Sold but not forgotten

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An international NGO is battling slow action from police, reckless parents and ruthless human traffickers to bring four girls back from hell

A young girl helps her father to push their boat as they hawk fruit and sugar canes on a river in the Mekong Delta. An international NGO has warned against teenagers in the Mekong Delta being trafficked into sex work in the Central Highlands disguised barbershops recently.

Two teenage girls were rescued from brothels disguised as barbershops in the Central Highlands town of Buon Me Thuot early November, an international NGO told Thanh Nien Weekly.

The organization advised that many young women are still working there. Police and local officials have said that they can do nothing to shut down the operation and return the underage women to their homes.

The NGO, which is currently trying to rescue two more girls from the brothels, has asked that it not be named to protect the victims and their families.

C. Parker, a member of the organization, said her staff came to know the girls while providing vocational training to underprivileged children in their home town.

Parker knows that there is a recruiter for the brothel owners, known as Hoa, living in Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta, who tells parents that he can get jobs for their children.

"They said they needed girls and offered to pay the parents their daughters' first few month("˜s) salary up front," Parker said. "We know that the recruiter is still in the area and the shop owners could come back. We are trying to prevent it from happening again. But it will take a partnership between parents, community members and the local officials for it to happen."

Below the law

Local police in Tan An Ward in Dak Lak Province's Buon Me Thuot Town claim they have heard rumors of illegal sexual activity at two "barbershops."

On Wednesday (December 8), Captain Nguyen Anh Phung, deputy chief of the Tan An Ward police force, said his men were aware of "scantily-dressed girls at the shops."

However, he said, they have yet to catch anyone in an illegal sex act and therefore cannot take further action.

Phung claims the barbershop owners have drafted a written pledge, promising not to provide sexual services at their businesses.

When Thanh Nien Weekly asked why the police hadn't arrested the shop owners for employing underage workers, Phung said the owners swore the girls were only unpaid apprentices.

But the NGO staff has heard firsthand from the girls at the shops that they have been forced to have sex or engage in sex acts for up to 10 men in a day. Parker claimed her organization never bothered to report the case to police in Buon Me Thuot.

"We've never approached them," she said. "The neighbors near the shop told us that even policemen that are customers there."

She also said that local officials and police in the girls' hometown listened to their concerns and have started an investigation. But they "told us they couldn't do anything once the girls had left Kien Giang."

A growing problem

In September, Vietnam's Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs reported that inter-province prostitution rings have been trafficking teenage sex workers throughout the country.

The United Nations' Inter-Agency Human Trafficking Project claims that more and more Vietnamese women and girls, from poor rural provinces, are being brought into cities and newly developed urban zones inside the country.

"Some individuals relocate willingly but are then sold into forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation, while others are non-complicit from the outset," said the authors of UN body-commissioned Human Trafficking Datasheet 2010. "Recruiters are often relatives, neighbors or friends who make promises of employment."

The report found that between 2004-2009, only 348 people received prison sentences for human trafficking. The Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security recorded 2,935 trafficking victims in the same period.

Kim's story

In 2006, Parker's organization launched a project in Kien Giang to help the children living in a community of about 200 families. The destitute residents mainly survive by scavenging from a nearby garbage dump.

The organization provides education, counseling, vocational training, and a micro savings program to a number of young women so they could help support their families. Parker said the programs do not provide immediate financial support to the families. The NGO provides longterm solutions so that the entire community can become sustainable.

When traffickers arrived in the community, parents were eager to take the cash they had in hand.

Kim was among the four girls, aged 13-16, who were sold into virtual slavery at the Buon Me Thuot's barbershops. She was rescued last month.

It was around early September when a man approached Kim's family saying he could help her find a good job away from home. He said she'd make around VND2 million (US$103) per month an unimaginable sum for a family that earns about $1.50 a day.

Kim's mother said she received a total of VND5.5 million ($256) from the man as advance payment for her daughter's work.

"I didn't want her to work far away but we had to pay our debts," the mother said in a videotaped interview.

Before being rescued, the teenage girl dressed every day in a short skirt and thick makeup. Kim said she saw between 7-10 customers a day.

Each man paid VND70,000 to the shop owner. The woman, known as Duc, would allow the young girls to keep a portion of their tips that added up to around VND200,000 and VND260,00 a day.

Kim finally managed to call members of the NGO and asked for help. They dispatched a team to Dak Lak to negotiate her release.

The woman insisted they would have to pay back the money plus interest that Kim's parents already received, so that Kim could go home.

Dumped lives

Parker said this was the second time her organization has had to rescue girls in the Kien Giang community.

In December 2008, seven families brokered deals with traffickers while their daughters were at school.

"[A man and woman] told parents they were looking for 20- 25 young, pretty girls to work at a new "˜restaurant,'" she said adding that the traffickers offered parents a down payment of around $60 per girl.

As the girls left school, they were accosted by the strangers who took the prettiest girls into a waiting vehicle and sped them off.

The girls were not told where they were headed.

Parker says that one of the girls happened to have a phone and called a teacher, about two hours later, when they stopped to board a boat.

The girl said she didn't know where they were going but their kidnappers were steering the boat away from Rach Gia.

Parker said the next few hours "were a blur of trying to contact the parents that received the money from the couple, contacting the police and then going on our own trying to find them."

When police finally tracked down the vehicle, the man fled the scene. The woman was arrested and interrogated. Parker said when they discovered she was just a "middleman" she was released.

No return

Parkers said that these families are still struggling to fulfill basic needs. On top of that, she said, some gamble and drink. Most are illiterate.

All were ashamed to learn that they had sold their daughters into sexual slavery. Nevertheless, Parker claims, "One parent even told me that she would never sell her son". The NGO have offered the families no-interest loans to pay off the shop owners.

Parker says her organization is unwilling to simply take the girls out of the shop without support from the parents and officials.

"We believe that children are not disposable. NO child should be sentenced a life in the sex trade," she wrote. "This is a situation that must have full commitment from the parents so that the girls are not sacrificed to save the family."

Some of these girls can't believe that their parents sold them into prostitution and can't bear the thought of returning. Others feel that it's their obligation to stay because, if they come back, then their family will take on more debt.

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