Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Realizing Vulnerability

It occurs to me almost every time I swing my leg over the back of a moto taxi or duck my head to enter a tuk tuk: I am vulnerable. Every day I put a lot of trust in complete strangers to bring me to a destination safely. Usually their enthusiastic nods when I describe the location is not at all assuring. My suspicions are usually confirmed when they rely on me to instruct them turn by turn with wild hand gestures after we've agreed on a price and left my option to choose a different driver behind.

I owe a lot to Google maps this year.

Of course, I have emergency contacts and backup plans that always keep me very safe. For that, I owe a lot to friends and acquaintances in all of the last 13 countries. This post is not meant to raise concern for my safety. It is very unlikely that I will ever be in any danger. I am American, I have money, I speak one of the top three languages in the world, the U.S. State Department knows I'm here, and probably most important - I have loved ones that would stop at nothing to help me in a difficult situation.

Imagine this scenario in contrast:

I am a 15 year old girl from a hill tribe in Northern Thailand. Though I speak some broken Thai, my native language is one that has been unique to my tribe for decades. My family lives off of subsistence farming and we are very poor. When I turn 13, my parents decide it is time for me to stop school.Their finances are only sufficient to send two of their three children to school, and they choose my two younger brothers. In my culture, the men carry the spiritual merit for the family. This means my brothers must be educated and sent to a monastary for a short time. It is my duty to provide for my family's physical needs - no matter what that means for me. So I leave on a train for Bangkok.

My parents have instructed for me to find a job and send money back to them. When I arrive, everything is strange and overwhelming. People do not speak my first language, and many people are foreign, so they don't even speak Thai. I have no phone, only enough money for a few days, and no one knows where I am. I have no choice but to trust that strangers won't take advantage of my vulnerability. If someone tells me that working at a bar is good money and easy work, I believe them. If my boss tells me I should to go back to a man's hotel and do what he asks, I am too afraid of losing my job to protest. If I am overcharged for a taxi, I wouldn't know. If a policeman stops me, I will be arrested or charged a bribe because I, like everyone in my home village, don't have any form of identification or proof of citizenship. If someone wanted to hurt me, I would not be missed until it was too late.

This is not every girl's story in Southeast Asia - but at least part of this scenario applies to most who work in the bars and clubs, especially those coming from hill tribes and other countries to the north. Unfortunately, children and women are often very vulnerable in many parts of the world. Even more unfortunate is the difficult fact that people exploit this vulnerability for personal gain.

This year has put me far outside of my comfort zone into more vulnerable positions than I am accustomed. But yet, fear is not a factor - nor have I been exploited. I have the resources to keep myself safe. I belong to a privileged minority.

Chances are, if you are reading this, you do too.

I write all of this - not to evoke pity for women on the other side of the world or cause guilt for the privileged - but to show that the luxury of safety is one that most cannot afford. This is something that must be kept in mind when discussing the issue of sexual exploitation and creating solutions to the problem.


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