Volume 50 Number 2
Spring 2017

International Affairs

Understanding home: a reflection with ethnic young women who are victims of sex-trafficking in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Written by Yui Sum Poon
Wheaton College

The trafficking of women is a major problem that exists in Thailand, with a realistic estimate of around 100,000 and 200,000 female sex workers throughout the country (Peracca, 1998). Women-trafficking can emerge through various forms, including both voluntary and involuntary situations, as well as rural-urban migrations and cross-border migrations. Moreover, it usually arises from situations such as poverty, familial abuse, neglect, and caregiver drug and alcohol use (Farley 2003; Herman, 2003, Kara, 2009). These women are often pressured into, and stay within, the sex-trafficking industry due to the lack of viable livelihood alternatives (Mah, 2011).

In Thailand, ethnic minorities (such as Burmese, Chinese and Shan people) are more prone to be the target of traffickers due  to their perceived ignorance and lack of citizenship (Mah, 2011). This is crucial as their lack of citizenship is “the single greatest factor for minorities in Thailand to become trafficked to sex work or to be otherwise exploited” (Arnold & Bertone, 2002). Their undocumented status makes them invisible to government and state regulators, and they are granted fewer legal rights than ethnic Thais (Kara, 2009). Their minority status is also the root of various additional psychological problems, such as fear and anxiety of arrest, loneliness due to language barriers, and social discrimination (Beyrer, 2001). Moreover, these are also the factors that limit counseling service use even when it is readily available.

In response to the devastating human-trafficking situation in Northern Thailand, foreign agencies flooded into Chiang Mai to provide humanitarian aid. Through the establishment of safe houses, boarding schools and orphanages, Chiang Mai slowly became one of the major hubs for foreign non-governmental organizations. Agencies often provide physical shelter, as well as some forms of education and vocational training. These agencies emphasize on building the person’s sense of stability and trauma healing in a secluded space. When the situation allows, there are also arrangements for repatriation and reintegration.

A Photovoice study at NLCF
With this context in mind, I would like to explore the conceptualizations of ‘home’ within this ongoing mobilized population. Traditionally, home is often referenced as a physical space. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for example, the groundwork of ‘home’ is shaped by foundational needs – suitable physical/material structures and environment, safe environment, adequate space and center of fundamental activities such as sleeping and eating (Maslow, 1943). Furthermore, people expand home as a specific construct that is important in relation to one’s sense of belonging. As the circumstances young sextrafficked victims face does not necessarily allow the attachments with physical spaces or relational individuals, the concept of ‘home’ might present itself in a different light.

Using my 6-month internship with New Life Center Foundation (NLCF) in Chiang Mai, Thailand through the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton College from June to December 2015, I investigated the conceptualizations of ‘home’ within a group of seven such young women ages 18-22 using photovoice, hoping to get a direct narrative on their understanding of ‘home’ amidst their backgrounds. Photovoice is a participatory action research method that allows the exploration of a topic through photos and group discussions (Wang, 1997). I adopted this method as it provides opportunity to enter or, a total of 35 photographs were collected and discussed over 3 photovoice sessions.

Through a thematic analysis of the conversation and pictures, it is found that ‘home’ remains to be found largely on familial-like relationships within women who had experienced sex-trafficking trauma despite previous literature suggest that there is a high prevalence of physical and emotional trauma inflicted within the family of these women. As the seven women unpacked what ‘home’ meant to them based on their context and understanding, talk of parents and siblings permeated the conversation, with extremely specific memories described with clarity in association of the concept of home. For instance, to Mandy (pseudonym), a 22-year-old Lisu participant, stated that, “the most important thing that makes me feel at home is family. Because no matter where we live – even if that place is not the place we call home – and we live with family, I can still feel at home.” She further presented a picture of a family as illustration (Figure 1).

Further exploration through open coding identified four themes that interacts with the emphasis on familial figures and relationships: 1) Warmth that is interpersonal in nature, with focus on physical proximity and closeness [1]; 2) Togetherness that represents the antithesis to loneliness and a genuine understanding between people[2]; 3) Safety that refers to the antithesis to harm, especially harm that is related to one human being inflicting to another[3]; and 4) Diversity that emphasized the appreciation of each family members’ unique contribution to the home[4].

Home beyond physical space 

Grounded by the foundational needs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – suitable physical/material structures and environment, safe environment, adequate space and center of fundamental activities such as sleeping and eating— home is often referenced to physical space (Maslow, 1943). Concurrently, the Thai word for ‘home’, baan (บาน), directly translates as ‘house’ in English, suggesting a spatial and physicality of the understanding of ‘home.’ Despite the traditional and cultural conceptualization of home, to women who are victims of sex trafficking and abuse, the results suggested that the concept of home goes beyond a physical space and also encompasses key relationships.

