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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

People on the Move

N° 96 (Suppl.), December 2004





(in Thailand)



Sister Michelle LOPEZ, RGS

Good Shepherd Sisters Thailand, 

Fountain of Life Center – Pattaya


Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you on behalf of our women and children. The mission of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd is “to be a presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd” who approached each person with compassion, gentleness, acceptance, and respect. We believe that through this approach we can awaken in those wounded by injustice, oppression and alienation a deep sense of their infinite worth and dignity as persons and instill in them a hope for the future. Mindful of our philosophy that, “One person is more precious than the whole world,” each Good Shepherd Sister strives to reach out to those most abandoned by society.

At the Fountain of Life Centre in Pattaya, Thailand, we work with women and children who are exploited by the sex tourism industry.

Why does sex tourism exist? This is the question we have been asking at every national and international meeting on women and children. At Stockholm one of the speakers challenged us with this question. “Why is it that we who are in the helping profession go to the river every day to rescue those who have been pushed into the river. How is it that during all these years no one has ventured to go up the river to find out who pushed them down?”[1] 

Responding to this challenge some of us designed aggressive policies to expand our existing networks to track down perpetrators, pedophiles, sex tourists, tour groups that promote sex tourism etc. and yet today, eight years after Stockholm and two years after Yokohama[2] we are still grappling with the evils of sex tourism. Sex tourists continue to travel to Third World countries and the sexual exploitation of local women and children in these regions goes on. In fact sex tourists from their own developed countries are very hostile towards women’s perceived power. They dread women’s ability to reject their sexual advances and are threatened by women’s demands for equality.

I remember returning to Thailand after our meeting in Stockholm, with this gnawing question: Who pushed these women and children down? One evening during our group therapy session, I asked the women this question. I was sure that I would get the same answers that I had got elsewhere:

White male tourist 

Rich Asian men

People with money

Families in destitute poverty.  

The list went on and on until Dang, one of the young woman in the group who was tired of hearing the same litany of names, angrily told the group: This is our present world order? It is no accident. It has been carefully planned. Who are we to change the world. Then looking at me Dang said “Don’t ask such questions. You only make us aware of our fixed place in this well designed plan. A cold silence filled the atmosphere after she had spoken. Then the silence was broken by a nervous laugh from one of the participants. Everyone in that therapy group got her message but the only response they could give was “a nervous laugh.”

Today my sharing will focus on the question “Who pushed them down.” This question demands that we look critically at our social, political, economic cultural, mythical and religious systems. 

Very often when we discuss the issue of gender, we notice that most of the definitions that are given by the women are not in any way connected with one’s biological sex. Instead the meanings that they attach to a particular gender are cultural values that have been deeply ingrained in their minds and hearts. So to be a female or to be a woman means passivity, living for others, doing everything so that one will be accepted, denying oneself so that another’s needs and aspirations can be fulfilled, always being nice and trying to please the other, finding creative ways of being a desirable object etc. 

This is what makes a good woman. This is feminine holiness.

When we ask the women to explain what it means to be male or to be a man, we get the exact opposite answer. Words such as aggressive, educators, inventors, bold, unintimidated, free, directors, creators etc. are the words used to describe male. This is what makes a good man. This is masculine holiness.

The women not only seemed comfortable with these definitions, but they also seemed that it was their lot simply because they were born female. It is not surprising therefore to notice that women who work in the sex tourism industry neither challenge nor demand much from the male sex tourists. Here is a situation when “oppressed people especially women have internalized their oppression so well that they have no sense of what they are justly entitled to as human beings.” These core beliefs and unconscious rules have been instilled into them by parents, peers, teachers, TV, etc., and the scary thing is that they never consciously set this up – they just grew up with them. At our Fountain Of Life Center we have addressed the question of gender inequality by helping our women to free themselves from slavish conformity to cultural practices. By doing this they will also gain more control over their bodies and over their lives. We know that this will be a very slow process because society continues to reinforce roles for men and women that are not mutually enriching. Slavish conformity to cultural practices continues to push women and children into the river.

Whenever we discuss religion, the immediate response from the women is the importance of making merit such as feeding the monks, giving food and small donations to orphans, etc. By doing so, our women feel that can make reparation for the sexual crimes they have committed. Never is there ever a mention of the sex tourists’ involvement. Most women in our Center are not aware that they have internalized oppression, and this lack of awareness makes it difficult for them to see themselves as equals of those who oppressed them. All that they are aware of is that they are bad and sinful. As they often tell us, “Our bodies have been defiled. But we pray and we hope that by making merit we will be forgiven.” Raising their consciousness so that they can clearly see and name the injustice under which they have been suffering is a very important aspect of our ministry. The image they have of God is the image they have for male and masculine holiness. Only males can be monks, can perform rituals and attain high levels of meditation. Attitudes like these “reinforce the implicit assumption that maleness is closer to divinity. Our women presume that THE HOLY cannot be like them.”[3] To changes these deeply held religious beliefs is a very slow and gradual process because religions and rituals continue to see women mainly as penitents in need of healing. In a “Letter to Women,” John Paul II said: “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogative misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude. This has prevented women from truly being themselves and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity." (n. 3)[4]

Religions, their traditions, and their patriarchal structures continue to function “as one of the most effective means for legitimating and even promoting women’s restriction.”[5]  

