About the Author: Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer serves as director of the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.
Chiang Mai enchants its visitors. In the surprisingly cool mornings, the mist retreats back into the green hills surrounding the valley at the same time that the monks make their morning rounds. Their robes make graceful saffron lines through the streets as the fog slowly lifts. It’s a serene and dignified start to my time in Thailand.
Even in these lush and peaceful surroundings, the violent and ugly effects of human trafficking leave their mark. Among my other stops, I’m here to visit the New Life Center, a shelter for women who have been directly affected by trafficking or sexual violence or who are at risk for exploitation. Many of the young women are from “the hill tribes” of northern Thailand – ethnic minority groups who often live in the more remote regions of the country, and whose relative poverty and isolation make them especially vulnerable to traffickers.
As our van pulls into the compound, we are surrounded by effervescent girls and young women wearing the traditional dress of their different communities. The colors are astonishing, but it’s their smiles – shy, sincere, and full of warmth – that continue to stay with me.
The New Life Center, which receives funding from the State Department, provides a safe and supportive environment for these young women to continue their education, learn English, and learn job skills that will support them after they leave the Center. This is a return trip for me. I first visited the Center in 1996, along with then-First Lady Clinton. The transformation since then is astonishing. The compound is still spotlessly tidy and decorated with cheerful murals, but that feeling of being an acute crisis response center – that feeling of urgency mixed with sadness – has been replaced by an atmosphere of hope and possibility.
Director Karen Smith confirms my impressions: there’s been a marked decrease in hill tribe and Thai girls being trafficking to brothels and bars, she tells me, though vulnerability among the immigrant and refugee Burmese population has increased. There’s also been a disturbing increase in the number of girls who arrive because they’re fleeing sexual violence. Still, the success of the center now means it has more resources to devote to preparing the young women for their future – for higher education and for meaningful careers – rather than only being able to respond to their immediate physical and psychological traumas. In addition to offering counseling, the Center now has extensive vocational classes and even produces radio shows in hill tribe languages that tackle topics such as trafficking, violence, and HIV/AIDS prevention. When I talk with the young women, they proudly show off the handicrafts they’re learning to produce and are eager to show off their skills in English.
The New Life Center is an extraordinary place, and it’s meant a better life for the more than a thousand young women who have spent time here, in addition to the thousands it reaches through its radio program. It’s a small piece of the solution to the international human trafficking problem that’s been done extremely well – but it remains a small piece. We need these types of facilities not only in Thailand and in the region, but throughout the world.
And that’s really what my trip to this region is about. I arrived in Chiang Mai from Malaysia, which is working to address trafficking for both labor and sexual exploitation. From Chiang Mai, I traveled to Bangkok, to join a conference dedicated to the elimination of human trafficking. From Bangkok, I flew to South Korea, to continue discussions on trafficking but also to speak about women’s political, economic, and social empowerment more generally. And from there I went to Japan, to continue with meetings on these issues and to talk with leaders from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) about women’s economic inclusion.
These issues are not separable. When women are given the tools to overcome the barriers to their equal economic participation, their vulnerability to trafficking decreases. And when women become economic producers, development of their communities and their countries blossom. Making progress, however, means confronting the practices and the attitudes that prevent women’s rights from being seen as a natural part of the human rights agenda. It means ensuring that women’s dignity is protected and their rights safeguarded. As I travel throughout this extraordinary region, however, and as I look out my window on a bright morning in Chiang Mai, that seems eminently achievable.