In a large, brightly lit classroom at the Fountain of Life Women's Center in Pattaya, about 20 young women curl and style hair under an instructor's direction. Down the hall, about a dozen women practice techniques and pressure points in Thai massage. Upstairs, some women learn computer skills while others take English classes.
These are some of the 250 women who come daily to the center, run by the Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd Sisters, to gain skills they hope will give them an alternative to earning money in Thailand's sex tourism trade.
Many think helping women get out of lives of prostitution "means you rehabilitate them, take them out of the bar," said Sr. Michelle Lopez, founder of the Fountain of Life Women's Center, which takes its name from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:15 who asks Jesus to give her the life-giving water he describes. "After we worked with them, we realized you can't quite do that — it's just not possible."
"When we approach trafficking, we have to do so with a new vision," she said. "Our vision has been empowering women."
(GSR Video by Gail DeGeorge/Edited by George Goss)
The Good Shepherd Sisters have been in Pattaya since 1988, when a Redemptorist priest with the support of the then-bishop invited them to the notorious beachside resort to help women, often victims of trafficking, caught in prostitution. Lopez moved to Pattaya from the order's Fatima Centre in Bangkok, a program that encompasses women's empowerment, shelter, and skills training. For a year, she and a Buddhist nun assessed the needs of the community and in 1989 opened the Fountain of Life Women's Center in a former restaurant and bar donated to the Redemptorists in the heart of the sex-trade section of Pattaya.
"I said, 'This is where we should be — among the people,' " said Lopez, who is from Malaysia but has served most of her life in Thailand. She is now developing a second Fountain of Life Center in Cambodia.
She said the center's approach "is not to judge, but to listen. Our center gives them love, and they are the ones to choose. We help them to help themselves."
Four Good Shepherd Sisters run the center in Pattaya, which now operates a couple of miles from the original location in a well-designed complex with classrooms, counseling space and even a small greenhouse garden. A separate Children's Center nearby cares for 140 children, about half of whom belong to the women at the center. The rest are from economically disadvantaged families in the area.
Courses are free, though those who can afford to pay donate money to the center. The women pay for work uniforms and supplies, with scholarships available to those who need them.
The hairdressing courses can take four months to a year to complete. The Thai massage classes usually require about three months to complete and prepare for certification. Others learn jewelry-making or take sewing, typing or computer classes, which Sr. Piyachat Boonmul, the center's director, said will enable some women to work as cashiers in bars rather than as sex workers.
Volunteers, usually from Germany or Denmark, teach different levels of English classes so the women can work in reputable hotels and in other tourist industries.
"You see how the women change and that you make a difference in their lives," said Svenja Eberlein from Stuttgart, a volunteer through the Union of German Catholic Youth.
To keep their own spiritual energy strong, the sisters are up at 4:30 a.m. for an hour of meditation, then they meet for prayer and Mass. They and the staff and volunteers meet at 8 a.m. for spiritual reading, reflection and sharing. Most of the staff is not Catholic, so the readings draw not only from the Gospels, but also from Buddhist and other sources.
Boonmul said that time of sharing is important to keep them bonded and prepared for the draining stories they hear: "I could not do this work without God's help and community support."
Boonmul offers counseling to the center's students on an individual and group basis. She shows them drawings of women in various situations, images that evoke discussion and sharing. One illustration shows a woman seated on a bed with money floating down from above.
"They throw the money to me like I have no dignity," one woman told her during a counseling session. "I have dignity."
Boonmul reminds staff and volunteers that their faces and eyes must show compassion.
"Our center has to be friendly, like a family, and create trust," she said.
Some trafficking victims share their stories at the group meetings. Boonmul told the story of one Thai woman who was taken to Bahrain and kept as a sex slave for months until she gained enough of her captor's trust that he let her go out to get food. Once free, she got a ride to the Thailand embassy, and when she returned home, she came to the Fountain of Life Women's Center for counseling and healing, and shared her story, Boonmul said.
There are success stories. Boonmul told of a woman who completed the hairdressing course who opened her own shop near the bars. The woman has brochures for the center at her shop and tells clients to "go to the women's center and get a new life."
Another woman opened her own Thai massage business and told Boonmul she can earn 400 baht a day, which is enough to support herself.
The sisters rely on word-of-mouth to encourage women to come to the center. And a few times a month, Boonmul and Sr. Apinya Sornjan swap the blue skirts and blouses of their habits for black slacks and white tops and go out into the streets along the bar scene of Pattaya. Sometimes they accompany visitors to see the sex trade that is part of the city's tourism industry; other times, they try to spot women who may be receptive to the center's programs and a chance to change their lives.
One night along the beach, Boonmul spotted a familiar face among the women dressed in scanty clothes waiting for customers. Sunista, whose round face and smooth skin belie her 33 years, greeted Boonmul and Sornjan with a smile. They laughed and chatted, catching up on the period since Sunista had been at the center to learn Thai massage.
But she can earn more on the street, she said, explaining that she does this type of work to support her 13-year-old daughter living with her mother, who has a heart condition, in a rural province in the north of Thailand. Sunista's hope is to save enough money to finish building a house and give her daughter an education.
"I don't want my daughter to go into this work," she said.
The sisters gave her a hug and invited her to stay in contact.
"I will come back to center sometime," Sunista told them.
Boonmul said it is disappointing that one of their students is back on the street. But she and the other sisters never give up, she said.
"For us, it isn't about the numbers," she said. "If we help one life, then it is worth it."
[Gail DeGeorge is editor of Global Sisters Report. Her email address is email@example.com. Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]