“Trading Away Youth”
Violence Against Women: A Question of Human Rights
In the early 1990s, foreign desk editor Pat Gaston was trying to formulate a proposal for a worldwide examination of women’s issues. So many staffers were interested that she created a special “basket” in our computer system where we could file articles we found, ideas, etc. What grew out of that, when News management agreed she should go forward, was the most collegial project I have ever worked on. A group of us met, tossed around ideas, researched them, talked some more, and eventually developed the outlines of the project that came to be called “Violence Against Women: A Question of Human Rights.”
The News sent reporters and photographers around the world to report on the epidemic of gender-based violence and its many forms and causes. The series won the 1994 Pulitzer for International Reporting and many other awards. Women in Texas took it to their hearts, inviting us over and over again to come and speak and describe what we had seen and heard.
I wrote two stories for the series, in addition to doing much of the early research along with reporter Anne Reifenberg. “Trading Away Youth” describes the toll that a huge forced prostitution industry in Thailand took on girls and women not only there but in surrounding countries.
TRADING AWAY YOUTH
Impoverished Thai parents sell girls into prostitution
— The Dallas Morning News, published: March 21, 1993
By Gayle Reaves
NEAR MAE CHAN, Thailand — At an age when many American teens are trying to talk Dad out of the car keys, she sits on the floor of a shabby cottage, trying to talk her frail, gaunt father out of sending her back to a brothel. At 17, she has already worked in three brothels, because of the need to help support her ailing parents.
In the dim interior of the cottage — purchased with her prostitute’s wages — her father argues with social workers who want her to live and study at their shelter. The thatched cottage holds few possessions: a charcoal brazier, a water jug, two battered tin cups — and, on the room’s one table, a television set.
She is their only child, the father says. The brothel agent owns the land on which the house sits, and that day he has threatened to evict them. The father has borrowed more money from the agent, with his daughter’s work as collateral. What will happen to them if they lose her wages?
He does not understand that, soon enough, he may lose her anyway. She has the AIDS virus.
An hour’s drive north of Mae Chan, teacher Jandraem Sirikhampoo calls a group of students to her side. These little girls, she says, were sold as babies by their parents. The buyers are raising them, like livestock, to be sold into prostitution. Most such buyers, she says, have already sold their own daughters.
“It happens quite often,” says Ms. Jandraem, who founded the school for poor children. “The kids know . . . that they have to go to Bangkok at a certain age. They know these are not their real parents.” She is searching for foster families for them, ignoring threats from brothel agents.
These girls and thousands like them are the clouded future of Thailand. A generation of girls is being turned into commerce: They are traded by their families or kidnappers for houses, water buffalo, land, cash, food — and televisions. Many girls now accept prostitution as their fate, the only way to support families whose rural ways of life are disappearing.
Thailand has become the red-light district to much of the world. In a country of 56 million people, relief agencies estimate that there are 2 million prostitutes, up to 800,000 of them children. Perhaps one in 12 women and older children may be involved, and up to 80 percent of the girls in some tribal villages.
Prostitution in Thailand often amounts to slavery: Children cannot give true consent, and many others are held in outright captivity or debt bondage. It can be a fatal servitude. Thailand is the center of what experts say will soon be the worst AIDS epidemic in the world.
Slavery has been internationally condemned since long before the United Nations set out its human-rights manifesto in 1948. But in Thailand, sexual slavery, for the most part, has been internationally ignored.
In the past few years, international and Thai women’s groups and children’s rights groups — plus the fear of AIDS — have led the Thai government to step up raids against sex businesses involving child prostitutes. A bill in the Thai Parliament proposes to increase penalties for pimps and procurers.
But such efforts are hampered by the economic and political strength of the sex industry. Government officials acknowledge that police corruption is a major problem.
“These are organized activities. They are killing a generation,” says Dr. Tawat Wichaidit, secretary-general to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai. “The traffic in human flesh . . . is no longer a thing that we can tolerate.”
The huge Thai sex industry originally developed to serve U.S. air bases and soldiers on leave from the Vietnam War. It is now a drawing card for male tourists and workers from Japan, Malaysia, Burma, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
Nor is the problem confined to Thailand: Prostitution and sexual slavery are on the rise again in China, and Thai prostitutes are exported to Japan and Germany. AIDS researchers say “sex tourism’ is a growing problem in the Philippines, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Kenya and Eastern Europe.
Tourism has become Thailand’s leading industry. The government discourages the marketing of Thailand for sex tourism, but the crowds at the live-sex shows in Bangkok’s Patpong district still seem to rival those at the Buddhist temples.
