“Cross-Cultural Collaboration to address Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Laos: Best Practices, Crisis Counseling, and Advocacy Models for Survivors of Sex Trafficking”

“Cross-Cultural Collaboration to address Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Laos: Best Practices, Crisis Counseling, and Advocacy Models for Survivors of Sex Trafficking” by Katharina Werner

Introduction
According to the most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released by the U.S. State Department on July 27, 2015, Laos, which is primarily a source country for both victims of sex and labor trafficking, maintains its Tier 2 Watch List status (http://m.state.gov/md243473.htm). Despite grassroots efforts by local NGOs and foreign programs to assist with the identification, support, and reintegration of victims of human trafficking the country has not made sufficient progress in the areas of victim protection, prosecution of recruiters, traffickers and sex buyers, and prevention and education efforts. The lack of efficient identification methods of victims, failure to systematically utilize existing screening and identification tools, and nonexistent and inconsistent data collection on both NGO and government levels present a significant problem in assessing actual numbers of predominantly girls and women trafficked mostly into Thailand for commercial sexual exploitation but also in fewer cases into other neighboring countries and internally. The 2015 TIP report states that the Lao government reportedly assisted 253 victims of trafficking in 2014 and that 38 individuals were investigated for trafficking offenses which led to 21 conviction. Undoubtedly, the actual number of adults and children forced into commercial sex or forced labor services at the hands of brokers and traffickers making a profit is much higher. Furthermore, the report highlights the Lao government’s failure to provide adequate and ongoing training and education to government personnel including frontline law enforcement staff and diplomatic officials. Ongoing professional development opportunities for non-governmental organizations (NGO) such as social workers, counselors, and legal aid staff are not mentioned in the report at all.

The findings of this report in combination with extended conversations and continuos professional exchange with my YSEALI fellow, Mrs. Xayamoungkhoun, helped me understand the depth and persistence of this social justice and human rights issue in Laos. According to my YSEALI fellow, National Program Officer with UNODC, local organizations and programs work directly with victims of sex trafficking and have identified three different types of victims:
1) Official returnees – Lao nationals trafficked into Thailand, rescued and then sent back through official government channels agreed upon by both the Thai and Lao government;
2) Pushed-Back victims – Lao nationals returning through unofficial channels either voluntarily or involuntarily;
3) Internal victims – in most cases women and girls trafficked from rural to urban areas of Laos for sexual exploitation and forced labor services (e.g. In the garment industries);

Local organizations play a crucial role in providing services, including emergency and long-term shelter, support services, vocational training, and reintegration, to victims of trafficking. Throughout the country there are currently four shelters, two run by NGOs and two run by government entities, that are working with victims for varied periods of time before they return to their communities or engage in alternative options. Mrs. Xayamoungkhoun reported that psychological support and counseling services for victims of trauma are rarely offered due to the lack of adequate education, minimal knowledge about the impact of trauma and effective counseling methods, and very limited continuous training in these areas. She further explained that specific expertise in following evidence based practices in the area of trauma informed and victim centered care is very limited if not nonexistent. Consequently, shelter advocates and social workers often provide services to victims based on traditional local practices without following evidence based best practice guidelines for trauma survivors.

Due to the pervasiveness of the problem and the high need for professional training and skill development in the areas of direct crisis skills, trauma informed care, and victim-centered assistance Mrs. Xayamoungkhoun and I developed a four day training curriculum focusing specifically on training frontline staff working directly with victims in shelter settings and legal aid programs. After her return to Vientiane from the United States, Mrs. Xayamoungkhoun reached out to various programs and invited over a dozen professionals to attend the in-depth workshop from August 10th to August 13th in Vientiane. The following pages will discuss the results of the training sessions and the mutually gained knowledge and information shared amongst training participants and the presenter.

In total, 17 professionals from three countries and five different agencies participated in the four day training (28 hours total), including shelter advocates, direct care staff, shelter managers, counselors, social workers, legal aid staff and pro bono attorneys, and UNODC administrative staff and interns. Throughout all training sessions, English to Lao and Lao to English translation was provided and all training materials were provided in Lao to training participants. All training fees were covered by a small grant through the University of Montana Mansfield Center and the YSEALI program paying for transportation fees of participants from out of town, accommodations, snacks and food, training material, and location. A local non-profit, Village Focus International, offered to host the training at their office in Vientiane which proved to be a great training location.