Political and economic factors have played an important role in promoting the sex tourism industry. Our women are aware of the feminization of poverty. They are aware that women constitute 70% of the world’s poor and that women have to support their families through precarious employment in the growing informal sector. They are also aware that bar owners need unskilled and cheap labour. Women’s labour is usually in low status work in the domestic and entertainment spheres and in the informal sector. Our women know about corruption. They are the victims. They have encountered corrupt police, law enforcers, officials and peacemakers. As Dang so rightly put it, our present world order is no accident. It has been well designed. We know that, “It is a consequence of sin, of sin that has become structural. Personal sin, greed and hardness of heart, have built up structures of power and injustice that oppose healthy development.”[6] 

The International Women Religious Leaders during their meeting publicly declared "their determination to work in solidarity with one another and to address insistently at every level the abuse and sexual exploitation of women and children with particular attention to the trafficking of women which has become a lucrative multinational business.”[7]

Solidarity should be our fundamental attitude to the reality of suffering, injustice and poverty in the world. But solidarity goes beyond “research, data collection, dissemination of information, awareness raising, advocacy, prevention, advocacy and lobbying of governments and networking.”[8]

We have to live our solidarity by taking our place beside those who have no resources of their own, and this can often be a very uncomfortable position because we might be led to places where we would prefer not to go. We might be led to the unknown, the undesirable, and painful places and be challenged to reflect realistically on what we are doing. It would mean downward mobility ending in the Cross. It is here that we will experience not only the powerlessness of those we work with but our own powerlessness too, and together we will cry out to Yahweh who hears the cry of the poor:

Psalm 13: Prayed during unbearable


Psalm13: Prayed by the Prostituted and

Trafficked Women and Children 


How long, O Yahweh?

Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face

Before me


How long am I to carry

Sorrow about in my soul?

Grief in my heart day after day?

How long will my enemies

Rise up against me?

Behold me, hear me,

O Yahweh, my God!

Enlighten my eyes

That I may not fall asleep in death!


That my enemy may not say,

I have subdued him!

That my adversary may not exult

Because I am shaken.



Yet I trust in your goodwill.

May my heart exult in your help.

I want to sing to Yahweh

For He has done good things for me.


How long, O Yahweh?

Will you utterly forget me?

How long will I experience

Your apparent absence


How long am I to carry pain in my body

Sorrow in my soul – as I cry out to you

Night after night?

How long will the bar-owners

Triumphantly use and abuse me?

Notice me, look at my broken body,

Oh Yahweh, my God!

Enlighten my drooping eyes

That I may not fall asleep in death!


That my exploiters may not say,

We have subdued her with our money!

That my owners may not exult

Over my economic productivity.



Yet, I – NID NOOY – Your Little One

I trust in your faithfulness.

My heart rejoices – Even in darkness!

I want to sing to you, Yahweh,

For you understand my anguish

And you will rescue me. 

Authentic spirituality has to be contextualised. It unites all the aspects of our daily life enabling us to find God not only in the depths of our being but also in the encounter with people and events. To create a dichotomy between them is to break the unity that binds us with all people in their struggle with sin and pain. 

Therefore we need to adapt our prayers to their struggles. Gustavo Gutierrez says that while the language of human rights demands that we take the victim’s side, the Gospel demands that we take it as our own. 

One of my favourite Easter passages is the Journey to Emmaus (Luke 24:21), when the Rabbi’s disciples presented to their unrecognised resurrected master the question of suffering, as they struggled with the crucifixion and shameful death of their beloved master. WHY? Their question was timeless, and is as current today as it was on that dusty road to Emmaus. Our lives are punctuated with seasons of light and darkness. Both are in the service of truth. They have the power to unmask, dis-empower and deconstruct our manufactured images of God, feminine holiness, masculine holiness, the poor, progress, patriarchy and marginality.The questions that we continually ask, now become the questions Christ asks of us through our poor. “The Poor constitute a medium of Christ’s continued real presence” and they “mediate amidst us the real presence of Christ.”[9] To believe this is real POWER. God is terribly near. God is around us wherever we go. In the sex bars, trafficked, sold and resold. The great challenge is that we still need to “find the face of God in the features of every crucified human, especially women and children – no matter how inhuman. For if we don’t, we shall not experience how incredibly near God actually is.”[10] 

To combat sex tourism we need a multi-dimensional approach. After having worked for more than 15 years with women and children who are exploited by the sex tourism industry, and after trying all the methods advocated, I believe that EMPOWERING our women and children is crucial. It is irreplaceable. The way we socialize and educate our boys and girls today will tell us the type of society we will have tomorrow. It is our duty to reinterpret religious, cultural, and social values. The Pope tells us that the main aim of the Church’s social doctrine is to interpret realities, “determine their conformity with or divergence from the lines of the Gospel teaching” on our vocation as Children of God. The Church’s social doctrine also aims “to guide Christian behaviour… The condemnation of evils and injustices is part of”[11] our ministry as Christians. If we fail to do so, we are on the side of the oppressors, and we will be held accountable for pushing our women and children down the river.   

[1]World Congress on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Stockholm, August 1996.

[2]World Congress on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, Yokohama, December 2001.

[3]Joann Wolski Conn, Women’s Spirituality (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1996), 13.

[4]Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women 1995.
[5]Conn, Women’s Spirituality, 12.
[6]Franz Magniz-Susenso, Prophetic Discipleship in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 68.
[7]JPIC (Justice and Peace International Commission) of the Unions of the Superiors General USG/UISG, “Working Group on Trafficking in Women and Children:” (Rome 2003): 30.
[8] Ibid., 29.
[9]Aloysius Pieris, God’s Reign For God’s Poor (Sri Lanka: Tulana Research Center, 1998), 29.
[10]Walter Burghardt, “The Great Preachers” (Gateway Films Vision Video): 6.
[11]Pope John II, On Social Concerns (Australia NSW: St. Paul Publications, 1988), No. 41.