“When you know that a child is being sold every minute in the sex industry, you can’t un-know that. At least I couldn’t. It will haunt you.”
Alexa Pham went to Bosnia as a war photographer at the age of 17, but the effects of the conflict on women that she saw changed the course of not only her own life, but an ever-growing number of others. Moved by how racism can be used as a weapon of war, it was seeing firsthand how much sex traffic increases in a post-conflict zone that moved her to take action. Girls coming out of orphanages are not only extremely vulnerable, but there is no system in place to help them avoid becoming trapped in an abusive industry that exploits them and robs them of their freedom.
In February of 2011 Alexa launched Daughters Rising, a non-profit that works to prevent sex trafficking through education and empowerment. Working from organizations in New York and Cambodia, the greatest focus is on Thailand, which, with a 6% GDP from sex tourism, is the sex trade capitol of the world. Most of the girls and women are from small villages, undocumented, and aren’t citizens. “It makes the victims more invisible” says Alexa, who has a firm understanding of the social structure, history and culture that enables so many women to be vulnerable.
Setting up girls’ club workshops that breached topics such as media literacy, empowerment, confidence, sexual health and women’s rights, Daughters Rising focused on making sure their programs could be taught in any organization. Providing materials and the workshops themselves in any safe house or shelter for free, they didn’t create a new organization but instead aimed to support those already in existence. For Alexa, it’s about giving back to the community. As she says, “If you’re working overseas it’s better to create jobs for people who are already in the community, not for Americans to go overseas.” This way, more lasting relationships can be established with close cultural roots, which greatly helps in establishing an alternate path for girls.
Alexa’s passion and seriousness are striking. Her understanding of the situations she is addressing is thorough, yet steeped in empathy and a sense of purpose. She is also very protective of not only the girls who she hopes to keep from ending up in the sex industry, but of the subject of sex work itself. One misconception that hits a nerve is that the issue is exclusively a women’s one. “That really bugs me.” She says, “It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. You know, if there were more women committing murders than men, would murder be a women’s issue?”
Her line of work is also one that affects all aspects of her life, something that is not always easy to deal with. “It’s still a touchy subject, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s very isolating, like if you’re at a party and the subject comes up of ‘so, what do you do?’ no one wants to hear that right now a child is being forced to sell her body for the price of your cocktail.” Despite the seriousness she puts into her work, she’s far from a downer, though, and is just as fun and cheery as anyone.
That balance is crucial, she feels. “It’s really stressful, starting your own non-profit. It’s never been more important to take care of my health and maintain balance in my life, still keep a social life. Your work is never done at the end of the day, there’s always more to be done, it’s really compelling.” The other challenge is that most of the girls who are able to attend schools in Southeast Asia are funded by missionaries, which means the girls must abandon their cultures and convert in order to benefit from the available programs. While it is a challenge, at times, to be a secular organization in the midst of so many religious-based ones, Alexa says, “churches can also do a lot of great work” and have numerous resources as well.
Her work is never done, and she has a keen sense for expanding and progressing with the demands of the communities Daughters Rising focuses on. After an experience with a girl from Burma who was about to be sold in a hotel lobby for $2000, a motorbike and a gold necklace, she realized the need for programs aimed at women over 17 (girls will be sold at ages as young as 6). Even though they stopped a 60 year old Serbian man from buying her, the girl was being sold by her mother and Alexia no longer knows what happened to her.
Another issue Daughters Rising is targeting is the culture around sex and the men who fuel the sex industry. “People don’t put enough blame on the sex tourists, on the people who buy it. Even the way we talk about them — we call the women whores, hookers, prostitutes, really dehumanizing terms. But the men are just called johns,” says Alexa. “Society really accepts that men have these needs that we don’t have, and they have to have sex. No. And it’s insulting to men that they have to rape women.” By educating men about the effects their participation has on the women they buy, even if for an hour, Alexa intends to humanize sex workers and decrease the number of those investing in sex trade. “I think it can be empowering for men to learn that they have the power to end sex trafficking”
This may be the most inspiring aspect of Alexa – her ability to see an issue from various sides and engage each aspect while still retaining respect and hope for all those involved. After a year and a half of working with Daughters Rising, she has not only created a powerful organization but has retained her passion for it and continues to expand the ways and methods in which it helps countless women. In the meantime, she says, everyone can do their part by reading and researching. The Daughters Rising site has resources for books and films, but Alexa says that what really matters is finding an organization that speaks to you and supporting it. After all, this work will not be done by one person or organization, but by a communal outreach so that all of us can benefit in the long run.
Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.
If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at email@example.com!
Image courtesy of Alexa Pham