|There are as many as 300,000 commercial sex workers in Thailand, many of whom were trafficked from border villages or neighbouring countries after being promised legitimate work [EPA]|
The life of a sexually trafficked woman in Southeast Asia is almost unimaginable. The majority are tricked into leaving their homes, even in foreign countries, by the promise of a conventional, well-paying job that would allow them to support their families.
What happens next is something they could probably never expect.
Their identification and travel documents are taken by the traffickers, and the women are told they owe the traffickers for all travel expenses – except they are not going to be serving food or cleaning houses – they are forced into commercial sex work.
In many countries in Southeast Asia, it is the girls who are expected to bring in money for the family – and it doesn’t matter how.
Mental and physical hell
Sexually trafficked women are often forced to have sex with as many as five to 15 men each night – and in most places they are not allowed to refuse potential “clients” for any reason.
Many of the women become addicted to drugs, so that they can endure what is being done to them – meaning what little money they are given by the club owners is split between drugs and paying for their own food and clothing. Often, they don’t earn much from the industry at all.
“Liza”, a sexual trafficking survivor from the Philippines, explained that, one night, the owner of the club she worked at forced her to dance on the stage – despite the fact that she had just returned from a trip to the hospital for severe bleeding (which had turned out to be a miscarriage).
“That night there was a Chinese businessman at the club. He was a friend of the owner and told him that he wanted me to be his girlfriend – exclusive to him. I was brought to his apartment and handcuffed to a chair,” Liza told Al Jazeera.
“I was brought to his apartment and handcuffed to a chair… he made me his sex slave.“
– Liza, sex trafficking survivor
“He made me his sex slave”, she continued. “Finally I was able to gain his trust and he began to leave me un-handcuffed. That is when I was able to escape.”
“Victims of sexual trafficking are subject to physical and psychological torture. The traffickers will threaten them, that they’ll kill their family if they don’t work,” said Aimee Torres, president and founder of Majestic Dreams Foundation.
These women usually have poor health due to the physical, sexual and emotional abuse; as well as the drugs and poor living conditions. The risks for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy depend on the woman’s age and level of exploitation.
The number of adults registered as commercial sex workers is around 70,000, based on reports from the 2009 Human Rights Report: Thailand, produced by the US Department of State. However, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) believe this is a massive underestimation – they believe that there are probably more than 300,000 engaged in commercial sex work.
The same report estimates that there are as many as 60,000 children involved in prostitution in the country. However, accurate numbers are impossible to get because of the underground and hidden nature of the business.
Child exploitation has recently gone even deeper underground – making it difficult to combat the abuse of these children, according to Patchareeboon Sakulpitakphon, programme officer for End Child Prostitution Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT).
“[The children] now tend to be delivered directly to abusers in hotel rooms through a pre-arranged agreement that may be made by staff of entertainment establishments,” explained Sakulpitakphon.
Children end up in this work for different reasons; one of the most common is being trafficked illegally. Or they might be forced into sex work “if there is a burden placed on them to assist in helping the family financially… While the traffickers make a good profit from the selling of children, the child earns hardly anything,” said Sakulpitakphon.
The injustice of sexual trafficking is being fought in many ways: Rescue missions, education, rehabilitation, empowerment, the creation of new laws, better coordinated law enforcement and most importantly, prevention.
“That’s what we call a ‘hard mission’ – where we go in and anything could happen.“
– John Curtis, president of The Grey Man
The Grey Man, an organisation based in Australia, carries out rescue missions in southeast Asian brothels – looking specifically for children and underage sex workers. The group’s president, John Curtis – along with the other members of The Grey Man – has a background as a Special Forces commando in the Australian military.
For raids on brothels suspected to have underage children, they first send in young men from the group to the brothels posing as Western paedophiles looking to have sex with children.
“When they find them, we get all the information on covert cameras and then we let the police know if we’re going to do an operation … That’s what we call a ‘hard mission’ – where we go in and anything could happen,” Curtis explained.
A ‘soft rescue’ is where “we talk to girls and see if we can get them out using a social worker … or tell them we’ll provide them with an education as an alternative,” Curtis added.
