Duean Wongsa has always had a heart for the downtrodden. A law graduate, she turned down a promising career in a Japanese company to instead work in an emotionally charged environment assisting vulnerable victims of human trafficking and child abuse.
For the last decade she has worked as a project manager and sometimes legal advisor for the Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand (Trafcord)/Foundation of Child Understanding (Focus) network centre.
Her duties bring her in contact with people whose basic human rights have been violated by traffickers who look at this "profession" as having low overheads and high returns.
"They customarily use debt bondage and physical harm to terrify their victims into submission," said the softly spoken official.
Duean's mother and elder sister, who have lived exemplary lives of sacrifice for both the family and others, have been her inspiration, and she gained a law degree from Chiang Mai University.
"I am happiest working for the less fortunate, so when I had the opportunity to apply for a job opening at Trafcord/Focus, I jumped at the opportunity," Duean said.
"While studying law, I didn't know what I would do after graduation. Then I had a chance to visit grass-roots level communities in the north that were fighting against shady influences to conserve the forest. I was awestruck by their local wisdom and respected their determination to fight for a noble cause. This very much started my passion to help people in need."
Her latest endeavour is a book containing nine case studies from Trafcord/Focus' files. Simply titled Human Trafficking, each case reminds readers of the fact that Thailand is still a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking.
Penned by nine writers, this book is an attempt to give the public an insider's view on how trafficking cases are dealt with from the moment law enforcement steps in to when the verdict is read.
"Each case has a unique story to tell," said 34-year-old Duean. "While it is obviously serious in nature, the entertaining parts are the personalities of the subjects. This book is different in that you get to read about not just the legal procedure used in processing of cases, but also how decisions the victim makes during the court hearing can work for or against the person.
" It's a first-hand account of the Thai legal system and the obstacles faced by everyone from the victim and social workers to the prosecution team.
"Readers will also find what it takes to get perpetrators behind bars, and loopholes that can get them off the hook. There are twists and turns along the way that make for an interesting read. This book will be translated into English by next year." From the book, Duean, who gets involved in each case, picked the story of a 15-year-old Shan girl who went to Chiang Rai to work in the sex trade, as one to teach people lessons.
The teenager confessed to her that she willingly entered the flesh trade because of a fallout with her parents over their refusal to forgive her for losing her virginity before marriage. Feeling dejected and that she had nothing to lose, she became a prostitute in the hope of using the money to support her parents so they would look at her favourably.
"Her case was unique in that she changed her statement in court just when we believed we had an open and shut case. Luckily, the judge ruled in our favour and the perpetrator was put behind bars," Duean said.
At the shelter, the girl took a keen interest in sewing, so when she was sent back to her village, Trafcord/Focus gave her a secondhand sewing machine so she could earn a livelihood.
She called Duean a few months later and told her that she had started her own beauty salon and was married. She thanked the team for their support.
After each rescue, Trafcord/Focus prioritises the victim's mental, physical, economic and social needs, and is grateful for the support from hospitals, protection centres and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security.
A victim-centred approach is used whereby special focus is put on improving the person's career skills through to education and vocational assistance. They also look into damage remuneration rendered for the individual by the court, and work towards helping them to better assimilate into society.
Duean said the public's general attitude of not wanting to interfere in other people's business coupled with a fear of backlash from perpetrators are two of the biggest prevailing factors that impede progress in such cases.
"By getting involved," says the advocate, "one can save a life. There are simple procedures one can use in safeguarding one's identity."
Trafcord's website (www.trafcord.org) offers conducive information and hotline numbers to address such situations.
Trafcord/Focus gets most of its leads to possible trafficking situations from both network groups and residents.
An investigation team is then set up to determine the facts of the situation before the decision is made to rescue the victims. Such undertakings customarily result in a collaboration between law enforcement officials and social welfare representatives. Social and legal aid is offered to the victim soon after, to facilitate justice and emotional recovery.
Asked to give her take on corrupt policemen, Duean said that while there are a significant number of them around, she has also personally encountered honest and sincere law enforcement officers that help women and children who have been lured by traffickers.
"Corruption practiced within law enforcement comes in all forms and is one crucial reason why we haven't truly been able to decrease crime in our society," said Duean. "Nonetheless, I do believe that we shouldn't generalise [by saying] that all policemen are self-serving and dishonest. There are officers out there who are dedicated and sincere towards solving crime and don't jump at every given opportunity to take bribes.
"While everyone would like to see justice served expeditiously, certain cases just cannot get addressed promptly by the police either because there is a strained budget or a lack of continued support from their superiors _ or sometimes it can be both.
"To tangibly make inroads in curbing such a crime, I honestly believe that there has to be strong implementation of the law.
"There has to be an action plan, political will and strong policy-making, which should be prioritised and carried out in an ongoing manner by everyone concerned, including the government.
"We have to also work collectively to strengthen the family unit so there will be better understanding between its members."