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Insights from launching a social enterprise with sex trade workers in Bangkok

The BlindProject (www.theblindproject.com) helps former sex workers in Southeast Asia build skills and find new employment opportunities. In case it's helpful to others, I thought I’d share notes from a conversation with a friend who helped TBP launch a social enterprise.

Photo of Jason Rissman
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Background
TBP came to life about 5 years ago when three friends were inspired by the book Terrify No More by International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen. Their first goal was to raise awareness about human trafficking and the sex trade in Southeast Asia. After traveling to Thailand and filming a documentary, the founders soon realized that they could enable others to get involved by organizing service trips. Soon they were taking their friends and other volunteers to Thailand to offer basic services like optometry, hair and makeup to former sex workers.

To expand their impact further TBP began a social enterprise called Biographé that offers marketable skills and work to women in Bangkok. TBP engaged fashion designers in the US to design t-shirts, developed an e-commerce website, and set up a silk screening facility in Bangkok. Through Night Light, a local partner in Bagkok, Biographé offers women training in fashion design and production, and it employs them in a positive work environment.

My friend spent 6 weeks in Bangkok between to help set up Biographé. Here are some insights from his experience that he shared with me:

Poverty, lack of information and migration as root causes.
“I was surprised that poverty and lack of information was what forced many women into sex work, rather than human trafficking. Their entire social circle was in the same situation, and they just didn’t know what other opportunities they might have.

All of the women were from rural areas and moved to Bangkok. Our team couldn’t find organizations that shared information with rural communities and educated women about good and bad opportunities. Organizations that go to rural communities to share information (almost like colleges send recruiters out) would make a huge difference. A welcome center in the city wouldn’t be as effective. Once people arrive it’s often too late as they’ve already chosen sex work as their way to make a living.”

Mobile phones but not the Internet.
“All of the women I worked with had feature phones and used SMS. They didn’t have smartphones and they were not familiar with sitting at a computer or using the Internet.”

No solution is for everyone.
“One thing that was surprising was the range of response that we heard. Some women were so grateful for the opportunity we were offering they literally thanked us in tears. Others, really didn’t seem to care much.”

Communication and business practices are not universal.
“Our fabric suppliers would not tell us directly if there was a delay. They’d say everything was on schedule just to appease us, but they’d often not be telling the truth.”

Infrastructure is a real hurdle.
“Setting up a business in another country brings unexpected challenges. The logistical and infrastructure challenges were much more difficult than we expecting. For instance, we spent a to of time getting power set up in the building and never expected how hard that would be.“

Appreciate the difference you’re making.
“I learned to understand that if you make a difference in a single person’s life it really matters. The volunteers with a grandiose vision of having a massive impact quickly were quickly deflated.”

Patience.
“Funders want fast growth, but doing things well takes time.”

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Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Hi Jason, thanks for sharing this interview.
A lot of great insights.
I think your friend makes an important point about prevention and how it is key.
I remembered attending a session organized by an organization working in Singapore to prevent sex work for young girls from Malaysia (in particular). The presenter explained that in most cases, when they arrived in the city, these young girls had no connection, needed money and ended up involved in prostitution. Whether they wanted to live or not, it was too late. Moreover, those who would have wanted to quit did not dare because they were ashamed to go back.

Regarding his comment about the reaction to their work, it reminds me an interview I did with a friend - http://www.openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/learning-from-an-expert-in-the-field - who explained how when she was working with young girls in the Philippines: many of them did not see her as helpful as she was offering them to take classes to learn a job (hairdresser, sewer) with which they will earn much less.

What I got from this interview, the workshop I attended in Singapore and long conversations with a friend who was volunteering in associations against sex traffic in Asia, is that the underlying problem is that there is often no other option for these young girls (and their families when they are involved in the process). There is a need to educate but also to create other jobs of opportunity.

Interesting point about text messaging. It reminds me Meena's post:http://www.openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/insights-on-mobile-phone-usage-in-india

Photo of Jason Rissman

Thanks Anne-Laure....

I completely agree: creating other jobs needs to be part of the solution too! I had asked my friend if other good opportunities for employment exist for girls arriving in from rural areas in Thailand. He seemed to think so, but didn't have data or know about their relative pay. If working in the sex trade seems attractive because the pay is better than other options, maybe more information about the potential costs and risks would be helpful to girls?

I remember your interview - its part of what inspired me to reach out to my friend! :)

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Glad Jason that my interview inspired you to inspire your friend. :-)

Interesting point about the economic aspect of it. Indeed showing the potential costs and risks is important. It is also important to create job opportunities like some of these organizations provide and maybe make sure that young girls arriving from rural areas are able to learn about these opportunities. I'm not an expert but it seems from what I've heard that there are not always many job opportunities (I remember talking with a friend who was an economist teaching a course on developing countries and he insisted on the fact that in many cases, sex commerce, children labor, were related to the lack of opportunities and financial resources), or that they are not aware of them.

Reading Markus's interview with Lashonia and her description of how she ended up spending 1/2 of her life in prison made me feel that similar reasons could lead young girls to prostitution:
http://www.openideo.com/challenge/womens-safety/research/women-flourish-in-relationships-interview-with-lashonia-etheridge-bey

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