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A vote against sexual exploitation

March 9th, 2021

In 2018 photographer Marieke van der Velden visited two shelters supported by Down to Zero in Thailand. She portrayed teenagers and listened to their stories about what it means to be able to work towards a new future with support. Yo was one of the youngsters, who has now visited again more than two years later.

In 2018 we visited one of the shelters where Down to Zero works in Thailand with photographer Marieke van der Velden. After three years we go back to see how some of the young people are doing now. Yo, a 19-year-old transgender, roamed the streets of the Thai capital Bangkok as a child. Like many other homeless minors, she tried to survive from day to day in a hopeless situation.

From the ages of six to eleven, Yo sold, as her nickname is, "malai", colorful garlands of marigolds and jasmine, which are visible all over Thailand as a symbol of prosperity and respect. They hang from rear-view mirrors in cars, boats, altars, shops, companies and are also used in ceremonies.

Yo made "malai" from fresh flowers every day. She was sent off at busy traffic lights to sell it. With her flower creations swinging from a wooden stick, she walked through the waiting cars, hoping to get rid of her wares as quickly as possible. Her mother did not allow her to return until she sold fifty flower garlands. This usually took five hours on weekdays, but often longer on weekends. It was dangerous work. She was regularly hit by a passing car. The flowers then flew around. She then had to pick them up, clean them, and start over.

When she was eleven she had had enough. She was allowed to live with an elderly woman in need, but she forced her to beg. "I wanted to play and spend time with my friends."

She walked away and was forced to return to the street. In a park in central Bangkok, Yo met a man who said he would help her. He took her to his house. But instead of the promised help, she was raped and abused for extended periods of time, with the abuser giving her money in return.

A year later, the police arrested her. “I went out with a friend to pick up drugs. On the way back, the police stopped us. I hadn't bought or traded the stuff. My friend pretended not to know about drugs. It was hidden under the seat of his scooter. I was on top of it and was taken to the police station in handcuffs. I begged the officers to let us go. But they said the amount was too big. I was forced to confess the drug possession. ”

Fortunately, Yo was released because The Hub, a shelter in the area, paid her bail. The employees took care of the teenager. "Without them I would still be in prison today."

Through The Hub, Yo first had the opportunity to build something up in her life. “I already knew the shelter. One of my friends who stayed here before had told me about it. I was a child and was living recklessly at the time. I never thought about my future ”, she says in the shelter, which is located in Chinatown.

The Hub is located in a sun-drenched street lined with traditional shophouses, once the Thai center of the Chinese spice trade. Nowadays it is a lively area with cafes and galleries where hip young people from the wealthy middle class like to spend their time. There is still the smell of some of the herb stores that have been left behind.

A little further down the road is Hua Lampong train station, where Yo once took refuge with other homeless children who had run away or lost their families. As night fell, the streets around the station turned into a grim world where danger was always lurking.

According to Ilya Smirnoff, the shelter's director, domestic violence is one of the main reasons why children in Thailand run away from home. The majority fall prey to people who exploit them sexually and other perpetrators of violence. “Children keep running away from families where violence is the main form of communication. This only increases during a crisis, and especially in the dire economic situation caused by the Covid pandemic, ”said Smirnoff.

It is estimated that thousands of children live on the streets in Bangkok. The majority are at risk of, or already were, victims of violence or sexual exploitation. “We must continue to tackle this problem so that we can indeed reduce the number to zero. Down to zero. ”

When Yo was still roaming the streets, the first thing she did when she woke up was find something to eat. “I went to a place where they gave me a free meal. Then I got on the train with my friends that took us out of town. Just for fun. Sometimes I slept at a station in the province.”

Yo was twelve years old when she found a safe haven at The Hub. “It feels like my second home. The employees are like a mother to me. They take care of me and teach me what is right and what is not right to do. They also help me plan my future. ”

Thanks to the daycare, Yo was able to finish primary school. She is now attending evening classes and works in the kitchen of an eatery. “I earn my own money. That makes me feel very good. I want to save money to open my own restaurant. The Covid pandemic has had a major impact on my life. I was unable to work for a few months and had no place to live, because we were not allowed to stay in the shelter due to government regulations. I couldn't go to school either, but I really want to continue studying. ”

An education enables her to fulfill the dreams she had as a child. Yo always dreamed of becoming a hairdresser. “A friend had always braided her hair very nicely and I wanted to learn that too. I watched her do that and then tried it myself. I kept practicing until I got good at it. I think I could also earn good money as a hairstylist. I loved make-up, hair and care products since I was a kid. ”

Yo is optimistic about her future. “There is order in my life now. I have been very lucky. The shelter has given me everything I need. Food, shelter, medical assistance, work and education. I can express my frustrations with them. I can say anything on my mind. They taught me to become part of society again.”

Down To Zero

Worldwide, two million children are victims of sexual exploitation. In an alliance called "Down to Zero", Terre des Hommes, Plan International Netherlands, Defense for Children - ECPAT, Free a Girl and ICCO (Part of Cordaid) are working together to eradicate sexual exploitation in ten countries in Asia and Latin America. The alliance empowers children and young people to stand up for their own rights, helps communities better protect their children, and influences policies, laws and regulations in the ten countries. The children's rights organizations also work together with the business community, for example in the tourism sector, to prevent sexual exploitation of children.
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