According to a recent United Nations report, Thailand's sex industry employs 300,000 young women, many of whom are plucked from hill-tribe villages and brought into service in brothels and massage parlors. Men travel to Thailand from all over the world to purchase sexual services. The Thai teenagers are either tricked into working in the business or, in some cases, their parents will accept cash payments for the privilege. AIDS cases run high.
A group of female basketball players from Minnesota recently sought to help put a stop to this. Last month, a caravan carrying 13 young American women drove through the countryside of Northern Thailand, accompanied by coaches and family members. The girls, members of the women's basketball team at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., spent two weeks conducting basketball clinics in small villages, teaching young Thai girls the finer points of passing, dribbling and shooting.
"Tribal women are more vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation facilitated by roads linking towns to their villages," said local aid worker Lothansiami Ralte. "What we can do here is help them choose good rather than bad influences ... the visits are a golden opportunity for our girls to learn the game from the Americans. But I hope they will also think, 'If the American girls can do this much, why not us?'"
During this unique outreach project, the U.S. college girls made their primary base the Karen tribal village of Ban Mai Phatana, where they slept on mattresses on the floor and used primitive bathrooms. As they shared their basketball skills with local girls, some of the accompanying parents, who were doctors and psychiatrists, provided free treatment to the villagers.
The entourage studied the country's sex industry before making the trip, and among sightseeing expeditions to temples and elephant trips, also paid a visit to the notorious Patpong red light district of Bangkok, where bar girls are known for odd physical feats involving darts and ping pong balls.
"We have read a lot about it. But seeing it is completely different. I just wanted to scream at those Western guys who were with Thai girls and ask if they knew what they were doing," said Renee Willette, a 19-year-old, 5-foot-10 forward from Minneapolis, majoring in political science and women's studies.
"We all realize there is no quick fix," Willette continued. "But building awareness is what we want to establish within the girls."