When Mai was approached by a sex trafficking recruiter, the woman's intentions were pretty clear.
"This job makes a lot of money," the recruiter told the young Thai girl. "But you have to sacrifice something for it."
That "sacrifice" could have cost Mai her virginity, childhood, education and health.
Luckily for Mai, the recruiter approached her in 2013 -- four years after Mai had joined up with the SOLD Project. Because the nonprofit organization had given her a scholarship, mentors and education about the sex trade for years, saying "no" to the recruiter was an easy decision for Mai to make. Now in eighth grade, she dreams of becoming a nurse and helping her mother and twin sister.
"At first I didn't think she wanted anything," Mai remembered. "But later on I thought that maybe she wanted to take me to sell me to be a prostitute."
Based in Thailand, the organization works with teachers to identify children like Mai who are at-risk of dropping out of school and becoming targets for sex trade recruiters. Mai, who moved into a dirt-floor home with her mother and twin sister after her father abandoned the family, was a prime example of someone who could fall prey to recruiters bearing gifts and promises of a high-paying job. Her story about the sex trafficker is a common one in Northern Thailand, where she lives. But the SOLD Project is hoping to give more and more at-risk girls the resources they need to be able to resist the sex trade.
Now approaching its fifth year in Thailand, the SOLD Project is celebrating the milestone with a short film about Mai's story and the work that the organization is continuing to do.
The film debuted in Los Angeles Sept. 17, where SOLD Project President Rachel Goble spoke with the Huffington Post about the problems that perpetuate the sex trade in Thailand.
Despite the fact that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand for decades, Goble notes that the country has a reputation as the "Disneyland for pedophiles" in the short film. And while the government is "extremely supportive" of the SOLD Project by giving children scholarships to stay in school (education is mandatory but not free in Thailand), Goble says that the government doesn't seem to be putting its money where its mouth is.
"The government is extremely supportive of us giving scholarships so that students can stay in school," said Goble. "That being said, it's less about the education than the fact that prostitution is illegal, yet so rampant that it drives their economy. It would hurt the government to say no to prostitution. It feeds so many dollars to the economy."
Approximately 60 percent of Thailand's tourists are male, and of those, it's estimated that 70 percent of them are there for the sex trade.
"I think what happens is that men truly are convinced that they're helping the women, and in some ways I can see how they would buy into that lie," said Goble. "A lot of times these women are coming from really poor areas and need someone to sustain them. On the flip side, selling their bodies is not the way, and men need to recognize that purchasing sex is never a way to free a women."
So far, the SOLD Project has given 140 children educational scholarships. To learn more about the organization, watch the video above and check out TheSOLDProject.com.
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