The Thailand That Binds

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Long before the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami devastated South Asia and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean, a disaster of a different sort has been rising in Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and other nations: child prostitution.

The numbers are staggering:

* Approximately 200,000 to 250,000 children are trapped in the sex trade in Thailand, where 80% of prostitutes are under the age of 16.

* An estimated 50% of Thai child-prostitutes are HIV positive.

* In Cambodia, seven out of 10 children live in poverty in rural villages, making them vulnerable to those who seek to purchase new prostitutes. Of the sex workers in Cambodia, 86% were sold to brothels by relatives or friends.

One man has had enough of listening to the stories and has decided to leave the credit union movement in an attempt to make a difference. Ted Ginoza, vice president of marketing for Farmers Insurance Group Federal Credit Union, will leave his post in late February. Ginoza, his wife and four-year-old son will move to Thailand March 1 to help run a home for children.

Ginoza, who has worked for CUs in Hawaii and California for 20 years, first learned of the growing child sex trade in Southeast Asia when his wife's sister and her husband took over a children's home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, two years ago.

"The home has been funded by family and friends," he said. "It now is home to 53 children. We plan to expand it to 250."

The Hill Villages in northern Thailand are extremely poor, Ginoza explained. There is no running water and no electricity, so residents must scrabble daily for food. In some cases, the parents are dead, or families have six, eight or even 10 children and don't have the ability to feed them.

"If we don't do something, some families are tricked into giving their kids away," he said. "Some willingly sell their children. Sometimes they are told their children will be maids, but a few knowingly sell them into the sex trade."

To counter the money being offered to these families in exchange for children, Ginoza said he will house and educate them, and will let them go home during harvest season. This will allow them to help the family at a crucial time, and maintain a bond.

The December, 2004 tsunami has exacerbated the problem in southern Thailand, Ginoza continued.

With many parents dead or families separated, children are being snatched off the streets.

"We believe there are many kids who have lost their whole families," he said.

Asked if the job seems overwhelming, Ginoza acknowledged: "We know it's a big task, but it's something people will relate to. Many have offered to help. Before, people didn't believe how brutal it is over there. But now, there has been a media focus and an outcry."

The children's home will rely on fundraising from the United States. It is affiliated with ZOE International Ministries, a Christian-based organization headquartered in Santa Clarita, Calif.

Ginoza said his long-term plan is to obtain a large tract of land and create a home that is self-sufficient.

He foresees growing crops and maintaining fish ponds for food. Eventually, he wants to turn it over to Thai nationals.

"Our goal is to educate these children to become the future leaders of their country who will fight these heinous crimes," he declared. "It is our hope they will serve as the next generation to fight and eliminate child prostitution and human slavery."

"When you really think about it, what we are doing is very similar in nature to the credit union philosophy of: not for profit, not for charity, but for service."

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