Day One
Day one of the workshop focused mainly on getting to know each other and building rapport and trust between training attendees, the organizer and the presenter. Discussing issues as intimate and volatile as sex trafficking and human exploitation requires a safe space where participants feel they can openly and safely share their experiences, frustrations and concerns. After an initial icebreaker activity and a discussion about expectations, ground rules and guidelines for the next days I introduced myself to the group talking about my personal and professional background and providing detailed information about the YWCA Missoula and the services provided to victims of domestic and sexual violence, sex trafficking, and homelessness. The entire afternoon of day one was spent talking about trauma, the impact of trauma on the brain, and physical, psychological, emotional, behavioral and environmental consequences of traumatic experiences. Engaging the group through an interactive-trauma exercise and extensive dialogue, I soon realized that although attendees had heard of the term trauma and were using it in relation to victims of trafficking, they were not able to explain the actual concept or understood that going through trauma brought about specific symptoms. Thus, I decided to spent a significant amount of time to thoroughly discuss types, causes and risk factors of trauma and crisis, how an individual’s mind, body and spirit responds to trauma, how these responses might present in victims of trafficking, and finally go over helpful and effective ways to respond to people experiencing crisis and trauma. At the end of the first day and throughout the rest of the training, participants voiced that this was extremely helpful information because they now understood why victims behaved in certain ways and felt more prepared to appropriately and empathetically respond to them. The final session of day one focused on human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the United States and educated participants about vulnerable populations and risk factors, indicators of trafficking, societal misperceptions about trafficking victims in the US, and traffickers and buyers in the sex industry. Attendees were very surprised to hear that human trafficking existed in the United States and felt that, considering that the US was a country more developed than Laos, they were facing an even greater task of addressing trafficking in their country.

Day Two
The morning of the second day was spent focusing on the issue of sex trafficking in Laos. I asked the training participants to educate me about this problem in their country and help me learn about the risk factors, vulnerable populations, brokers and traffickers, the buyers of commercial sex and where it happens and tell me about the preferred locations and hot beds of the sex industry. Participants split into smaller working groups and presented their results to the large group.

Listening to the information and experience of the participants I started building a stronger understanding of some of the differences in how this problem presents in the US and in Laos (e.g. the majority of victims is coerced out of the country and not trafficked domestically, often times a broker pays or tricks parents and family members of a girl to send them with her promising job opportunities and a better live, online websites like the American site backpage.com facilitating sex trafficking are not very common) . However, what stood out to me were the striking similarities: Victims are predominantly girls and women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, with limited education (many of them are illiterate), and often times a history of domestic violence, substance use, or divorce in the family. In addition to the aspects of gender, class and education there is also a racial factor – the group reported that a large percentage of trafficking victims are members of an ethnic minority. These parallels between the two countries are crucial because they point to the larger systematic problems present in both the US and Laos: extreme poverty, unequal and limited access to education and vocational opportunities, and institutionalized racism and discrimination. As for the people profiting from the sale and exploitation of humans, they all share the same objectives and qualities: Greed and the belief that humans are a commodity.

In the afternoon of day two, I introduced the concept of “Best Practice” to the training group and we had a lively discussion about shared value systems, codes of ethics, and a set of standards in our practice that are backed by research and years of application in the social work field. An example used was the concept of confidentiality and a victim’s right to privacy and protected information. Although this was a concept participants were familiar with – in the Lao language it translates into “Secret” – I learned that there was no recommended guideline within the social work profession and different programs used different approaches, e.g. posting a note on the wall at their office that victim had a right to privacy and reminding them of this right during a first meeting but not requiring a signed consent form when sharing information with other agencies.

The last session of day two was spent discussing and practicing “Active Listening”, a technique that serves as the foundation of advocacy and counseling work and is a crucial skill allowing professionals to build trust and rapport with victims and truly understand their needs, concerns, and hopes. This session consisted of various small activities and work in dyads and it was great to see that all group members were highly engaged, active, and eager to practice these skills. One thing they identified as particularly helpful was using open ended questions when working with victims to gain more information and thus have a better understanding of the victim’s experience. During this session we also talked about the concept of empowerment and the practice of not giving personal advice to victims. I tried to really explore this concept and asked the group how this fit into the Lao culture – does this mesh or conflict with Lao traditions, gender roles, and practices? Some participants shared that it was not common for women and girls to make their own decisions but that usually males in their lives make decisions for them. Consequently, we talked about how not giving personal advice might not be something that can be actively practiced all the time and that changing deeply rooted traditions and norms like this took time, but that social workers could start encouraging victims to have more control over their choices helping them weigh the pros and cons of specific decisions. Participants felt that this was feasible and realistic and stated they would try utilizing this approach more.

