Eighteen years ago, Noi held her mother Ning’s hand before she was given to a shady man who took the young teenage girl to his house where he raped her. No money changed hands, but Ning’s gambling debts were wiped clean. It wouldn’t be the last time.

Now a single mother herself, Noi, 33, was forced by economics to send her 16-year-old daughter to live with 57-year-old Ning as she went to work in Pattaya’s bars. She said she never dreamed her mother would do the same thing to her granddaughter.

Despite all the economic and social progress Thailand has made over the past 50 years, the practice of parents and grandparents pushing their young girls into the sex trade lingers on. During the Vietnam War, as American GIs flocked to Pattaya for R&R, poor farmers in the impoverished Northeast would say “the only valuable crop a girl grows is between her legs”.

Women’s standing in Thai society obviously has improved in the decades since, but the tragic case of Ning, Noi and young Neung shows there still is much progress to be made.

Pattaya area police this week issued an arrest warrant for Ning and the loan shark to whom she pimped out granddaughter Neung. It had taken nearly two months for police to charge them.

It began Sept. 2 when Noi contacted the Paveena Foundation for Children and Women after learning from neighbors that her daughter had been sent to have sex with the loan shark identified only as “Eid”.

Ning is a degenerate gambler and has been most of Noi’s life. But she had little choice but to send Neung to live with her after she divorced. Despite her own history, she said she never dreamed Ning would pay off her gambling debts with her granddaughter’s virginity.

Under questioning by her mother, the girl confirmed the episode. Noi tried to take back custody, but Noi forbade it and Ning was too cowered to fight back. So she contacted the Paveena Foundation, an acclaimed charity run by women’s rights advocate and for Social Welfare and Human Security minister Paveena Hongsakul.

The foundation intervened and removed the girl from her grandmother’s house.

Life has not been kind to Neung. Nearly bankrupted by her gambling addiction, Grandma Ning forced Neung to drop out of school after sixth grade, claiming sh had no money for tuition or supplies.

Although she was now safe from further trafficking, Neung spent the two five weeks shuttled between three different shelters in Pathum Thani, Chonburi and Nonthaburi, where she remains.

Ning was charged with human trafficking of a minor, among other charges, while the loan shark faces rape and trafficking charges.

Neung’s situation is less common than it used to be, but certainly not rare.

In 2018, a 47-year-old Indian tourist vacationing in Pattaya was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old girl for money. He was charged with statutory rape and other crimes.

In another recent case, eight girls and young women, including a 13-year-old school student, were found to be offering sexual services to men in their 30s, 40s and even 60s in Nakhon Sawan. The men were charged with various offences.

And earlier this year, well-known Bangkok massage parlor Victoria’s: The Secret Forever was caught engaging in large-scale prostitution with many of the sex workers underage. At least one of the working girls was only 15 while some others told police they had started working in the industry when they were primary school age.

“They told us that they had been forced into the flesh trade when they were just between 12 and 13 years old at Victoria’s: The Secret Forever. After spending a few years there, they were sent to Malaysia,” said Supat Thamthanarug, a senior police officer who heads the Department of Special Investigations’ Bureau of Human Trafficking Crime.

Many of the youngsters working in Thailand’s sex trade are migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia who are trafficked into prostitution, begging and other activities by criminal networks, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which released a report in August. Lured with promises of good incomes, they are easy targets for unscrupulous traffickers, experts say.

“Higher wages and the demand for labor in certain industries, combined with the lack of income-generating opportunities and widespread poverty in the source countries, especially in rural areas of Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, are the main pull factors that draw migrant workers to Thailand,” the UNODC noted in its report.

The problem of trafficking and exploitation could get even worse as endemic poverty deepens across the region, especially in already underprivileged communities, in the wake of severe economic downturns in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia triggered by the global Covid-19 pandemic.

The economy of Thailand itself is expected to shrink by 8-10 percent this year, causing massive disruptions to livelihoods. Many more young people might turn to prostitution and other illegal activities to support themselves and their families, experts warn.

Despite a social stigma attached to it, many young women, men and transgender people from underprivileged backgrounds already believe sex work is their only chance for a better income.

“I only have a high school diploma, so for me finding a good job is very hard,” a young woman from Sisaket, who works in Bangkok’s nightlife industry, told a UCA News reporter. “I can make good money by going with customers.”

This story combines includes reporting from the Pattaya Mail and UCA News, both Bangkok Herald partners.