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Red Light, Green Light: The Global Trafficking of Women

Discusses the international sex trafficking industry, including the women and girls who work as entertainment girls, hospitality girls, prostitutes, and massage girls.

Entertainment girls, hospitality girls, prostitutes, massage girls, it all means the same thing. They're part of the globalization of the world's economy. Goods to be shipped across borders, through one airport to another, sometimes overland. Commodities in a multibillion dollar industry. Only the products are women and children being sold for profit. We're talking here about international sex trafficking.

There are several categories of trafficking. The first and largest (which this article will concentrate on) is that of the transnational sex industry: international prostitution. There is also the mail-order bride industry. The other main category is that of exporting workers in exchange for foreign capital to be sent back home. In the case of women, these are usually domestic workers or nurses. The women all perform services that are deemed necessary and vital to the host countries, yet they live in the margins, more often than not, invisible.

The traffick is that of poor women to richer men. The flow of poor women from the South to North is the largest, although now there is also an increase of women from the former Eastern bloc. The most frequent destinations for the women are Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and the Middle East.

The women come from rural areas and city slums. They are either recruited as tourist workers or are often kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. Others are simply sold outright. In some countries there are actual markets where women are sold in the streets. Actually to call most of them women is a misnomer, for often they are young girls, ages 10-15. Some have not even reached the age of menstruation, many have no idea what sex is.

Think of it. You're a young girl brought from Burma, you have been kidnapped or bought. You're terrified. You have no idea where you are, what country you're in, what's going to happen to you. If you haven't been raped along the way (or sometimes even if you have) you're immediately brought to the "Room of the Unveiling of the Virgin." There you are raped continuously - until you can no longer pass for a virgin. Then you are put to work.

These girls are bought for $400-$800. They're told they will have to earn this money back before they can leave the brothel. They're charged for all their clothes, food, and board and usually receive only 20 percent of the money they earn. In reality they often earn back four to five times what they owe before the managers tell them they're on their own. Once that happens the women are often no better off than before. They have no livelihood other than sex work, they have no home, and they've been stigmatized for life.

It's not that any of this is exactly new. Women have been bought and sold for thousands of years. We're all only too familiar with the "world's oldest profession." Mail-order brides have also been commonplace - did you see The Piano? But the selling has become more organized and systematized. It's the scope, money, and reasons involved that make this business one that has reached catastrophic proportions.

The numbers are staggering. Here are just a few of the statistics. It's estimated that from one to two million women and children are trafficked each year. During a 1991 conference of Southeast Asian women's organizations, it was estimated that 30 million women have been sold worldwide since the mid-70s. Over 100,000 women are shipped each year to Japan to serve in indentured servitude in bars and brothels. Thousands of young women and girls are sent from Nepal to India and from Burma to Thailand. In the past year 200,000 women have been sent from Bangladesh to Pakistan. Young women have been found in China on their way to the brothels of Bangkok. Women from Latin America and Africa are turning up in Thailand and Europe, just as those from Latin America and the Caribbean are shipped to the U.S., although a real study of the traffick into the U.S. and Canada hasn't been done. These numbers mostly exclude the issue of internal trafficking for "domestic consumption."

How did these numbers come about?

During the 60s and 70s tourism became one of the big industries for developing nations. Promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and agencies like U.S.AID, countries were urged to exploit their natural resources by developing resorts and hotels to attract foreign capital. Part and parcel of the tourist attraction was sex. Package tours were developed to include airfare, accommodations, cars, and women or men for sexual pleasure. In Thailand, for instance, travel brochures promote "sun, sea, and sex." They build on the patriarchal and racist fantasies of European, Japanese, American, and Australian men by touting the exotic, erotic subservience of Asian women.

"They [sex tours] offer meetings with the most beautiful and young Eastern creatures (age 16 to 24 years) in a soft and sexy surrounding and in the seductive and tropic night of the exotic paradise. You get the feeling that taking a girl here is as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes.Many of the girls in the sex world come from the poor northeastern region of the country or the slums of Bangkok. It has become more a habit that one of the nice looking daughters goes into the business. They have to earn money for the poor family. With this little slave you can do practically everything in the field of sex the whole night and you will not be disappointed with the girl. She gives real Thai warmth."

