Every Tuesday evening, a team of Jesus followers venture into the streets of Soi 6, the red-light district of Pattaya, Thailand, a city known as the official sex tourism capital of the world.
The group is from the Tamar Center, a partner organisation of OM, and a ministry that has worked in the district for over 20 years, positioning itself in its very heart. On these weekly outings, staff spread out among the bars hoping to connect with any one of the approximately 35,000 prostitutes or ‘bargirls’ as they are known in the city.
The team from Tamar Center strike up conversations and invites those they talk with to the centre for English classes and other opportunities. While many women are sceptical at first, the staff return weekly showing they genuinely care. “Building friendships is often a big part in how women come to us,” says Steffi (Germany), one of the directors who has been with Tamar Center since 2015. “Our heart is to bring women out of prostitution and give them a new life.”
Left with little choice
Bargirls are mostly young women from northeastern Isaan, one of the poorest regions in the nation. Expected to contribute to the family’s financial stability, girls travel to Pattaya looking for employment. Tuu (Thailand), the assistant director and vocational training leader at Tamar Center, shares: “Women are told from a young age that it’s the oldest daughter’s responsibility to provide for the family. This is the tradition in Thailand.” But Tuu says the families’ hopes are unrealistic. Without an education to open doors, most young women join the sex trade. While the decision is not always forced, there is a lot of pressure from the family’s expectations that plays into the decision.
Initially, most bargirls go to Tamar Center for English classes, but many return to have their hair done at the centre’s salon, where team members also pray for them. An invitation to the House of Peace at the centre is also extended, which provides a refuge from the streets, and a place to find rest and talk to staff members. As they learn more about Tamar Center, some girls attend the Friday church service before work begins in the bars. After playing games and sharing a meal, they hear a message about Jesus’ love for them.
The centre holds larger outreach events such as banquets where women are served beautiful dinners while staff members entertain the guests by singing songs or performing skits, conveying God’s love, and hoping the women grasp their own value. Ultimately, the staff prays each bargirl will join Tamar Center’s vocational programme, where they can learn one of six different skill sets and leave the bar scene behind.
A cycle of dependence
But there are barriers. Bar owners push back when Tamar Center staff visit as their livelihood is directly connected to keeping the sex trade active in their establishments. Even when a woman expresses interest in a different life, money is a big issue that influences her next steps. Bargirls and their families become accustomed to the lifestyle the money provides, creating a cycle of dependence.
Yet some women do leave. “I think at some point they become tired of life in the bars; they want to learn something else. Or they are moved by God to leave, which is always our prayer, that we go to just the right area to meet women who are ready,” says Steffi. She adds that it’s easier to reach women newer to the bars who aren’t trapped in the cycle yet; if Tamar Center can reach bargirls early, they can offer a different way, training young women for a different life through the centre’s vocational education.
That is the story of Ariya*. Divorced by her husband and left with two small children to provide for, Ariya went to Pattaya when she could not make a living in her own village. On her first day in the city, she went to the bars hoping to find work. Unsuccessful, she booked a room for the night, intending to resume her search the following evening. The next day when she headed out, she met Nella, the founding director of Tamar Center, on the street. Nella talked with her and invited Ariya to the centre.
Through the vocational programme, Ariya grew skilled as a baker and worked at Tamar Center’s bakery for four years. During this time, she also became a follower of Jesus. Eventually, Ariya returned to her home village to open a bakery of her own but is always eager to return to the centre and share with the other young women how Jesus can also help them. “She’s amazing,” says Steffi. “She’s on fire for Jesus.”
Even one is worth it
Not every story has a happy ending, however. Some women come for a while but return to their old life, “the money wins,” says Steffi. But she says they stay motivated by watching the women who do stay grow in their faith day by day. Recently, a group of 13 ladies went through the vocational training, and by the end, all 13 had become Jesus followers. “One day you see that Jesus finally clicks. It’s just so precious to see how they change,” shares Steffi.
As of the beginning of 2023, over 300 women have received vocational training at Tamar Center and the ministry continues to expand. Currently, Tamar Center has two main locations, one with a hair salon, a safe room for women who are still in the sex trade and facilities to host English classes. The other location includes a bakery and restaurant, an Artisan work room where women learn sewing, jewelry making and how to create handmade greeting cards, staff offices and a counselling centre. Housing and a nursery are also provided for training participants and their children. The latest expansion, a hospitality centre offering lodging for visiting groups and vocational training in Hotel management and Housekeeping, opened in the beginning of 2023. Each new growth at Tamar Center provides opportunities for more girls to leave the bars, find new life, build loving relationships at the Center and, ultimately, come to know the Lord as their Saviour.
Tuu says that these relationships are what make everything worth it. Steffi agrees: “We hang on to the good stories. Even if we reach only one, it is worth it.”
Join with us in prayer for many more women to leave prostitution and find a new life. Pray for healing for the women in the various programmes and that they will come to know Jesus. Pray for more long-term staff from Thailand as well as abroad.