Indiana State University Newsroom

“Let me sow:” Indiana State students study sex trafficking in Cambodia, Thailand

June 26, 2013

A 5-year-old raped until she was unconscious. A girl whose mother repeatedly tried to kill her until her mother sold her to a brothel. Another girl who ran away from home only to watch as a karaoke bar owner handed money to one of her teachers, who then walked away.

"Do not cry for these girls," Robert Webber, country manager for Destiny Rescue in Cambodia. "If you shed a tear, let it be for those who haven't been found."

Destiny Rescue, an organization whose mission is to rescue sexually exploited children and be an advocate for and restore victims of abuse, hunts through Cambodia and Thailand to find these girls and hundreds of others like them.

During three weeks in May, Indiana State University graduate students played with the rescued girls, visited the sex tourism capital of the world and wondered at the hope with which victims create new lives.

"People aren't commodities that can be bought and sold," said Brittany Catania, a graduate student in mental health counseling. "That is not something that should be OK."


More than 2 million children are forced into the sex trade every year, according to the 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. That figure has risen 7 percent since 2003 with the largest numbers of people trafficked coming from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. Poverty leads some of the families to sell their daughters, while others are tricked into thinking their daughters will go to work performing menial tasks to send money home to help their struggling families.

Those lives beyond the statistics drew the ISU students and their associate professor of counseling Catherine Tucker to travel so far from home.

"A lot of clients that all of us see, regardless of where we practice, are trauma survivors of one type or another," Tucker said about taking the seven students pursing master's degrees in clinical mental health counseling and two students working on doctorates in psychology to Cambodia and Thailand. "Learning how to deal effectively with different types of trauma and treatment is a really important part of being a competent practitioner."

Tucker and the students witnessed what one organization is doing to combat the problem while they put faces to numbers in the United Nations report and academic journal articles. Tony Kirwan, who founded Destiny Rescue 12 years ago, wants people to move beyond awareness to address the problem of sex trafficking.

"I'm not a huge fan of awareness. Awareness is a bit of a cool word, but I don't really care if you're aware or not. I care whether or not you are willing to do something about it," he said to the students.

Students saw what Destiny Rescue is doing to address the problem. Last year, the organization rescued 215 girls from prostitution and is on pace to rescue more than 400 this year in six nations. Its goal is to rescue 100,000 children by 2020. It does so by not only offering the girls a safe place to stay, but counseling for broken lives and training in jewelry making, sewing, working in a café, hair dressing or pursuing an education while continuing to earn money for their families. It also has prevention homes that work to keep children safe and to receive their educations.

"Our vision isn't getting 100,000 girls making jewelry, it's to get them on a healing process and so they're at a place where they can dream again and whatever their dream is, our vision is to empower them to do that," Kirwan said. "So if it's jewelry, fine. If it's sewing, if it's hair salon, if it's going to university to do higher education, then we'll empower them to do that. That's the ultimate goal to see them eventually go past just the dream and actually start living the dream."

Vanessa Granger-Belcher sat on the floor with Cambodian girls in the care of Destiny Rescue sitting in a semi-circle around her. With the help of an interpreter, she led the girls through an art activity called "Passages" in which they drew pictures of their dreams for their lives. When she asked them to share their goals, one girl displayed the sewing school she dreamed of owning and another showed her drawing of a television and a bed in a home where she could play with her brother and sister. A third said she wanted to own a house with beautiful trees and flowers near a rice farm.

Granger-Belcher listened to girls thinking of their lost childhoods and how they carried the weight of their families' cares.

"It was amazing to hear how positive and hopeful they were for their own futures," she said. "Having already experienced so much trauma in a such a short amount of time, they still held such positive views of the world and people. Time and time again, they mentioned wanting to own a shop of their own and take in other girls and teach them the skills they had learned. Their belief in the good is simply amazing to me and speaks so much to the strength and resiliency of these amazing young girls."

In another project, Candace Williams assisted the girls in making paper origami boxes, which they decorated with flowers, butterflies and their names.

