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Activist dedicates life to combating sex trade

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Sompop Jantraka has been risking his life since 1988 to save hundreds of young girls each year from lives of prostitution and drugs in Thailand's brothels.

To recognize his efforts, University of Michigan Provost Teresa Sullivan will present Jantraka with the Wallenberg Medal during a presentation 7:30 p.m. March 13 at Rackham Auditorium.Afterward he will deliver the 17th annual Wallenberg Lecture.

In 1989, Jantraka founded the Daughters Education Program, which in 1992 became part of a larger organization, the Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC). Through these organizations, Jantraka has provided a home and an education to young people in an effort to prove women are more valuable to Thailand as educated members of the work force than as sex slaves.

The sex trade remains pervasive throughout Southeast Asia, where two-thirds of the world's extreme poor?790 million people?make a living on $1 a day. The International Labor Organization says at least 1 million child prostitutes are in Southeast Asia, with the greatest numbers in Thailand, India, Taiwan and the Philippines. Brothel owners have networks of agents who comb villages and seek out troubled families. The Asian economic boom and its subsequent bust are fueling the problem, according to a 2006 article in TimeAsia. The result has been a huge gap between rich and poor.

Jantraka's success at combating the sex trade has had little to do with bountiful resources. He and his network of volunteers identify children at risk and then plead, beg or berate parents into allowing their children to attend his school. "Sompop is willing to go to any length," says American filmmaker Christopher Osborn, who once worked with Jantraka. "He will sacrifice his money, position, even his friends?to help children."

Jantraka grew up in the southern Thai city of Surat Thani, where he was the child of a broken home who wandered the city's alleyways and hustled for change. His life changed dramatically after he met American Peace Corps volunteer Rebecca Pherin. She gave him two gifts: the chance to get an education and the notion that he could do something with his life.

In 1988, as a newly minted college graduate doing research on the causes of prostitution in Thailand, he traveled to Mae Sai to interview girls destined for the sex trade. They begged him for help. Jantraka took the $1,600 he had earned from his research job and paid the families of 19 girls to keep them at home and send them to school.

Soon Jantraka made both a huge impact and a lot of enemies. He quickly realized that it wasn't just brothel owners and pimps who had a vested interest in the sex trade. According to Jantraka, seemingly respectable people?wives of village leaders, teachers, police officers, and even parents?often are complicit in the sale of young girls into sexual slavery.

DEPDC focuses on preventing child labor exploitation as well as continuing its efforts to end the trafficking of women and children into the sex industry. It operates an emergency shelter for abused or abandoned children, provides care for girls who have left prostitution, and offers education programs and human rights training for undocumented migrants and indigenous people.

Jantraka's efforts have earned him two Nobel Peace Prize nominations and in 2002 he was profiled as an Asia Hero in Time magazine. He objects to being called a hero, saying that the real heroes are the children who work at his school and teach the younger children the difference between right and wrong.

Early last year Jantraka resigned as the director of DEPDC in order to focus on anti-trafficking programs throughout the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. His Mekong Youth Net, which he started in 2003, will have 100 youth social workers this year spread throughout the Great Mekong Sub-Region to work on combating human trafficking.

"This is a war," Jantraka said. "A war for our children."

Wallenberg Lecture