Sister Piyachat: Empowering Women in the World's Sex Tourism Capital
The city of Pattaya caters to the Western man’s every need.
Sports? Grab the latest soccer game playing at nearly all bars in the afternoon. Food? Grab a bite at one of the many McDonald’s or Burger Kings that line the main street. There’s a Hooter’s too. Beer? Patronize any of the American, British, Australian, or German style pubs for a taste of home. Sex? Plenty of it.
The city’s Red Light District, aptly named “Walking Street,” is filled with strip clubs, go-go bars, and massage parlors. The streets of downtown Pattaya are likewise filled with aging white men. And you know what they’re there for.
Pattaya is one of many such cities known for “sex tourism.” Men from all over the world travel to these destinations with the intentions of engaging in transactional sex with local men, women, and children, many of whom come from impoverished families and have limited economic opportunities.
But there is one nun in Pattaya who’s changing that. Sister Piyachat manages the Fountain of Life Women’s Center, a place where women can find love and support and enroll in classes that teach them marketable skills.
A strong believer in the power of reconciliation, Sister Piyachat wants to enable her students to reconcile with them themselves. She says, “we accept them first and then we teach them about dignity.” And this might be what is most special and most inspiring about Sister Piyachat: she showers these women with respect and dignity from the moment they walk through the door. When she looks at them she doesn’t see the face of a sex worker, she sees the face of the Samaritan Woman, the face of Mary Magdalene, and most importantly, the face of a women in need.
The irony of this was not lost on me. As a nun, Sister Piyachat took a vow of chastity, but that has not stopped her from helping women who were or are sex workers. Despite her own convictions, she shows not one shred of judgment for any of her students. Instead, she looks at them through the lens of grace and compassion.
“We believe that no one wants to be born to do prostitution,” she says as she explains that these women are frequently misunderstood. Many of them come from the Isan region of Thailand, where they grew up in poverty and have limited opportunities for employment. Furthermore, Sister Piyachat says that the majority of female sex workers in Pattaya enter the business to support their families and send much of their earnings back to Isan.
The Women’s Center offers a vast array of services to any woman that shows up at their door. Each day, women come to the center to take courses and develop skills that will make them more employable. The Center offers classes teaching hairdressing, Thai massage, typing, jewelry making, cooking, English, German and Thai. Sister’s students are also offered individual and group counseling and legal advice at the Center and are referred to a local HIV/AIDS clinic for medical treatment.
In February 2017 alone, 237 new women joined the Center. Women can attend as many classes for as long as they want — there is no expiration date for Sister Piyachat’s grace and love. And once a woman comes to center, they will forever remain one of Sister’s students. She calls them students because the title bestows dignity and respect, and many of these women never had the chance to be students when they were growing up.
Although she is compelled by her faith to help these women, Sister Piyachat never pressures them to share her religious beliefs. The Center serves Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and non-religious women. Each morning they sing a hymn and read a Bible verse, but they also read a passage from Buddhist scriptures and practice five minutes of meditation. During Christmas, Sister invites the Buddhist community in Pattaya to the Center for celebrations and transports women to temples where they can pray during Buddhist lent. “We never think that our God is better than others — never, never,” Sister says.
Sister Piyachat has no ulterior motives. She doesn’t hold food in one hand and a Bible in the other. She doesn’t treat these women with dignity and respect and then tell them they should believe in Jesus. Her sole motivation for her work is her faith in God.
"I am here because of faith. If I have no faith I cannot be here… In the name of the church, in the name of the Good Shepherds, in the name of Jesus, I am here, I’m still breathing. I believe that God called me to be a Catholic, to be a Good Shepherd Sister, to be here for the women who are in the need and for the young girls who are in need.”