When Liza escaped from being held as a sex slave, she didn’t leave commercial sex work. She went from working in one club to another. “I didn’t think I could go back to Iligan (her home village) after everything that had happened,” Liza explained.
During this time, Liza found out about the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific, and received support and counselling. This eventually allowed her to help form a new coalition named Bagong Kamalayan [“New Awareness”] with other women who had survived sex trafficking.
“I am happy that I am able to help other women, when before I wasn’t even able to help myself,” Liza said.
Like many organisations working with sex trafficking survivors, CATW-AP focuses on the “empowerment of survivors … the focus is on healing and supporting their self-organising,” said Executive Director Jean Enriquez. “We focus on a bigger perspective of the problem of trafficking. We support training of the survivors so they can become better leaders and advocate against the roots of the problem – unemployment, sexualisation of women and the power of men over women in society.”
Programs like these are essential to keeping survivors from falling back into the same type of work, or deciding never to try to leave in the first place.
“Many of the women and children go back to the brothels because the programmes provide only basic education and job skills – like maybe being a housekeeper. And you think about it … you’re pretty much saying you can either be a prostitute or some other kind of servant,” explained Torres.
Tomica Baquet, the vice-president of Majestic Dreams Foundation, continued: “The other difficult thing that comes into play is the number of jobs available to them … They have to be sure there’s another option for them.”
Although rescues and rehabilitation are important for those already trafficked, prevention is still the most effective strategy for combatting sexual trafficking as a whole.
“It’s more difficult to rescue women than to prevent it in the first place.“
– Jean Enriquez, Executive Director of CATW-AP
“We need education in the rural communities – this will lead to prevention on the supply side on a community level … it’s more difficult to rescue women than to prevent it in the first place,” Enriquez stressed.
“We also need to educate young men so they don’t want to contribute to the market … and educate young women to reduce vulnerability to being recruited for prostitution.”
Curtis also recognises the need for prevention “on the supply side”. The Grey Man sends 100 children to school every day, has built a joint shelter in the north of Thailand and is funding families and whole villages that have fallen into debt and are at high risk for trafficking.
“In northern Thailand, in the border villages, there are whole demographics missing … women and children from 12-25 are just gone. They’ve all been trafficked,” Curtis told Al Jazeera.
Choosing to stay
Of course, there are some women who do choose to partake in commercial sex work. Because of that choice, they suffer from a social stigma and a lack of recognition of their job as valid. This leads to unsafe working conditions, lack of healthcare, lack of fair compensation and social marginalisation.
Liz Hilton, coordinator for Empower – a group formed in 1984 by activists and sex workers from Pat Pong, Thailand, said there needed to be a focus on the “human rights of sex workers, and women in general”.
“Sex workers are criminalised and just generally punished on many different legal levels – they can be punished under immigration, trafficking and entertainment laws. Yet they are given no protection under labour law, and get no form of security,” Hilton explained.
While the (mostly male) consumers of sexual services are generally not punished, women in southeast Asia are criminalised.
This type of law enforcement has not stopped commercial sex work from continuing – so perhaps the issue should be looked at from a new angle? One example of this is a law enacted in Sweden in 1999 which makes it illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell them. Since that law was enacted, street prostitution in Sweden was halved.
Support from the law?
Curtis says that when he involves the local police in rescue missions, it becomes obvious that some policemen profit from brothels’ continued business.
“We suspect a certain level of corruption … on one mission the police went into the brothel and came back to report that there were no girls there, that it was actually a grocery store. But we had footage of the girls inside so obviously those guys were being paid off,” Curtis said.
Although there are laws against human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and children, enforcement is a key challenge and uneven, to say the least, in southeast Asia. Officials often have limited capacity, resources and staffing to address the problem.
To make matters worse, some governments fear prioritising the issue and making a real effort to end commerical sex work because they believe it would negatively impact tourism. At the same time, governments in the West fail to help the situation by not monitoring their travelling sex offenders and paedophiles.
In general, there is a significant lack of coordination between local, national and international governmental and policing agencies. On average, only one trafficker was convicted for every 800 people trafficked in 2006 according to UN.GIFT.
“The punishment that is carried out is not nearly strict enough to reflect the grave nature of the crimes committed,” stressed Sakulpitakphon.