Panit* has a round face and an easy smile. His skin has faded tattoos that a neighbour gave him when he was 10 or 11. After school, he sings in a choral group and even enters competitions. Panit spends perhaps too much time playing video games, staying up late at night, but he goes to church on Sunday and then comes home to do chores. He’s living the life of a typical, busy teenager. Panit is also a survivor of childhood abuse.

Panit’s mum died when he was five years old. As a sex worker, she had contracted HIV, leaving Panit with his dad after she passed away. Things went okay for a while; Panit stayed in school and his dad continued working in a cooking school. But the year Panit started seventh grade, his dad got progressively ill with HIV, so he dropped out of school to take care of him. When his dad died, Panit was all alone.

Panit had to move out of his home. He stayed with friends sometimes or slept at the video game store, the temple, or on the street. He bounced around like that for a year, homeless. The whole time, he was missing his dad but was generally pretty numb. “I wasn’t thinking or feeling much,” he remembers. “I was only focused on getting money for the next day.” Sometimes neighbours would help him with money donated to charity through funerals, a common custom, or his dad’s friends would hand him 100 baht (about NZ$5). But it wasn’t enough. 

During this time of extreme vulnerability, several different adult men abused Panit. After meeting online or in person, the men would lure Panit into abuse and then hand him money, giving a young, confused kid the idea that this was transactional and consensual instead of what it really was—child abuse.

Eventually, Panit found help, got off the street and moved in with a guardian. While he was in therapy at an aftercare programme with one of Tearfund’s partners LIFT, his counsellor discovered that he had been abused and helped start legal proceedings against one of his abusers. The first legal case against one of Panit’s abusers got thrown out. The judge said that Panit had been complicit in accepting money. As we reiterate over and over again in our work and advocacy, there is no such thing as a child prostitute. There are only victims and survivors of abuse. No child can consent and no amount of money paid changes that. Unfortunately, some judges and law enforcement around the world are still catching up to this fact. 
blog.jpgTearfund works with LIFT International to bring justice to survivors of human trafficking.

Tearfund’s partner’s attorney was introduced to Panit through his guardian, who was trying to find help with the judicial process. She was angry when she heard what had happened in the first case. She took Panit on as a client and agreed to help prosecute another abuser in court. She recognised that justice wasn’t being served by accusing a child of being complicit in his own abuse and not holding his abusers accountable.

I wanted to help Panit because people didn’t see him as a victim. The judge said that Panit was a part of the crime. Panit was essentially re-abused by the judgment. He was being re-traumatised by the system. They were not representing him. No one would help him on the legal side, and he doesn’t have a family.

He regarded the police and the legal system sceptically, so he was scared of his attorney at first, not knowing if he could trust her. But she earned his trust when she kept showing up. She took him to KFC, which earned her major points with him. Over time, he trusted her enough to share his story and she became his advocate in court.

The court process can be confusing for kids and adults alike. As Panit was questioned by lawyers and police, he felt annoyed because his case kept going on and on and nothing would happen. After the first case was thrown out, he wondered what the point was:

They asked me the same questions over and over. When they kept asking questions, I got confused. It was like they were waiting for me to mess up. The more they asked me the same questions, the more I felt like it was my fault, or they were trying to blame me for what happened.”

His guardian was grateful that Tearfund’s partner could help with Panit’s case because she wasn’t sure how to proceed:

It was very stressful and disheartening when his first trial was dismissed, so I was really happy that Tearfund’s partner was available to help us deal with the second trial.

The judge’s verdict came back, and, this time, Panit’s offender got 16 years’ in jail. Panit was torn. He wondered if maybe the guy didn’t deserve that time and if he didn’t mean to hurt him. Any abuse can produce conflicting and confusing emotions. But when Panit realized that his offender would no longer be able to hurt other kids, he knew that this was the right thing and his abuser deserved it. Panit was also awarded US$1,622 (NZ$2,518) from the offender, but it hasn’t been paid yet. He could really use the money for education and for a laptop. 

The legal case helped Panit to move on. “It helped me to get closure,” he says. “I don’t have to think about it all the time.” He is looking forward now—he wants to study, graduate, get a good job and buy his own house. For now, he has to focus on his studies, more singing competitions and he has to get home to do chores. 

We are so grateful that we could be there for Panit and that he can now spend his time worrying about normal teenager stuff like video games and his grades.

*All images and names have been changed to protect the identity of victims and survivors.
 

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