"This is their hope box," Williams told the girls through an interpreter. "They need to write down their hopes and put it into the box."

The girls' heads bowed as they began writing down their dreams to put into the box.

"Art has been used for millennia to help people understand their problems and deal with them," Tucker said about the projects the university students led in Cambodia and Thailand. "What we did was to do some activities that were designed to help them be a little bit expressive about who they are as people and maybe a little bit about what they want for their future. But not to deal with any of the painful parts of their past, we didn't get into that at all."

In the art project that focused on the girls' identities, they created themselves as birds. From hearts with wings to peacocks, flamingos and Angry Birds, the Thai and Cambodian girls drew their bird portraits, which they then cut out and pasted to poster boards.

"As they make their own individual birds, they're all beautiful and unique in their own way," master's in clinical mental health counseling student Kayla Spalding said through an interpreter to the girls gathered around her. "As they come together as a flock, they can be strong and work together."

For Spalding the days working and playing with the girls were highlights of the trip. Through it she learned communication can take place beyond speaking Khymer, Thai or English.

"It was interesting to experience that cultural exchange where you speak through a translator and even though I couldn't communicate directly with them that there is a universal language like smiling and gestures," she said.


Standing on a low rock wall in front of a moat, the university students raised their cameras as pink began to suffuse the blackness of early morning. In the growing light, the ancient stone towers of Angkor Wat stood etched in relief against the lightening sky.

"Angkor Wat was a phenomenal experience," said Catania.

The Indiana State students also visited a floating village on Tonle Sap Lake near Siem Reap in Cambodia, toured the Golden Triangle, took a boat ride on the Mekong River and rode elephants through the Thai jungle.

But the trip centered on human trafficking and the students ended the trip by meeting with Miriam Awad with the U.S. Embassy at Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University. She spoke to the students about the Trafficking In Persons Report that ranks countries and allows the U.S. to engage foreign governments on human trafficking.

"We've been trying to educate people on what it is," Awad said. "Smuggling is different than trafficking. Trafficking involves exploitation and use of force. You are forced to do something against your will."

While the embassy concerns itself with policy issues, Awad said it encourages non-governmental organizations (NGOs), police and prosecutors to work together.

"It's a band-aid solution to rescue children without prosecuting offenders," she said.

Kirwan knows that it will take many people working together, moving beyond awareness to action to end trafficking.

"I have total confidence that we can see it end in our lifetime. I mean if the governments become genuine and enough good people stand up and say this isn't OK and put their skills and their money behind their voices, then I have no doubt it can happen," Kirwan said. "It's going to be a collaborative thing amongst many different groups and many different people."

During the trip, Tucker challenged her students to make a difference. As the nine students sat in a café run by Destiny Rescue, pondering the lives of the girls they had met along with their visit to Walking Street in Pattaya, Thailand, which is known as the sex tourism capital of the world, Tucker read the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi as a call to action:"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.Where there is hatred, let me sow love;where there is injury, pardon;where there is despair, hope;where there is darkness, light;and where there is sadness, joy."

"Now you have the knowledge of the seedy underbelly of the world, what are you going to do with it," Tucker asked. "Awareness is fine, but people can be aware and it still continues. What can you do?"

For more information about Destiny Rescue and its work, please visit


Michelle Bond throws juggling balls with a girl in Destiny Rescue's care. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

A girl in Destiny Rescue's care decorates her origami box. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Indiana State's students listen to their guide at Angkor Wat. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

The sun rises over Angkor Wat. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

During a game, Michelle Ertl runs with girls in Destiny Rescue's rescue and prevention programs. ISU Photo/ Jennifer Sicking

Indiana State students play a game with girls in Destiny Rescue's care. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Girls in Destiny Rescue's care draw birds as part of an art therapy project. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Indiana State students ride elephants near Chiang Mai, Thailand. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Vanessa Granger-Belcher and Ashley Okamoto work on an art therapy project. ISU Photo/Jennifer Sicking

Contact: Catherine Tucker, Indiana State University, director of the clinical mental health counseling program, at 812-237-2889 or

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or