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.

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."

But he notes that the degree to which agents and procurers are present in a village often determines how many girls will be sent into the sex trade.

Three years ago, one of Sompop's colleagues researched child-selling in several villages near the northern city of Chiang Rai. During a seven-year period beginning in the mid-1980s, 150 families of one particular village sent 61 daughters into prostitution. At least 13 of the girls ended up in Japan or in brothels along Thailand's border with Malaysia where prostitution flourishes. Some of girls had already contracted AIDS and died by the time the research was done.

The situation was equally remarkable, Sompop adds, because at least 11 brothel agents were active in the village, including the headman, his wife, and a cousin of the school teacher. The village had the highest presence of procurers and other representatives of the sex industry and, perhaps as a result, the highest rate of girls being sent into prostitution.

At the same time, researchers observe that it's possible to find villages in rural Thailand where very few families, or none at all, sell children into prostitution. In many cases elders have barred agents and procurers from operating in their village.

These days, Sompop observes, local recruiters have buffed up their image. "Before the agents just came and bought people," he says. "They are now presenting themselves as career counselors and job experts."

The recruiters show parents a list of jobs a daughter might take on in Bangkok or some other city: waitress, baby sitter, domestic worker, beauty shop attendant, prostitute. The position that offers the highest wages and the only one that provides parents with money up front is the last. Parents "sell" a daughter by accepting an advance, usually about $480, on her future earnings as a prostitute. Most girls enter the trade at age 13 or 14, and spend months or years paying off the advance.

But not every child ends up in prostitution because a middleman made it possible. Some parents decide on their own that their daughter should work in a brothel.

In Svay Pak, a town notorious for prostitution just outside of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a young Vietnamese prostitute named Ly recently strode into the middle of the dirt road in front of her brothel in order to win over a potential customer. Her tactic was irresistible: Against the glare and heat of a midafternoon sun, she lifted an umbrella over his head.

Wearing a long red dress and dangling earrings, she explains that her mother needed money after a business failure. The mother brought Ly from Vietnam and accepted $1,500 as an advance on her earnings. That is a huge sum in Southeast Asia - many girls are sold into the trade for less than $100 - and Ly knows it. "It may take forever" to repay the proprietor, she observes. In any case, it will be up to the brothel keeper to decide when she has fulfilled her obligation, since Ly does not know how much her debt is drawn down each time she sleeps with a customer.

But Ly seems to maintain a resilience about her situation. "Nobody forced me to do this," she insists.

In Thailand, where prostitution is technically illegal but ubiquitous, tackling the sex industry's role in promoting child prostitution will be difficult. "There are many politicians and their networks involved in this business - indirectly or directly," says Kritaya Archavanitkul of the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

Sompop says the same is true, at a local level, of the police in northern Thailand. "You cannot trust the police in [Mae Sai]," he asserts. "They are involved in everything."

Professor Kritaya says Thailand needs more politicians and policemen who are committed to protecting children from the sex trade. "This is the work of a lifetime," she says.

The director of a government-backed think tank in Phnom Penh voices a similar view.

"More and more children are going into prostitution and it's not because of poverty," says Kim Kao Hourn of the Cambodian Institute for Peace and Cooperation. "It's because of a lack of mechanisms to combat it - the lack of will."

*Tomorrow: How criminal gangs and networks of agents in the US, Canada, and Brazil snare children into the sex trade and move them around to various cities.

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