instead! So the children stay home and are well rested for school the next morning. They are very happy about that!”
In fact, when heavy rains made their home field muddy and unplayable, the parents themselves pitched in with the cost for the boys to practice on an artificial grass field so they could be ready for an upcoming tournament.
Winning the Good Fight
The benefits of the program are undeniably obvious. To date, not a single boy who has enrolled in the Acts of Grace Church soccer program has later entered the sex trade. Wanchai calls it “automatic protection.” Simply registering a child with Compassion and entering him into the program keeps him out of the hands of recruiters. What’s more, according to Wanchai, “Already, two or three children have come to believe in Jesus through this program!”
Children are staying home at night, sleeping well, eating better and have good male role models in their lives. The church is now expanding their ministry by creating a volleyball team for girls to protect them from the sex trade recruiters.
And what of the recruiters? Wanchai hasn’t seen them coming around the slum at all this year. “Apparently, the boys are too busy with soccer,” he says. After cutting off the supply, recruiters have stopped coming to the Kampang Ngam area, and a vicious cycle of entrapment is being stopped.
Our mission of rescuing children from poverty in Jesus’ name is often served best by prevention.
In this case, preventive actions by the church in a dark and dangerous world have kept many children out of a life of sadness and death. After trading late-night game parlors for sunshine on a soccer field, children are seeing hope for the first time. As they continue through the Child Sponsorship Program, they will learn to achieve goals beyond the soccer field — goals that will lead to a life rescued from poverty.