Day Three
On our last full day together, the group spent the morning talking about different models of crisis counseling and personal advocacy and discussed detailed steps and techniques to provide effective crisis intervention to traumatized individuals. Participants were encouraged to look at these models and reflect on their utilization and implementation in their own programs but especially within Lao culture, traditions, and beliefs: What aspects of these models might be realistic or unrealistic to adapt into Lao programs with victims? What techniques and tools are participants maybe already utilizing in their practice but are not familiar with the official name or practice? The group identified that assessing a victim’s needs from first contact on is crucial in order to adequately assess appropriate services and referrals from the very beginning. In smaller groups participants identified the various needs in the following categories and gave a detailed explanation of each category for the large group: basic needs, legal needs, emotional and social needs, and finally safety and security. Once there was a shared understanding of victims’ needs and possible challenges and barriers to meeting them, the group then discussed ways to best learn about those needs as a service provider. NGO staff from World Vision, Village Focus International, and Sensavang all shared detailed information about their assessment and intake procedures, individual action plans including short and long term goals developed in case management meetings, and finally termination processes happening when a victim leaves the program. Applying the best practice knowledge learned in previous days, participants discussed how these processes can be trauma-informed and victim-centered to ensure limited ongoing traumatization of victims and early rapport building with the social workers. Discussion about case management focused heavily on the strength-based and solution focused models and the collaboration between social worker and client. Tied into previous reflections about the empowerment approach, the group further discussed that within these models the victim is considered the expert and her decisions should be respected and supported.

In the afternoon of day three, I introduced the concept of secondary trauma to the workshop attendees. Throughout the previous sessions, several professionals had given specific examples of vicarious trauma asking me how to respond to the enormous stress their work with trauma victims was causing in both their professional and their personal lives. Consequently, I was eager to provide them with evidence-based knowledge about the concept of secondary traumatization in our profession. I opened this session with a reflection exercise asking people to respond to the following questions: How do I know when I am stressed? What things do I do to take care of myself—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually? What less healthy strategies do I sometimes use in response to stress? As the group shared stress-related signs and symptoms with each other they started realizing that these resembled the signs and symptoms we had discussed on the first day when we learned about actual trauma experiences. It was a very powerful conversation and at the end of the day the majority of training attendees stated that having learned about the risk factors and signs of vicarious trauma (in themselves and others) and ways to prevent and address them was a huge relief and one of the most important things they would take away from this workshop. They were thankful because this knowledge provided them with answers to some of their experiences and allowed them to reflect on the way they do their work and how to better support themselves and therefore victims through self-care and strong boundaries.

Day Four
When the training group gathered for the final day, the goal was to bring all of the new and refreshed knowledge and shared information together and discuss ways to integrate theory into practice at their jobs. In order to do that, group members were once again split up into smaller groups to provide insight into the following questions: What are the individual responses to Sex Trafficking in Laos on a micro, mezzo, and macro level? After a detailed explanation of these levels (micro level is the direct work with victims, mezzo level is engagement in groups and communities, and macro level is the involvement on a state and federal level) and how they were functioning, overlapping, and collaborating in the United States, training attendees created a step-by-step map to show the most common path of a victim in Laos – from first response, to immediate responses to specific needs, to reintegrative measures with families and communities, to social policies tackling human trafficking laws. Throughout the explanation of these steps, I asked participants at what stages the newly acquired knowledge could be integrated into their work and most of them identified that it would mostly happen in their direct work with victims and families. In addition to learning about the general response to trafficking victims, participants were also encouraged to share challenges and strengths within the existing system – what is going well, what could be improved, what would allow them to do an even better job and feel more supported?

On the micro level, staff explained that they felt there was good collaboration between the various shelters in Laos and that victims that were being officially returned from the Thai to the Lao government coming to their shelters were already used to shelter life and thus had an easier time adjusting while the Push Back victims were often harder to work with initially. Although people felt collaboration amongst NGOs was mostly strong and successful, they felt that government programs were relying too heavily on NGOs and they wished that there were more efforts to bring government programs up to the same level in order to achieve higher quality services for victims across the board. In regards to victim protection and victim rights, shelter advocates stated that although services are supposed to be free of charge (e.g. shelter, support services, transportation assistance, medical aid) this was only true “on paper”; the government says that services are available without cost but in the end costs accrued were often paid by shelter programs and NGOs. Additional concerns impacting victim’s rights were around confidentiality and professionals shared that many hospitals openly shared victims’ information and were not making efforts to protect a victim’s identify and the fact that she had experienced trafficking.