Sexual services for a price are available all over Bangkok, from the poorest slums to the prime minister’s neighborhood. In this city of 10 million people, separate streets cater to Japanese businessmen, Chinese and Westerners.
Muslim men flock to southern Thailand for the paid sex they cannot obtain in their own countries. In some southern Thai cities, says child-rights worker Sanphasit Koompraphant, “Every day you can see buses coming from Singapore — and their passengers are 100 percent men. In every block, there is a hotel, 20 stories. There is no tourist business there, no industry — only lumber plantations and sex services.”
But foreign trade represents only a small part of Thailand’s prostitution business. Relief workers say 80 percent of the customers are Thai men. AIDS researcher Vicharn Vithayasai says that going to a brothel is as common and acceptable among Thai men as having a beer after work.
The sex industry has outstripped the supply of available Thai women.
Gangs now operate in Burma, Laos, Vietnam and China, luring or kidnapping thousands of girls each year. They are put to work in upper-class “teahouses,” garish bars and hidden brothels. Or they end up in one of the thousands of other businesses — massage parlors, go-go clubs, coffee shops, hotels and shacks, secret and open, grimy and glitzy — from which sex is dispensed in Thailand. More than 40,000 girls and women are believed to have been lured or kidnapped from Burma alone.
It is not only women’s bodies that are being sold — it is their lives. Relief agencies estimate that more than 40 percent of Thai prostitutes are HIV-positive. Thailand is the nucleus of an expected AIDS pandemic poised to rip a deadly path through the future of southern Asia. Tribal peoples will be hit especially hard. Relief workers fear that entire hill tribes in northern Thailand and Burma will be wiped out.
Prostitutes already are dying from AIDS, but little notice is taken, says Mr. Sanphasit, child-rights director for the Bangkok-based Foundation for Children. Thai society “cares much more about the health of the clients . . . (than) about the women who work in brothels,” he says.
AIDS seems not to have greatly reduced business for the sex merchants.
Cyril, a young Frenchman in Bangkok for an extended business trip, sits in an open-air Patpong bar, enjoying the frenzied scene.
In the tawdry neon canyons of Patpong, women workers lounge beside club entrances, sit at cramped sidewalk tables and dance to rock music on raised stages visible through open doors. Touts stop passers-by to display placards listing the sex stunts to be performed inside the clubs. In some clubs, members of the audience are invited to perform in the shows — or to have their sexual experience provided to them at their tables.
Cyril says some of his French friends come to Bangkok for the cheap and available sex, figuring that their chances of contracting AIDS during a short visit are slim. Cyril says he plans to be much more careful — he won’t visit prostitutes.
“I don’t want to risk my life for sex for only an hour,” he says. But — he is tempted. “It’s very difficult to resist,” he says. “Girls are everywhere.”
Everywhere in Bangkok, perhaps. In the northern villages of the Akha tribe, most of the young women are gone.
Sompop Jantraka, founder of the Daughters’ Education Programme at Mae Sai, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the girls in Akha tribal villages that he deals with “go to Bangkok’ — northern slang for becoming prostitutes.
In the remote hilltop villages of the Akha, pigs and poverty share the narrow dirt lanes with bamboo-and-thatch homes. Dau came from one such village, from the rice fields, a poor family, an opium-addicted father.
The offer came when she was 12 or 13 — a job in a restaurant that turned out to be a brothel. When the resistance was beaten out of her, the customers were brought to her, five to seven of them the first night. Her fee was $6. She got none of it.
The first time Dau escaped from the brothels, she and two other girls from her village climbed out through a bathroom window and went to the police.
“They tried to convince us we had to return to the brothel,” she says. When the girls refused, police delivered them to their original kidnapper, who promptly sold them to another brothel.
The second time, Dau and her friends made it home. But the brothel agent brought police to threaten their families with arrest unless they repaid him for the girls’ value.
The girls kept running until they found a village whose leader took them to the NewLifeCenter in Chiang Mai. The center, supported by American Baptist and Swedish churches, operates three homes for girls who have survived prostitution or who are at risk of being sold into it.
Now Dau is safe, but her mother is not. Dau found out recently that her father has sent her mother and 9-year-old sister to Bangkok to beg in the streets. She cried for days when she heard the news.
The process of recruiting girls such as Dau for the sex trade is highly organized. Agencies target certain villages and families. Agents advance the girls or their families a lump sum of money, perhaps $800 to $1,600. The young woman is then required to work off twice the original amount of the “loan.”