-Excerpts from a Dutch tourist pamphlet on sex tours in Thailand

The war in Vietnam brought a military buildup in Asia that ironically proved fortuitous to many countries' economies. Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Okinawa built up a burgeoning sex industry outside the bases. Rest and recreation ("R & R") actually created new cities and added much-needed capital to the overall economy of each nation. It is estimated that by the mid-80s the sex industries around the bases in the Philippines had generated more than $500 million. At the end of the war in Vietnam, Saigon had 500,000 prostituted women - this is equal to the total population of Saigon before the war.

Many of these countries developed policies and passed legislation to aid the sex business and "support the boys." Thailand, for example, passed the Entertainment Act, which included an incredible policy called "Hired Wife Services." By the mid-70s there were 800,000 prostituted Thai women.

Asian women were (and still are) looked upon as fragile, exotic, sexual flowers, there for men to do with as they wished. Men were convinced that practices that might be frowned upon or illegal in their own countries would be available in places like Bangkok and Manila. This has become true for both heterosexual and homosexual men, for the sale of young boys is also big business.

"If you want extremely young girls, or generally speaking, if you want something for which you could get "hanged" in your own country, you can find it in these places without the risk of getting hanged. You can expect a nod of the head, the Asian clasp of the hands, all accompanied by a "thank you.""

-German tourist brochure on Thailand, 1983

Tourists arrived by the thousands, bringing in the much-needed yen, marks, and dollars. Almost 75 percent of the five million tourists who come to Thailand each year are males. Some companies go so far as to arrange special tours as incentives and rewards for their employees. Tourism has emerged as the single largest foreign exchange earner in Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines. Men are guaranteed a good time and, to sweeten the deal, are given the impression that they are actually doing good deeds.

"When you screw here, you may not do it for Germany but you certainly do it for the welfare of Kenya."

-German tourist

Tax-free zones, industrial zones, and capital growth centers are also becoming centers for trafficking. One of the lures for businesses and for their employees is the promise of available women. The police and governments are completely complicit in the running of the sex trade. Sexual services are provided on a regular basis to government officials to keep them in line. Government profits are so immense that they are loathe to complain anyway.

It's gotten to the point where entire villages in northern Thailand and southern Burma (see related article, page 25) are being decimated of girl children. In a strange twist parents welcome, for the first time, the birth of a girl child rather than that of a boy, because they know they have a guaranteed wage earner. Most of these families feel they have no other choice than to give up some of their children.

And the children are being sold at younger and younger ages.

This is fueled both by the thrill of child sex and the fear of AIDS. In many countries there is an age-old notion that virginity can cure venereal disease. This dovetails into the belief that the younger the child, the more likely he or she won't have slept with anyone and therefore won't be infected with AIDS. Thus girls and boys as young as eight years old are now being sought and provided throughout the world for their sexual services. Again, the numbers are horrifying. It is estimated that there are 800,000 child prostitutes in Thailand, 400,000 in India, 250,000 in Brazil, and 60,000 in the Philippines. Twenty thousand young girls and boys are brought from Burma to Thailand each year.

Children are actually more prone to AIDS. Their internal tissues of the vagina and anus are more delicate and tear more easily as a result of sexual intercourse (especially with adults). It is estimated that 20-30 percent of child prostitutes are HIV+. Fifty percent of the under-18 prostitutes in Thailand are thought to have contracted HIV. In 1993 from a rare police raid of a brothel holding young Burmese women, 36 percent tested positive. When you extrapolate these numbers to the entire population, the number of women and men who will have AIDS by the year 2000 is in the millions.

Trafficking is not only happening in the "under-developed nations." It is now becoming common-place to see fathers from Eastern Europe bringing their young daughters to Western European cities. Often these children are brutalized by the clients and are forced to seek medical help. As one doctor in the New York Times reported:

"One father came with his 12-year-old daughter. She was terrorized and in terrible pain. I asked him why he did it. 'First of all we are very poor... she is still too young to get pregnant... she is very young... she will forget.'"

But she won't forget. The psychological consequences of this mass brutalization of children are only beginning to be understood. As one social worker who works with former child prostitutes in Thailand put it, "They remind me of empty shells - so much missing, no sense of self, no hope, no trust. Only a deep hollow we need to fill."