On a community level, child protection networks were highlighted as a success and a positive intervention method to work on prevention and protection of vulnerable children and youth. In addition to this network, many larger communities had functioning multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) consistent of shelter staff, law enforcement, teachers, health care providers, international relations staff, youth workers, and other NGO members and training attendees said that everybody was aware of member’s roles and responsibilities especially for first responses to victims. Despite several strengths, group members shared major concerns on the mezzo level impacting victims’ identification and safety: Firstly, they stated that despite generally strong collaboration once a victim was identified the bureaucratic process it took to coordinate amongst the village, district, and provincial levels was significant, took time and energy, and often discouraged victims to engage in the reporting and prosecution process and receive support services. Professionals felt that one of the biggest barriers to addressing this problem were non-existent prevention methods in communities, especially rural villages. They explained that as long as pervasive poverty and limited opportunities served as push factors for families to send off or sell their children to brokers in hopes of a better life this problem would persist. Thus, extensive outreach and education efforts have to be implemented by both the government and NGOs reaching even the most rural areas of Laos to work on preventing the ongoing recruitment of the most vulnerable populations in Laos by educating families and at-risk populations about the recruiting and grooming methods. In addition to awareness of potential victims, attendees also stated that knowledge of trafficking and its risk factors was low amongst government workers and law enforcement officials. Although government officials attend trainings on this issue, it is usually staff in management and administrative positions and not frontline personnel attending workshops. Therefore police officers who are actually making contact with victims are often unaware of the red flags and indicators and will thus fail to identify and/or appropriately respond to potential victims.

Finally, the group shared their thoughts about macro level strengths and successes. They felt that although there weren’t many opportunities NGOs and foreign aid organizations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) were trying to offer as many professional development and awareness trainings about human trafficking as possible, especially to law enforcement staff. Consequently, knowledge about this issue and how to treat victims was slowly but surely increasing. The group then talked about the existing penal code and its penalty sections for traffickers and explained that compared to other countries it was quite strong with traffickers risking 10-15 years in prison, high fines, and higher penalties when physical abuse was present or the victim contracted HIV. That said, all of them felt strongly that these “scary penalties” existed in the books only and that they are very rarely used in practice to charge and convict brokers and traffickers. And even when traffickers were being charged and found guilty, the fines they had to pay did not go to the victim in forms of restitution but ended up with the government. The biggest concern however was the fact that Laos to this date and despite being Tier 2 the second year in a row, has not yet implemented an official human trafficking law and still follows other legal codes in their Child Protection and Women’s Development laws. The Lao government supported by the United Nations and other programs is currently in the process of writing this law and it is hoped that it will be finalized, reviewed by the National Assembly, and then officially approved and implemented by the end of 2015.

Conclusion
Reflecting on the four days of the training, I am confident in saying that it was highly successful. In a post-training survey administered anonymously on the last day of the workshop (n=12, several professionals were unable to attend the last day and consequently did not complete an evaluation), 100% of training attendees stated they found the training either helpful or extremely helpful. 100% either agreed or strongly agreed that the material presented was highly relevant to their day to day work. In addition to teaching new material and strengthening participants’ knowledge, this training more importantly strengthened mutual understanding of this social justice issue in both South East Asia and the United States. It encouraged the exchange of cultural, sociopolitical, and practical knowledge and experiences and thus allowed for mutual learning and support but also for the development of personal relationships which are the foundation for successful collaboration in all countries. Only by learning from each other can we grow together and ensure that this human rights issue is addressed effectively, that brokers and traffickers are held accountable, and that victim find justice no matter where in the world. It is my hope that a similar training like this can be recreated again in the future utilizing newly developed connections and friendships. The training agenda is already in place and has proven to be successful and effective, thus avenues to recreate a similar workshop and find additional funding sources for it should be explored.

This training, its educational impact, and the professional and personal relationships stemming from it wouldn’t have been possible without the YSEALI fellowship program, the support of the University of Montana Mansfield Center, and my dear fellow and friend Tok who spent countless hours coordinating and planning the training and my time in Laos. I will be forever grateful to have been a part of such a magnificent and truly life-changing experience for everybody involved – my fellow, myself, and through the information shared with Laos professionals hopefully also the survivors of trafficking they are working with.

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