Some women are paid extra by brothel owners to promote prostitution among younger girls on visits home. But that’s not always necessary.
“Girls come back, they have more clothes, more money,” one father says. Others follow them — or are sent by the families.
“Most of our children are trafficked by their families,” says Mr. Sanphasit. “Families have joined the flesh market.”
Controlling the family flesh trade means going against old habits. Thai children are sold as workers into many industries, not just prostitution.
In Thai society of less than 100 years ago, Mr. Sanphasit explains, “women and children were only property’ of men, to be sold or used as men saw fit. In some respects, the sex business has changed things only by raising the value of girls on the market.
Some parents don’t understand what kind of “jobs” await their daughters. Others do but figure that prostitution is better than a life of deep poverty.
But the problem is not only poverty. As Thai society becomes more industrialized, says Mr. Sompop of the Daughters’ Education Programme, television is teaching people to want more consumer goods. Families that before considered themselves lucky to have homes, food and clothes now are willing to sell their daughters for a motorcycle or store-bought luxuries.
“Where there is a road, there are pimps,” he says. “And television knocks on every door.”
Sex industry expands
In previous centuries, Mr. Sanphasit says, Thai men were allowed more than one wife. Women were not supposed to inquire about their husband’s activities.
With the coming of the Vietnam War, the Thai sex industry expanded to provide American soldiers with prostitutes and “for-rent wives.” By the time the soldiers left, Thai men had found that they liked this new availability of sex. Men and boys no longer needed to sneak off to brothels — they went openly.
Thai men are expected to be sexually experienced, “to have lots of girlfriends,” explains Dr. Vicharn, an AIDS researcher at ChiangMaiUniversity. Workers are expected to provide visiting bosses with women for sex, and men who travel think they “have to have sex with local women,’ he says.
But the culture still retains a strong prohibition against “good” girls and women having sex outside marriage. And Thai women still do not feel comfortable asking their husbands about their sexual behavior.
The resulting demand for sex services, combined with the AIDS crisis, has increased the use of girls in the sex trade. Many male customers believe that the less experienced the girl, the less chance they have of contracting AIDS from her. The sad reality is that girls are more likely to contract and pass on the disease, because the skin and tissue in their bodies is more likely to be torn during the sex act, making them more vulnerable to the AIDS virus.
Beyond that, says Mr. Sanphasit, younger and younger girls are entering the trade simply because of market demand. Foreign pedophiles come to Thailand seeking girls.
And Thai men use girls when they can’t afford women. “It is not abnormal for Thai men to go to child prostitutes,” says Mr. Sanphasit. It is common.”
Providing a haven
The house is like many others in Bangkok: a two-story structure in a walled garden, off a tiny graveled lane. The only difference is that the 20 or so girls and young women here are all former child prostitutes, being cared for by the Foundation for Children. They sew, practice writing, study.
Among them is 18-year-old Fong. When she was 16, a monk visited her village in southern China. He said she could make $200 a month as a sales clerk in a Burmese border town — a huge sum for a girl who sometimes went hungry.
Instead, after a three-day trek to the Thai-Burma border, she was sold to a brothel agent for $600.
When she saw the money change hands, Fong says, she was terrified. But she didn’t know where she was, she had no money, she didn’t even speak Thai.
Fong was taken to a Bangkok teahouse where a Thai man paid her “owner’ $280 for the privilege of taking away her virginity.
“I almost fainted. I almost killed myself,” she says.
Her value as a virgin spent, Fong was shifted to a massage parlor in the beach resort of Pattaya. There she joined 30 to 40 girls “in a glass room’ wearing numbers, so customers could choose among them.
The brothel owner bought her clothes. The other women “trained” her, she says — how to dress, how to give a man a bath, how to do the required things step by step, so that they became a job.
Like most women in “locked” brothels, Fong received no money except tips. Pimps guarded the doors. If she refused to have sex with drunken customers, she was beaten. If she insisted that they wear condoms and they refused, she was beaten.
One of the few accepted excuses for refusing sex was that a woman was having her menstrual period. But when Fong tried to stretch that excuse more than a few days, she says, the massage parlor owner would make her take off her underwear so he could see whether she was telling the truth.
Fong managed to escape after six months. By bus, she made it back across the country to Mae Sai. But before she could cross into Burma, one of the army of procurers found her and sold her to another brothel. Being recaptured, she says, was almost as terrifying as her first customer.
Eventually, a Taiwanese customer paid the owner of the second brothel $400 to free her and sent her to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok.