What is to be done? Clearly the issues involved are both complex and overwhelming for they touch on one of the basic foundations around which society has been organized: the relationship between women and men. The notion of woman as object is not going to go away any time soon. Nor are millions of new jobs that could generate the same kind of money about to miraculously appear.

Then too, there is the moral cloud that envelops the subject. Despite the periodic glamorization of the profession in movies and TV shows, prostitutes continue to be looked down upon as the scum of society, people who somehow deserve their fate. These women are objects of pity and disrespect. Prostitution is illegal in most places and it is the women who are punished and put into danger.

"Instead of punishing traffickers, the judge punished us.IThey want to prove that we are just prostitutes who have no dignity and that our words are not trustworthy. They believe that prostitutes cannot be victims of the slave trade because we have already sold our bodies."

Although there is much debate within the feminist movement around the question of prostitution one thing should be perfectly clear. Prostitutes are not criminals and they should not be penalized and jailed. Given the nature of trafficking, one cannot look at these jobs as ones of free choice. Many women's organizations are even changing the nomenclature. The term prostituted women highlights the aspect of coercion.

Hotlines, drop-in centers, and support programs are being run in countries throughout the world. For instance, in Korea, My Sister's Place offers a refuge for women. In the Philippines and Kenya several drop-in centers exist for prostitutes and entertainment girls. Empowerment for these women is vital. From Nepal to India to Peru to Nigeria, voices that have been silenced are beginning to be heard. They refuse to be victims or to be looked upon as such. Women who have had no alternatives are developing livelihood projects and are seeking skills training. The philosophy of the centers is to be non-judgmental, to give the women a chance to organize and discuss among themselves.

"We set no conditions for women to be accepted at the drop-in centers. They don't have to leave the bars and all possibilities are open. What matters is that they feel that they are accepted. Then the process begins so that they accept themselves, and see that they have capabilities for something else. So from personal guilt and hatred of themselves, they come to love themselves."*

-Sister Sol Perpinan, Third World Movement Against Exploitation of Women

Women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in Europe and North America, are discussing the issues of violence against women publicly and demanding that it be stopped. During the Vienna Conference on Human Rights held in June of 1993, women organized a special tribunal to demand that women's basic rights be recognized as human rights. Rape was declared a war crime against women and humanity. Women also demanded an end to the trafficking of women and children.

"There is no international instrument in existence which explicitly stipulates that it is a human right to be free of sexual exploitation. Therefore, a new Convention must be promulgated. We introduce the new concept/definition of prostitution which is under the umbrella of sexual exploitation:

"Sexual exploitation is a violation of human dignity, therefore:

"It is a fundamental human right to be free from sexual exploitation in all of its forms. Sexual exploitation is a practice by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification or financial gain, or advancement through the abuse of a person's sexuality by abrogating that person's human right to dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and mental well-being."

-from Conventions presented to the tribunal in Vienna

In March 1994, 800 women from around the world met in New York to discuss preparations for the Fourth UN Conference on Women to be held in Beijing in 1995. As in Nairobi, two conferences will actually take place; the "official" one run by the governments and the more interesting and vital conference run by women's organizations and NGOs. When organizers pored through the official agenda, they found, much to their surprise and rage, that nothing focused on trafficking. As one Filipina organizer put it, "All they're interested in is economic development on a mega-level. They don't see that women's very human rights are involved. Trafficking is one of the most dire problems facing women today and it must be addressed and stopped."

In order to make this happen women are circulating petitions internationally demanding the inclusion of trafficking on the official agenda. They hope to get one million signatures by the summer.

It's not just the destruction of women and children's lives that makes this such an important issue; it's also what it does to all the cultures and societies where it takes place.

Throughout world history, patriarchy has valued women not as persons but as things, pieces of property to be bought and sold. Although this view was not held in all societies and at all times, it is common enough.

However, it's also true that it has been women who have held communities together. It is through women that cultures are developed and passed down to the next generation.

So what are the implications when societies are literally stripped of so many of their women, when women's lives are reduced even further? (For the first time in 500 years, there are now more men than women in the Philippines.) The very fabric of life begins to disintegrate. After a while it doesn't take much to sell the children as well.

