Sompop Jantraka was born in 1957 in Surat Thani province, in southern Thailand. His family was destitute, so Sompop supported himself through primary and secondary school with labor as a temple boy. He lived with his grandmother but also at times in the streets, often having to pick up garbage or dig wells and graves. Sompop’s life was transformed when a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer came to his school. With her help and encouragement, he learned English quickly and therein found his opportunities for an education. Since their 1996 reunion at Peace Corps/Washington, D.C., this volunteer has been a great friend of the family and of DEPDC.
In 1985, Sompop received his Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies and Political Science from Chiang Mai University. During this time, he played in a band to support himself and was a tour guide for Alternative Tours of Thailand. Working for Alternative Tours was an excellent opportunity for Sompop to meet diverse people from all over the world. Tour groups came from a variety of backgrounds — from educators and social organizations to staff from government organizations and NGOs. This experience allowed him to learn a great deal about social issues, including the problem of child prostitution.
Many thousands of young girls from Thailand and surrounding regions have been coerced into prostitution. Brothel owners have networks of agents who search in the rural villages for impoverished families with daughters who are completing compulsory schooling. Many families, with so few resources, sell their daughters to these brothel agents in order to survive financially. Many of these girls — and their parents — believe they are going to work as housemaids, but instead find themselves forced into the sex trade. Once sold into the industry, it is extremely difficult to escape.
In 1988, Sompop became a researcher for a university research institution and worked with a Japanese journalist to investigate the problem of prostitution in Thailand. This position led him to Mae Sai in northern Thailand, where he interviewed girls destined for prostitution. Learning about these stories, Sompop decided to take action. In 1989, Sompop founded the Daughters Education Programme (DEP). The focus of this project was to prevent vulnerable girls from being forced into the sex industry by funding their education as the alternative. DEP worked with a network of volunteers in villages in northern Thailand and the greater Mekong region to intervene with the families before the girls were sold to brothel agents or owners. DEP provided the alternative of safe shelter and free education to the girls to save them from entering the sex trade.
In 1993, DEP became a project under a larger organization, DEPDC: Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities. With Sompop’s first grant as an Ashoka Fellow in 1994, several additional projects and trainings were realized as well as the official opening of the center at Mae Sai. DEPDC has ever since focused on prevention efforts for child labor exploitation as well as continued efforts to end the trafficking of women and children into the sex industry. DEPDC offers free education, vocational training and full-time accommodation for young girls and boys. The program hosts an emergency shelter for abused or abandoned children, provides care for girls who have left prostitution and offers education programs and human rights trainings for undocumented migrants and indigenous people. Since its inception, DEPDC has helped prevent thousands of children in the Mekong sub-region from succumbing to the sex industry and other exploitative child labor situations.
Sompop’s innovative work across the border awarded him a second Ashoka fellowship in 1998. His courageous work for peace has been recognized with two Nobel Peace Prize nominations. In 2002, he was profiled as an Asia Hero in Time/Asia magazine, and Reader’s Digest/Australia has twice told the DEPDC story. A 2005 American Public Television documentary series, “The New Heroes,” profiled Sompop among world “social entrepreneurs.” Also released that year was a documentary DVD entitled “Daughters and Sons: Preventing Child Trafficking in the Golden Triangle,” which was honored at the Boston International Film Festival.
In January 2007, Sompop moved on from being director of DEPDC so that he could focus on developing anti-trafficking programs throughout the Greater Mekong sub-region, including Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Yunnan Province in south China. He continues to be active within the organization he founded as he expands his work to other parts of the world through the Mekong Youth Net (MYN), an objective he began preparing in 2003. In 2008, MYN will have 100 youth social workers dispersed throughout the Greater Mekong sub-region whose efforts will be to combat human trafficking.
The above essay is property of DEPDC, Mae Sai, Thailand.