Fong is afraid to go home. Her father drinks when he has the money, she says, and then is cruel to his family.
“But I would rather face my drunken father than go on like this,” she says.
In the closed brothels to which kidnapped girls and women are taken, they are held as slaves, underfed and denied medical care. A few years ago, several women in one such brothel died in a fire because they were chained to their beds. One woman escaped from a brothel in the southern town of Songhkla, only to be killed when brothel thugs found her at the city hall, where she had sought refuge.
Like Fong, many such young women are prisoners of ignorance and poverty. They are usually taken to places as far from their homes as possible; if they try to escape, neighbors often will turn them in to brothel pimps.
But increasingly, lures and locks are not needed, for society has convinced many northern and northeastern Thai girls that prostitution is an acceptable and even valued profession.
In the northern city of Chiang Mai, Jackie Pollock teaches English to women in middle-class bars and brothels. Her group, Empower, does not try to “rescue” the women. It seeks to give them skills with which they can control their lives.
Many of the women dream of the customer who will fall in love and take them out of prostitution, she says. In the meantime, they work for years to pay off loans from brothel owners, to support their children, to help their families through sickness and hard times. Like prisons
Some of the worst examples of sexual slavery are found far to the south of Bangkok, in towns such as Ranong, across from the southern tip of Burma. Brothels behind electric fences sell sex to Malaysians and to Burmese and Thai fishermen. The places are staffed mostly by Burmese women, an estimated 1,500 of them.
Zaw Gyi, head of the Burma Information Group in Thailand, says the Ranong brothels are like brutal prisons, complete with underground rooms. Those too ill to work are sometimes killed by brothel owners, he says.
Burmese women are not even safe once they have been freed from sexual slavery. Most come from tribes at war with the repressive Burmese government. Burmese exile groups charge that when their countrywomen are turned over to Burmese authorities, many of the women are executed or sent to prison — especially if they have the AIDS virus. In 1992, reports circulated that Burmese police had executed a group of HIV-positive prostitutes by injecting them with cyanide.
Relief workers have begun to quietly send Burmese women home with family members rather than contact Burmese or Thai immigration authorities. Zaw Gyi complains that Thai immigration police work closely with the gangs that kidnap Burmese women.
Police corruption in Thailand is one of the main stumbling blocks in the government’s attempts to attack sexual slavery. Relief workers say that police not only are paid to ignore and protect the brothels but also are often part-owners.
Police corruption “is the toughest question” in the prostitution equation, says Dr. Tawat of the prime minister’s office.
Dr. Tawat says that corrupt and honest elements within Thai police departments “are fighting each other” and that the government has pledged to do everything it can to reform the system. He is setting up his own team to investigate prostitution-related corruption.
Top Thai police officials say they are serious about tackling the corruption problem. Lt. Gen. Somchai Chaiyavej, assistant director general of Thai police, stressed the willingness of his agency to tackle corruption within its ranks.
“It’s not good for the country,” he said. “We are sincere about stopping the problem.’”
Police officers are being prosecuted in the death of the prostitute in SonghklaCity Hall. But few have been charged with corruption-related crimes.
“The lower ranks collect it (bribe money), divide it up, put it in envelopes and give it to the higher-ups. It’s a feeding system, from the roots up,” says Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, a former Cabinet member and now a government consultant on women’s and children’s issues. “They (police) can’t do anything about it because they are part of it.”
Still, Thailand’s prime minister “will not give an inch” on the demand that child prostitution be rooted out, Dr. Tawat says. The prime minister, he says, seeks nothing less than a new “moral framework for Thai society,” in which the use of prostitutes would no longer be socially acceptable.
He also touted vocational training and small industries that are being established in rural areas, so families can support themselves without selling their daughters.
Relief workers are skeptical of the government’s commitment — and resources — to fight an industry that brings so much wealth. But they welcome the new willingness to discuss it as a serious problem.
There are a lot of big “ifs” in the question of how well the government will succeed in its efforts, says Dr. Saisuree. “But if we give up because of all those ‘ifs,’ then we just sit back and do nothing.”
Happy for now
At the NewLifeCenter, Dau sews and studies. Happy with her life there, she doesn’t think much about what lies ahead. Because of the pressures on her family, she cannot go home permanently.
Dau has the AIDS virus but doesn’t understand its implications. For now, her plans are only to stay at New Life and to make the hat covered with needlework, coins and other trinkets that will complete her traditional Akha outfit.
Married or marriageable Akha women wear a tall hat. Girls and young women not yet ready for marriage wear a flat version.
“I will make a flat hat,” Dau says.