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A while ago, Scott Murray, had a chance to talk to Jo Bindman, an information officer for the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT). Here are her views on this heart wrenching problems, along with some excerpts from a book by the international coordinator of ECPAT, Ron O'Grady.
What is being done to raise awareness of the problem of girls being sold into brothels?
Many local groups, especially in Bangkok, and in the North where many girls come from, are working on the issue. Many focus on explaining to girls and their families exactly what is involved in going with an agent who comes to their village, and offers money to take the girls away. For example, one organization distributes a story book about a girl who is tricked into the sex industry, and another takes parents to see conditions in brothels. A very important campaign spread the message that "men of the new generation do not use commercial sex."
What are some of the major problems that you face in putting an end to child prostitution?
We need to remember, before we even look at the families where the girls come from, or the circumstances under which they are sold or bonded, that none of this would be taking place without a demand from men for the sexual services of underage girls. The perceptions of Thai and foreign men towards women and sexuality needs to change. While visiting brothels remains a norm among Thai men and sex tourists, young girls will be forced into the sex trade.
Some people think that the fear of AIDS has reduced the demand for the commercial sex industry, because AIDS is associated with brothels, but in fact the sex trade has just moved away from brothels to all kinds of other locations. Men seem to think that paying for sex with a hostess in a karaoke bar or a snooker hall is somewhat less risky so they do that instead of visiting a brothel, so their behavior hasn't really changed much. Changing male behavior in this respect would be the most effective solution. Stop buying sex!
In the meantime, police underresourcing is a big problem. Police need more training, so that they can identify offenses, collect evidence and prepare cases better. Many policemen are not familiar with the laws that refer to the sexual exploitation of minors. And of course, as long as police wages remain so low, corruption is going to remain a serious obstacle to law enforcement.
On the supply side, one of the difficulties that girls face within the family can be a lack of support for their own needs above those of the family. Our Thai colleagues worry that traditional attitudes to children, especially girl children, as subordinate to the needs of the family, make it easier to sacrifice a child to the sex industry. A variety of projects have been set up, especially in the North, to help persuade parents and provide financial support to help girls in school beyond the minimum level. That not only keeps the girls out of the brothels for a couple more years, but it also means that they will have more skills, and more alternative job opportunities when they leave school.
The question is then: why do families need their children to leave school and bring in income when they are still so young? The unequal distribution of wealth within Thai society is an obvious factor. Many families were excluded from the benefits of Thailand's economic boom, and needed to rely on even the younger family members to contribute to the household income. As unskilled labor, without influential connections, they have few alternatives to the sex trade.
The need for cash has also been stimulated by Thailand's wholehearted embrace of consumerism. Every villager is aware of the televisions, motorcycles, and comfortable houses, available for money. Selling a daughter often represents the only possible opportunity to join the "good life."
What is ECPAT doing to try and penalize Westerners who sexually abuse Asian children?
We are actively promoting extra-territorial jurisdiction so that if a person commits an offense in say Sri Lanka, or Thailand, they can be prosecuted in their own country. Local ECPAT campaigns have been successful in a lot of Western countries - Australia, France, Germany, the United States, and New Zealand among them.
We are hoping to persuade those countries to place special liaison officers in countries like Thailand to work on these cases, or to extend the mandate of the existing officers who work on drug enforcement. As many of those who are already stationed in areas like the Golden Triangle, where large numbers of girls are procured from and sold, it might make sense to use them.
The focus of the campaign seems to be on helping young girls, but what about boys who are sold into prostitution?
ECPAT is concerned in protecting the rights of all children, boys and girls. In fact the number of boys actually sold into prostitution is very small when compared to the huge trade in girls. They are usually not packaged as a commodity in the same way. They may have more control over who they go with, and they often seek clients themselves, but they face very limited options when it comes to earning money to survive. By selling sex, they are forced to expose themselves to violence and disease.
What about the media's role in curbing child prostitution?
The media can help to change male attitudes, and to let everyone know exactly what conditions are like in parts of the sex industry.
The other way the media can be helpful is by protecting children from social stigma. We ask the media to respect the privacy of the children who have been commercially sexually exploited, in the same way as victims of rape. The children are anxious that they should not be publicly identified, by a photo or by personal information. It can cause a child a tremendous distress if he or she knows that somewhere out there is a picture which tells people that he or she was a prostitute.
HIV is another difficult area when it comes to reporting - in some cases, social workers may have decided that the child is not ready to hear that he or she is infected, and it would be catastrophic for the child to hear via a third party.
We are also concerned that stories not be reported in a titillating manner.
Why do men, who would normally be conscientious, and respectful in their own country, frequent the sex trade in Asia, and have sex with minors?
For the answer to this question we turn to Ron O'Grady's book, The Rape of the Innocent:
"In their home country, many middle-aged men would never go to a brothel either through fear of recognition or because they associate the sex industry with sleazy back streets and uninviting buildings.
"When they travel all these restraints disappear. Suddenly, they find themselves in a situation where all the hidden excitement of the sexual encounter is openly displayed and apparently widely sanctioned. They discover themselves in a culture where sex seems to be more open and respectable and where even wealthy business people and professional people visit the cinema. The moral teachings they learned as children quickly disappear. The presence of so many other people acting in public implies a social acceptance which appears to justify any of their actions.
"There is an important dynamic at work in tourism which derives from the fact that when a tourist is away from familiar surroundings and in a foreign culture, the moral restraints which give some guidance to behavior in the home situation no longer apply. It seems that the further one travels from home the less moral one becomes. A Japanese proverb sums this up well: `The Traveler discards all shame.' (Tabi no haji wa kakisute.) It must be a universal phenomena that tourist take more risks and act in a more liberal manner when they are on vacation than when they are home.
"In his study on the connection between the sexual abuse of children and the tourism industry. Kevin Ireland, says that, `tourists often shed not only their inhibitions but also an element of social awareness and responsibility. External inhibitory factors within the host environment of certain locations are often low or non-existent, in that there are few constraints limiting contact between adults and potential sex partners. In such locations the ready availability of children means that there is no resistance of the child to overcome.'"
It has been said that many sex tourists go with children because they think they will be minimizing the risk of getting AIDS by doing so, Mr O'Grady's response:
"It is a myth that the younger partners are less likely to have AIDS. The forced penetration of the child by an adult is more likely to cause lesions and bleeding by which HIV is transmitted. Far from being safer for the customer, sex with a child increases the chance of contracting AIDS."
While you are wondering about how much money you make or what type of car you are going to buy next, let's leave you with these words from Mr O'Grady:
"The prostituted child does not enter into the relationship by choice. It is a contractual arrangement in which the child is simply the commodity available for hire. After the price is fixed and paid, the child is used by the customer to meet the customer's own needs and then referred to the "owner" of the child. The child is probably given no more respect than a rental car.
"A sexual encounter in which there is no consent by one of the partners is a form of slavery which takes away all dignity. It turns a subject into an object and is a denial of that person's humanity. What does it means to be human when you are kept on bondage to be the sexual slave of another person."
For more info contact ECPAT c/o:
328 Phayathai Rd.
Tel: (662) 215-3388, 215-0628
Fax: (662) 215-8272