By organizing against sex trafficking, women are confronting the view of themselves as objects and commodities and are saying Enough! And in doing so, they're beginning to unravel the historic intersection between capitalism and patriarchy, challenging the entire conception of people as things to be moved around or discarded according to the needs of the marketplace. Sex trafficking exposes so much - the treatment of women, the intersection between racism and sexuality, the disparity between the North and South. That's why it's so important. That's why the trafficking of women and children must be stopped.

Mail-Order Brides

"MOBs" - you've probably seen the ads in the newspapers, but you haven't realized what they were. Here are a couple of examples from the San Francisco Bay Guardian. These ads aren't just about people finding companions. They represent million-dollar businesses. It's estimated that there are at least 50,000 Filipina mail-order brides in the U.S. alone. The buyers are most often older white men who are looking for women as servants and sex partners. They've bought the message that Filipina women are passive and anxious to please - just the kind of woman they want.

The women are often isolated and scared; many become virtual slaves in their own homes. Sometimes these "marriages" work out. Many times they don't and sometimes there are disastrous consequences. Women have been tortured and killed. Some men use their wives as prostitutes or for pornography. Clearly, not all the husbands are psychotic, but the incidence of violence against mail-order brides is extremely high.

The agencies who recruit and then sell the brides are not sleazy hole-in-the-wall places. They're legitimate businesses. One of the biggest, Cherry Blossom, which has its headquarters in Hawaii, is run by a Princeton University MBA.

One way to stop this business is to get rid of the ads. Last year GABRIELA Network, a U.S. based organization in support of women in the Philippines, got Harpers to stop running the ads. Now, women from around the country are beginning to demand that their local papers stop the ads as well. Check your local paper. If they're there, start a campaign to get rid of them!

Domestic Workers

Perhaps you read about it during the Gulf War. Hundreds of Filipinas had barricaded themselves in the Spanish Embassy in Kuwait because they were afraid for their lives. Thousands of them had been living in virtual slavery cleaning houses and taking care of the children. When the war started they were raped by soldiers from both the Kuwait and Iraq armies. When told of the incidents the Filipino minister responsible commented, "Why don't they just lie back and enjoy themselves?"

Part of the economic plan developed by the IMF and World Bank for the Philippines (and other countries) during the late 60s and 70s was the idea of labor export. A Philippine Overseas Employment Agency was established. In the 70s this involved mostly men working in construction in the Middle East, but by the late 70s and 80s the majority of Filipinos working outside the country were women.

Here are some estimated figures (excluding the U.S. and Canada):

  • 75,000 prostituted women in Japan
  • 50,000 maids in Singapore
  • 50,000 domestics/prostituted women in Hong Kong
  • 75,000 domestics in England
  • 50,000 domestics in Spain
  • 75,000 domestics in Italy
  • 50,000 in Germany
  • 150,000 in the Middle East

In Canada you have to be married or live in the residence of your employer for two years before getting residency. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia your passport is taken from you the minute you arrive at the airport. In Hong Kong your passport stays with your employer. The same goes for Singapore. Although there are supposed to be laws guaranteeing their well-being, many of the women do not receive their full salaries and are not given adequate housing or health care. Still the monies they send back are enormous: $2 billion a year - enough to pay the interest on the Philippines's loans.


Judith Mirkinson is a member of the Editorial Board of Breakthrough.

Prairie Fire Organizing Committee
P.O. Box 14422
San Francisco, CA
94114 USA

"A single spark can start a barbecue" -Lisa Pease

"There is no doubt now there was a conspiracy, yet most of us are not very angry about it. The conspiracy to kill the president of the United States was also a conspiracy against the democratic system--and thus a conspiracy against you. I think you should get very angry about that." -Gaeton Fonzi, Investigator, House Select Committee on Assassinations


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[ Article crossposted from misc.activism.progressive ]
[ Author was sgastete@carson.u.washington.edu ]
[ Posted on Thu, 15 Sep 1994 07:40:51 GMT ]

Date: Sep 13, 1994
From: tun@macpsy.ucsf.EDU
Subject: Red Light, Green Light: The Global Trafficking Of Women

By Judith Mirkinson

[This article originally appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of Breakthrough, a political journal published by Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. To respond to the article, to order a copy of the publication, or to subscribe, please send mail to pfoc@igc.apc.org.]

Contributors : Judith Mirkinson
Last modified 2005-02-12 12:05 AM

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