The year of (not) winning

The Year of the Goat has begun; and I for one am glad that the Year of the Horse is behind us.

At the start of 2014, I quietly decided that it was to be the Year of Winning. Readers of this blog will know that in the past couple of years Blue Dragon has been increasingly struggling with the issue of pedophiles in Hanoi exploiting street boys.

Pretty much every single boy who turns up in the city, escaping fractured families or poverty in the countryside, is met by a pedophile or one of their pimps within hours of arriving. Some of these men have deliberately targeted children who are at Blue Dragon and other charities, while most just hang around in the parks and internet cafes where homeless children tend to gather. Increasingly they are using social media to trawl for vulnerable children, meaning that their reach is close to limitless.

A year ago I determined that 2014 was to be the year that we got on top of the issue here in Hanoi and brought it back under control. I really believed that we could.

But we didn't. We didn't win.

At times we felt that we were incredibly close. At times we were sure we couldn't fail. But the year has passed, and the problem remains.

Kids who are caught up in this horrible trade are deeply confused and tormented; they want to escape the cycle of abuse but are steeped in shame at what is happening to them. They want to accept our help, but don't believe in themselves and don't think they are worthy of our kindness. Many act in self-destructive ways and take to using methamphetamines; the underlying problem is that they hate themselves and believe they deserve nothing good.

Even now, there are boys in Blue Dragon who only recently left the streets and are still being approached - in person and through Facebook - by the pimps and pedophiles who want to exploit them. It's unbelievably hard for the kids to be trying to move on with their lives, while their exploiters live just hundreds of metres away, in some cases.

And then there are the kids who gave in, who went with the abusers thinking they would make some quick money and then be done with it or were duped into going back to someone's house to sleep and ended up being raped. Ashamed and humiliated, they disappeared into Hanoi's seedy underbelly and gave up their hopes and dreams for the future. These are kids as young as 13 years old.

I wanted us to defeat these abusers so that we could protect the children, but at times it feels like everything is lost. Even now, there is a terrible frustration in knowing who these abusers are and not being able to stop them.

And yet, we have had some beautiful victories along the way. Many kids who were ensnared in the pedophile rings broke free and have settled into our shelters and homes, or returned to their own families. Some took months to calm down and start leading a stable life; some are yet to fully make the transition. Each has been through a tremendous inner struggle, so watching them transform into happy, smiling teens has been an amazing experience.

We've had great success, too, in starting to win support from local officials and police. Until now, this problem has been completely unknown in Hanoi. Indeed, many people appear shocked when we raise with them the issue of boys being sexually abused. But every single official we have approached and spoken to has expressed support and agreed that things have to change.

The great challenge is that Vietnamese law currently does not recognise that boys can be the victims of sexual abuse. In March, when our work resulted in the arrest of one of Hanoi's serial pedophiles, the man was charged with indecency, rather than sexual abuse, and so received a relatively light sentence (4 years) compared to his horrific crimes.

We've embarked on a plan to have that law revised, possibly within the first half of this year. We are working with police, the National Assembly, and the media to enable them to see the issue up close, as we do. And most importantly, we have put every last drop of our energy into caring for the kids who have been impacted by this abuse. At times it has been massively draining and seemingly futile, but it is with the individual kids that we have had both the greatest joys of success and the greatest sorrows of failure.

So we did not win, as I had hoped, but neither have we lost. We've made progress, and are even more determined - and knowledgeable - than a year ago. The men who exploit street kids might think they can get away with this forever, but they're wrong.

One of my greatest fictional heroes is Mulder from the X-Files, who failed repeatedly but persisted because he believed in his cause. One episode finished with him laying in a hospital bed barely alive, after a long journey in his attempt to save the world. When he awoke, his partner Scully asked: "Did you find what you were looking for?"

His answer: "No, but I found something else. The faith to keep looking."

2014 was not the Year of Winning. But as the Year of the Goat kicks off, I will not give up hope that Vietnamese kids can be protected and safe, as all kids deserve to be.