Sixsmith’s (1986) inter-related model offers insight to this finding. Centered on the complexity and interrelatedness of personal, social and physical spheres, her model emphasizes the dynamic nature of “home.” The interactivity of the four themes – warmth, togetherness, safety and diversity – demonstrates this theory as they relate with familial relationships, yet each uniquely stands on its own. Warmth and safety focuses on the emotion coming out of the familial interactions, togetherness focuses on the presence of the relationships, whereas diversity focuses on the perception of personal involvement. As a result, the identification of distinct and separate themes exists only in an analytical sense, in actuality they are indivisible and intertwined together (Sixsmith, 1986).

Implications and Recommendations
Based on this project’s exploration, there are two major recommendations for future programming in healing and reintegration for women who are victims, or at high risk for, sex trafficking and abuse.

First, organizations should consider providing services beyond a physical safe space, and include psychosocial elements of ‘home.’ Programming should address themes of warmth, togetherness, safety and diversity when considering the meaning of home for young women. As the identified themes are of high relational importance, this implies the importance of commitment in the selection of part-time staff and volunteers. Staff and volunteers should be willing to commit to a minimum of serving for one year. This allows sufficient time for them to build trust and cultivate an environment with warmth, togetherness, safety and diversity with the women. Contrastingly, a meta-analysis by Barak and his colleagues (2001) indicated quick staff turnovers, or disengaging service-providers disrupt the process of trust-building between the two parties, detrimental to both the clients and remaining staff members, hindering cultivation of a sense of home in the physical space.

Second, organizations should consider including family, or familial-equivalent members to actively participate in these women’s post-traumatization and/or post-separation healing processes. Different than repatriation and reintegration, the inclusion of these familial figures, such as mother, father, guardian figures, and siblings, will likely facilitate these women’s sense of belonging to a home amidst locational separation for an extended period of time. Undeniably, potential risks remain in this proposal, as unhealthy communication, or even abusive patterns remains in these family systems (Kara, 2009). Therefore, it is further recommended that social and/or health professionals should carefully monitor this family-inclusive healing process. This could include accompanying women visiting their families, assessing household environment, educating families on communication and healing processes through life skills workshop, encouraging communication between family members and the women during times of separation, and making family counseling services available for affected families.

The concept of home holds great importance, especially to women who had endured trafficked experiences. Continual effort should be made in including the relationship-centered elements into post-trauma programming, offering  an alternate vision of home aside from a roof that shelters.

Special thanks to Dr. Ezer Kang, Rev. Kit Ripley, Peggy Schmitt, all NLCF staff and women

[1] To Amara, an Aka participant, the picture of a dining table is “very warm” and “very full”, and “we would not fear anything because we have a lot to eat, and we are full of our heart.”
[2] To Bekah, a Lahu participant, the picture of a girl biking alone “makes me feel alone,” but “if I don’t have lonely feeling, and have a lot of people together, then I will feel at home and I will think of my home.”
[3] To Karen, an Aka participant, the picture of a mosquito net
makes her feel at home. She said, “It is because at home I feel warm, I feel comfortable, it feels safe, nobody will harm me. The mosquito would not bite me, and nobody will harm me.”
[4] To Bekah, the picture of colorful bottles is important to her. She said, “this is important to make me think of home – the colorfulness of the bottles. Just like how each of us are different, the different bottles are like parents and friends, some of us are red, some of us are blue, and some of us are black… there is a lot of colors, and that makes me feel at home.”

Arnold, C., & Bertone, A.M. (2002). Addressing the sex trade in Thailand: some lessons learned from NGOs, Part 1. Gender Issues, 20, 26-52.

Barak, M. E. M, Nissly, J. A., Levin, A. (2001). Antecedents to retention and turnover among child welfare, social work, and other human service employees: What can we learn from past research? A review and metaanalysis. Social Services, 75, 625-661.

Beyrer, C. (2001). Shan women and girls and the sex industry in Southeast Asia; political causes and human rights implications. Social Science & Med

Farley, M., Cotton, A., Lynne, J., Zumbeck, S., Spiwak, F., Reyes, M., et al. (2003). Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and posttraumatic stress disorder. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (pp. 33–74). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press

Herman, J. L. (2003). Hidden in plain sight: Clinical observations on prostitution. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking, and traumatic stress (pp. 1–13). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.

Kara, S. (2009). Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mah, M. (2011). Trafficking of ethnic minorities in Thailand: forced prostitution and the perpetuation of marginality. Undercurrent, 8(2), 65-72.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

Peracca, S., Knodel, J., & Chanpen, S. (1998). Can prostitutes marry? Thai attitudes toward female sex workers. Social Science & Medicine, 47(2), 25

Sixsmith, J. (1986). The meaning of home: An exploratory study of environmental experience. Journal Of Environmental Psychology,6(4), 281-298. doi:10.1016/S0272-4944(86)80002-0

Wang, C. & Burris, M.A. (1997) Photovoice: concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3). 369-387.

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