Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Human trafficking — and resilience — in Cambodia and Thailand

Heather Rudow August 6, 2013

brittanyBrittany Catania, an American Counseling Association new professional member who recently graduated with a master’s in counseling from Indiana State University (ISU), spent three weeks this past May in Southeast Asia learning about the topic of human trafficking on a deeper level.

 Catania and eight other graduate students from ISU traveled to Thailand and Cambodia with Destiny Rescue, an organization dedicated to rescuing girls from the human trafficking business. Experiencing the impact of human trafficking firsthand left a lasting impression on Catania and solidified for her that nothing is better for a counselor’s cultural competence than leaving the classroom and directly immersing oneself in the world.

How did you get interested in this topic? What prompted you to get involved with this study abroad opportunity?

Catherine Tucker, a professor in my program at ISU, offered an elective opportunity to study human trafficking and spend three weeks in Thailand and Cambodia. I have had international experience prior to this trip and find that firsthand experience is one of the best teachers. I have found that human trafficking tends to be overlooked, and in an effort to be a multiculturally competent clinician, I felt this was a wonderful opportunity to gain some firsthand experience.

Describe your experience.

 We partnered with Destiny Rescue, whose mission is to rescue girls from the human trafficking business. Destiny Rescue has several rescue houses throughout Thailand and Cambodia. They have a rescue team that goes to the karaoke bars to talk to the girls about a better opportunity. The girls are allowed to make their own decision whether to leave the industry they are in. They choose to go to the rescue houses, and once there they are, they are taught a trade of their choice and they make money working at the rescue houses. The girls can make jewelry, jeans, work in the café or a beauty salon. The trades the girls learn can be taken back to their villages, so they aren’t confined to the [geographic] area they are in. Destiny Rescue also has several prevention houses located in more rural, high-risk areas that are designed to educate and keep children out of the trafficking industry. We spent time at three different rescue houses. We were able to implement art therapy activities as well as Theraplay games with the girls. Our goal was not to do therapy but to merely provide them with activities that would be fun and build group cohesion with an opportunity for processing if that was something that was meaningful for them. As we traveled between Destiny Rescue houses, we were able to experience other cultural activities such as visiting Ankor Wat [and] the Golden Triangle.

 What stood out most during the trip for you?

We visited Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, which is the sex tourism capital of the world. The street is devoted to sex shows and karaoke bars. Many of the women are over the age of 18; however, as the night goes on, the younger girls are brought out. Women and girls are bought and sold on Walking Street in a very public and blatant fashion. The women and girls stand out in front of the bars and clubs, inviting people to go inside. As our group walked up and down the street observing, I was shocked to see the number of families with children walking up and down the street. In one instance, a mother was posing her child with one of the prostitutes to take a photo. To our group, this street was much more than a tourist attraction, however it appeared as though there was a lack of understanding of what goes on in Pattaya. It was shocking and disturbing to see so many children with their parents walking up and down the street, taking in the sights as if it were an attraction.

 What did you learn from this experience?

Through this experience, I have been able to see the impact of my Western upbringing in the way I think and conceptualize the world. Prior to the trip, I had taken a multicultural class and had done an extensive amount of reading and discussion about human trafficking, and I felt confident that I was well versed in the nuts and bolts of Thai/Cambodian culture. I knew all the basic things: eye contact, collectivism vs. individualism, male/female gender roles, etc., and I thought I was ready.

We had the opportunity to spend time with several groups of girls, and after the second group, I was baffled, angry and confused. The girls were happy — this was not something I expected or understood. I was angry about what had happened to them, their innocence had been stolen, and the way they had been treated wasn’t fair or right. Taking all of these things into consideration, it seemed like a natural reaction to be angry, sad and upset, but the girls were not. I have come to understand just how important labels are to a Western conceptualization of mental health. When an event happens, good or bad, we gain an understanding and acceptance of it by labeling it, dissecting it and eventually accepting it. This process, whether universal or not, does not appear to happen in the same way across cultures. The staff at Destiny Rescue discussed the girls’ desire to move forward with their lives and to not be defined by their past. This demonstration of resilience and positivity was humbling and taught me more than anything else during the trip.

What do you think counselors can learn from this type of experience?

I think it is important for counselors to know and understand the role of family in the lives of survivors of human trafficking. There is a devotion to one’s family that simply cannot go unacknowledged when working with this population. It is important to recognize that the survivors with Destiny Rescue, as well as across Thailand and Cambodia, sacrificed their youth and innocence in completely selfless ways in order to provide or help their families. As clinicians, we have a responsibility to honor that sacrifice, even though culturally it might not be seen as a sacrifice.

Now that you are back from the trip, what do you believe is the next step?

I believe education and awareness are very important next steps. From a clinical standpoint, it is important to have an understanding of this population so as to better provide for their needs when they come into our offices. From a professional standpoint, it is important to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. I think this can best be done through spreading awareness.  

 How have you been impacted by your experience?

This trip has impressed upon me the strength of children. I feel privileged to have been able to share a small amount of time with the girls at Destiny Rescue. Their strength and resilience is inspiring and truly remarkable.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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