Panit* has a round face and an easy smile. His nut-brown skin has faded tattoos that a neighbor gave him when he was 10 or 11, he can’t remember exactly. He goes to high school and currently has a 3.79 GPA, which he jokes is a “fluke” because it’s so high. After school hours, he sings in chorale group and even goes to competitions. He spends perhaps too much time playing video games, staying up late at night, but he goes to church on Sunday and then comes home to do chores. He’s living the life of a typical, busy teenager. Panit is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
Panit’s mom died when he was five years old. As a sex worker, she had contracted HIV, leaving Panit alone with his Dad after she passed away. Things went okay for awhile; Panit stayed in school and his dad continued working in a cooking school. But the year Panit started seventh grade, his dad got progressively more ill with HIV, so Panit dropped out of school to take care of him. When his dad died, Panit was all alone.
Panit had to move out of his home. He stayed with friends sometimes or slept at the video game store, the temple or just on the street. He bounced around like that for a year, homeless. The whole time, he was missing his dad, but was generally pretty numb. “I wasn’t thinking or feeling much,” he remembers, looking down at his hands. “I was only focused on getting money for the next day.” Sometimes neighbors would help him with money donated to charity through funerals, a common custom, or his dad’s friends would hand him 100 baht. But it wasn’t enough.
During this time of extreme vulnerability, several different adult men sexually abused Panit. After meeting online or in person, the men would lure Panit into sexual abuse and then hand him money, giving a young, confused kid the idea that this was transactional and consensual instead of what it really was -- child sex abuse. (Learn more about grooming tactics of abusers here).
Eventually and thankfully, Panit found help, got off the street and moved in with a guardian. While he was in therapy with one of LIFT’s aftercare partners, his counselor discovered that he had been sexually abused and helped start legal proceedings against one of his abusers. The first legal case against one of Panit’s abusers got thrown out. The judge said that Panit had been complicit in having sex with an adult man for money. As we reiterate over and over again in our work and advocacy, there is no such thing as a child prostitute. There are only victims and survivors of child rape. No child can consent to sex with an adult, and no amount of money paid changes that. Unfortunately, some judges and law enforcement around the world are still catching up to this fact.
LIFT’s attorney Pik was introduced to Panit through his guardian, who was trying to find help with the judicial process. Pik was angry when she heard what had happened with the first case. She took Panit on as a client and agreed to help prosecute another abuser in court. Pik recognized that justice wasn’t being served by accusing a child of being complicit in his own abuse and not holding his abusers accountable.
“I wanted to help Panit because people didn’t see him as a victim. The judge said that Panit was a part of the crime. Panit was essentially re-abused by the judgment. He was being re-traumatized by the system. They were not representing him. No one would help him on the legal side, and he doesn’t have family.”
He regarded the police and the legal system skeptically, so he was scared of Pik at first, not knowing if he could trust her. Pik earned his trust when she kept showing up. She took him to KFC, which earned her major points with him. Over time, he trusted her enough to share his story and Pik became his advocate in court.
The court process can be confusing for kids and adults alike. As Panit was questioned by lawyers and police, he felt annoyed because his case kept going on and on and nothing would happen. After the first case was thrown out, he wondered what the point was:
“They asked me the same questions over and over. When they kept asking questions, I got confused. It was like they were waiting for me to mess up. The more they asked me the same questions, the more I felt like it was my fault, or they were trying to blame me for what happened.”
His guardian was grateful that LIFT could help with Panit’s case because she wasn’t sure how to proceed:
“I would say working with LIFT was a big relief. Even though I had worked in trafficking and sexual abuse cases for several years, I didn’t know how to navigate the system to make sure justice was done for Panit. It was very stressful and disheartening when his first trial was dismissed, so I was really happy that Pik was available to help us deal with the second trial.”
The judge’s verdict came back, and, this time, Panit’s offender got 16 years in jail. Panit was torn. He wondered if maybe the guy didn’t deserve that time, if maybe he didn’t mean to hurt him. Like we said, child sexual abuse, or any abuse, can produce conflicting and confusing emotions. But when Panit realized that his offender would no longer be able to hurt other kids, he knew that this was the right thing and his abuser deserved it. Panit was also awarded US$1,622 from the offender, but it hasn’t been paid yet. He could really use the money for education and for a laptop.
The legal case helped Panit to move on. “It helped me to get closure,” he says. “I don’t have to think about it all the time.” He is looking forward now -- he wants to study, graduate, get a good job and buy his own house. For now, he has to focus on his studies, more singing competitions and he has to get home to do chores.
We are so grateful that we could be there for Panit and that he can now spend his time worrying about normal teenager stuff like video games and his GPA. Kids especially need advocates in justice -- judges and law enforcement need to be reminded that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Offenders need to be put in jail to protect other kids from harm; if Pik hadn’t been able to take the case, the second offender might not have been convicted. Kids deserve advocates. We’re glad we could be an advocate for Panit.
*Panit is not his real name