Dao’s virginity was sold before she had her first period. “I didn’t know what sex was,” she explains. “I had no education. I didn’t know what was happening — I was scared the first time.”
Growing up in rural Laos, her life was sometimes happy, sometimes sad. Her parents farmed rice and relied on their seven children to help them with the hard work. She frequently skipped school to hang out with her friends. They went to friend’s houses or swam and played in the river, but when she did, she would get beaten by her parents. She stopped going to school altogether when she was in sixth grade. She wishes she had stayed in school; she liked to study and wanted to be doctor. She was always impressed by her dad, who informally dispensed medicines to other villagers.
When she was 13, she was fighting with her parents about school and felt like she could no longer stay with them. A relative took her to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to find work. She got a job in a karaoke bar without knowing what all the job would involve. There, before she’d even reached puberty, her virginity was sold to a man for around US $300. She got to keep some of the money. For the next five months, she had sex with one to two customers a day — Laos, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai men. She wanted to go home, so her controller handed her off to her brother, who sent her home to her village. Once there, she had few options. She was behind in school, still not getting along with family. She desperately wanted to be making money, both to find some independence and to provide for her family, which is an honor her culture.
Eventually, someone she used to work with in Vientiane invited her to Thailand. They made her an appointment, got her a passport and took her to the Laos-Thailand border with three other young Laotian women. Dao was told she would go to work at resort and she could choose from many jobs there -- she would be able to serve drinks in a karaoke bar or work as housekeeper. The owner of the Thai karaoke bar met them at the bridge border crossing and took charge of them. They all had passports to cross the border, but were not supposed to work once in Thailand. Working in a country illegally strikes fear into people’s hearts, but is also fairly common. Migrant workers or women being trafficked often don’t seek out the police for fear of being jailed, extorted or deported. Also, the sad reality is many people accept dangerous or demeaning work without complaint because their lives have always felt out of their control due to poverty or lack of options.
For the first few days, Dao worked as housekeeper. One night, she was forced to work in the karaoke bar and “entertain” customers by having sex with them. She was there for just four days before she was removed by a joint LIFT/ Thai law enforcement operation. During those short few days, she was identified by LIFT’s undercover team as under the age of 18 and therefore trafficked. By law, a child, even a seemingly willing one, cannot consent to sex “work.”
Dao was then moved to a government shelter to go through legal proceedings and testify against her trafficker. She had to stay there for ten months. LIFT’s social workers visited her multiple times and checked in on her.
“I felt so happy when Jane and Chu visited me in the shelter. They felt like family. They brought me toiletries and snacks and they cared for me.”
The government asked for civil compensation from her trafficker on her behalf and she had to testify against him. Finally brought to court, she was in a separate, protected room for children witnesses, but she caught sight of her trafficker through a crack in the door, which really scared her.
Once she was repatriated to Laos, she took vocational classes provided by the government and learned cooking. LIFT’s Survivor Fund paid Dao’s living expenses while she was in school. Our social workers still keep up with her and advise her on how to navigate what is for her, even at only 16 years old, adulthood.
“People may think that I’m young, but I have grown up. I have more maturity and have learned more skills. It’s led me to get a job. If no one removed me from the karaoke bar that night, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living now.”
From her exploitative work in Thailand and Laos, Dao collected around 18,000 Thai baht (US $540) and gave all the money to her mom. She told her parents she worked in restaurant; they didn’t know she was forced to sell sex. Her mom used to money to buy a gold chain to keep the money safe. Despite all that she went through, Dao is proud that she could help her parents. There is a great sense of honor and identity in especially daughters helping their families, so it explains a little of why Dao kept trying to find work, even at great risk to herself.
Today, Dao rents a room with a friend and sells clothes in a market. She makes 6000 Thai baht (US $180) a month. She bought herself a motorcycle and makes regular payments. She has a boyfriend and likes to go out with friends when she’s not working. Dao still dreams of studying and learning English, but she is very behind in school. Ongoing texts and conversations with LIFT’s social workers help her feel supported and not alone. At still just 16, she says she is too young to know for sure what she wants in her future. But LIFT’s survivor support team is committed to walking alongside her as she figures out her path forward.
Dao shared her story with us in hopes that it would help other girls like her. Thanks to One Day’s Wages, your gifts are doubled up to $15,000, meaning we raise a total of US $30,000 to support more survivors.