Diary of a sex slave

Saraichatt Jirapaet, left, leads a discussion on the issue of children in the sex trade.

Despite countless campaigns by tourism authorities to promote the county's countless cultural and natural attractions, Thailand remains known to many would-be visitors, particularly men, as a sex paradise, a place where girls - or boys - of any age can easily be found at prices often cheaper than a decent hotel room.

That sordid face of the Thai tourism industry is clearly documented in "Only 13", an English-language book penned by American language teachers Julia Manzanares and Derek Kent in 2006.

The true story of a 13-year-old prostitute called Lon, it has been translated into eight languages and has enjoyed considerable success, selling in excess of 80,000 copies.

Now translated into Thai by Nanmeebooks, its authors, as well as foundations involved in helping sex workers, are hoping that it will promote further discussion on human rights.

"Only 13" exposes one of the root problems in Thai society that sees young girls, often from poor rural areas in the Northeast, flee to Bangkok or Pattaya and be swallowed up by the sex tourist industry.

Lon, as the title implies, was just 13 when her childhood ended and she was forced out of her village after being blamed for her father's death.

She covers a multitude of topics in her book, among them how hard it is to gain back any notion of self-worth after working in the sex trade. She mentions sending money back to her mother, giving her wealth and "face" in her community, and paying for her sisters to attend school so they would not follow her into the sordid career.

A brief marriage to a foreigner at 18 ended in cruelty and she returned to her former hunting ground of Pattaya before moving to Sweden as a stripper. She now lives in England where she is undergoing therapy.

While the book attempts to address the patriarchal society, the lack of importance placed on education for girls and the economic inequalities that force so many youngsters into prostitution, it is important to realise that not all impoverished rural girls end up like Lon.

No one would deny that girls like the teenager still exist today but they are, as they have always been, very much part of the minority.

That said, it is also important to acknowledge Lon's heartbreaking biography. It is, as many critics have said, "a good read", and an accurate portrayal of the sex industry and human trafficking in Thailand.

"Lon was very insistent that she be allowed to tell her story," says Kent. "She is delighted that the book has been translated into Thai as she feels this might stop more young girls from following her into the industry.

The author, a University of California graduate, was an English instructor in the Middle East and Thailand for 15 years and now operates a multi-lingual publishing company. He also assists a support centre for disadvantaged young girls in Thailand.

"Lon never had an opportunity to be a young girl. By the age of 18, she had done pretty much everything including having an abortion. She would tell herself that she was a bad person for earning money through sex but at the same time that was doing the right thing to help her family. Now at 34 and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she is more mature but finds it hard to cope with her mood swings," he says.

Knowing Lon and her story has deeply affected Manzanares. "So many people, especially those living comfortable lives, don't want to know about stories like these. I've become emotionally involved and have been spending time in Nong Khai doing social and academic research on the issue," says the teacher trainer, who also earned her degrees in California.

Siriporn Skrobanek, chairperson of the Foundation of Women, says Lon's guilt complex is very common among sex workers.

"These people live a double life. Between 1987 and 1997, child prostitution and the sex trade was managed very systematically by the traffickers. Today, the situation is better but there are still some misfortunate children like Lon in the trade.

The issue has become a global concern as now girls from neighbouring countries are entering the sex tourism industry. More boys are also involved," Siriporn says.

"Child prostitution is disgraceful whether the child enters the sex trade willingly or not. We consider that any such choice comes out of immature decision-making. The government has a duty to prevent and protect them. Lon's book makes it clear that child sex workers can make quite a lot of money.

If we are to truly solve the problem, everyone - families, schools, government, the legal sector - must work together to prevent manipulation and physical assault, any kind of abuse, in fact. Promoting self-esteem and goodness is also important and a loving family is always the best immunity in protecting the vulnerable child."

But changing attitudes alone does not provide the means to survive extreme poverty. Education and skills training are key to prevention and various organisations and foundations have been working hard for several years to ensure the youngster learn alternative skills.

Reverend Sister Francoise Jiranonda, president of the women's religious movement, Talitha Kum Thailand, which is dedicated to stopping human trafficking, manages a school for young girls from the North of Thailand.

"We teach them several skills and demonstrate to them that they are capable of making a good living without resorting to the sex trade. They study with us free for at least three years until they have completed high school. We then ask if they still want to come to work in the city or return home to their remote villages," she says,

Registered charity Goodwill Group Foundation also offers potential solutions through skills training and career development. Committee member Enrique Cuan makes the point that it is very easy to pass judgement on sex workers but very few people understand the circumstances under which they live.

"Over the past 15 years, the foundation has helped disadvantaged Thai women by teaching them new skills that allow them to earn more money. More than 45 per cent of the women that attend our training are able to negotiate salary increases of 25 per cent. We believe education is a basic foundation and creates opportunities no matter where these women are living.

"'Only 13' is not just the story of one girl but a narration of a real issue in Thailand and other parts of the world," he says.