Plan II student combats sex trafficking in Southeast Asia

Plan II student combats sex trafficking in Southeast Asia volunteering at an orphanage for sex-trafficking victims in Vietnam
Plan II student combats sex trafficking in Southeast Asia volunteering at an orphanage for sex-trafficking victims in Vietnam. Marsha Miller

While interning for International Justice Mission, a human rights organization in Washington, D.C., Christine Nguyen happened to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walking through the corridors of the Capitol building.

Instead of letting the Secretary of State pass her by, the Plan II/government/business honors/management student introduced herself and asked Rice what she was doing to end human rights violations in India and Asia.

"Secretary Rice assured me she was working with government leaders to support reforms," Nguyen says. "There wasn't time for her to offer many specifics, but I knew I couldn't miss the opportunity to ask a few key questions."

Nguyen smiles as she recalls the meeting, but her seemingly demure exterior can't hide a fierce passion that has fueled her human rights advocacy work during her years at The University of Texas at Austin.

At the age of 19, Nguyen's experience volunteering at an orphanage for sex-trafficking victims in Vietnam inspired her to found the Southeast Asian Children's Coalition, an international non-profit organization that combats poverty and exploitation. For the past four years, the college student has been the coalition's executive director.

"My parents told me my whole life that I'm lucky, but I didn't know what that truly meant until I met Tau, a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who escaped from the brothel where she was imprisoned as a sex slave," Nguyen says.

Human trafficking, the recruitment of peopleoften childrenfor the purpose of exploitation, including prostitution, is a growing problem internationally, Nguyen explains.

The number of people being "trafficked" ranges from 500,000 to two million per year. It is a $5 to $9 billion-a-year industry, according to estimates by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Nguyen returns to Vietnam each year and she has raised more than $60,000 for the Southeast Asian Children's Coalition through grants and corporate contributions.

"Our work is not just about rescuing these girls from the brothels," she says. "We take a three-pronged approach to the problem that includes protection, prevention and prosecution. The biggest challenge is reintegrating the girls back into society through education and job training."

Under Nguyen's leadership, the coalition has awarded 65 scholarships for students at Van Thang Primary School in Nha Trang City, raised funds for construction of a library at Nha Trang Orphanage, delivered medical supplies to Binh Hoang AIDS orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City and created a counseling program for sex trafficking survivors at the Little Rose Shelter, also in Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen's friend Tau, now 16-years-old, is a mentor in the program.

"When I see the difference we've made in the lives of girls like Tau, I know the work we're doing really can make a huge impact," Nguyen says.

Nguyen's activism in Asia served as the inspiration for her honors thesis on human trafficking, and caught the attention of editors at Glamour, who selected Nguyen for the magazine's profile of the "Top Ten College Women of 2006."

Nguyen has been awarded the Rubenstein Fellowship to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School this fall. However, those plans won't prevent her from returning to Vietnam next month.

"My education at UT taught me that we live in an interconnected world," Nguyen says. "My goal is to use that knowledge to move seamlessly between the government, non-profit and business sectors to find real, workable solutions to the human rights issues facing the world today."