Asia's Traffickers Keep Girls in Sexual Servitude
Criminal groups deceive and lure poor villagers
Sometime in the late spring of 1995, a 16-year-old Cambodian girl woke up to find herself in a small brothel in her country's capital, Phnom Penh. Her aunt had drugged her into unconsciousness and handed her over to a brothel owner in exchange for money.Skip to next paragraph
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When Cheung - a pseudonym - told the brothel owner she wouldn't sleep with his customers, he drugged her again. This time the substance was different. It left her groggily, submissively awake. She was taken to a hotel room where she had no choice but to have sex with several men, she says.
After a week in the hotel, she was sent to a brothel in Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city. There the proprietor kept Cheung in locked room, once whipping her with an electric cord. She was freed during a police raid in August 1995.
This year she and other former prostitutes put on a play about their experiences. "I want to tell young Cambodian women, 'Please try to watch out for people who might deceive you,' " she explains.
Her advice would apply not only to girls in Cambodia. In many ways Cheung's story is emblematic of the way in which young people all over the world are drawn into the sex trade. She came from a disrupted home, someone close to her was willing to consign her to a period of sexual slavery in exchange for money, and an industry was in place that could exploit her sexually and even transfer her from one city to another.
A year has gone by since her rescue and Cheung is still recovering. She lives in a shelter in Battambang run by a charitable group, the Geneva-based International Catholic Migration Commission, where she is learning how to be a hairdresser and a restaurant cook. Her parents died several years ago, so she has no home to return to.
"They sell human beings like pigs or dogs or chickens," says Am Kimheng, the manager of ICMC's facilities in Battambang, about the brothel owners and procurers who have disturbed the lives of so many of her young charges. Once "sold," women and girls in forced prostitution are often sent someplace else, sometimes to other countries, to work in areas where they are more vulnerable, less able to communicate with people who might help them, and more dependent on their keepers.
Indeed, the number of children being "trafficked" in this way is growing, according to human rights groups and child advocates. In Asia, several routes are currently well-used: Women and girls are sent from Burma to Thailand, from Nepal to India, from Vietnam to Cambodia.
The scope and the breadth of the trafficking underscores the role that criminal organizations and networks play in forcing children into sexual servitude. Many factors are said to cause child prostitution - such as poverty, the breakdown of the family, and the rise of materialism - but criminal organizations actively bring children and young women into the trade and keep them there.
In Thailand, a country whose sex industry is as internationally known as its cuisine, activists have been working for years to understand the role that recruiters and agents play in the prostitution of young people. One activist is Sompop Jantraka, a onetime musician with a degree in political science who seven years ago founded the Daughters' Education Program near the northern Thai town of Mae Sai.
DEP mainly serves the hill tribes of northern Thailand, ethnic minorities whose daughters have long populated the brothels of Thai cities such as Chiang Mai and Bangkok and the snack bars and nightclubs of faraway places like Japan and Taiwan. The program is designed for girls who are considered "at-risk" because an older sister has already been sold into prostitution or because their home life is troubled by violence, a broken marriage, or drug abuse.
DEP provides the girls with a place to live and ensures that they get an education in local schools. "If I am fast enough, I can save them," Mr. Sompop says. He estimates that 5 percent of the girls who complete his program go into prostitution anyway.
Sompop speaks critically of Thailand's development policies, which promote "a way of living in modern society which depends on markets and cash." The tribespeople in particular, who often lack Thai citizenship and title to the land they live on, have a hard time surviving in the country's increasingly industrialized economy. "The last thing they sell is their morality," Sompop says. "They end up selling sex, selling women, selling daughters. Their children are the victims."