Thailand’s Sex Trade (11/98)

At an age when we still regard them as children, thousands of young girls from northern Thailand are being lured into prostitution. Girls as young as 10 are sold to the brothels of Bangkok, other Thai cities, and overseas. Others drift into prostitution when they move to larger towns for employment. From there, they migrate to cities, where they’re likely to end up in poorly paid factory or restaurant jobs with substandard conditions and links to the sex industry.

They come from families in the Golden Triangle area trapped in a cycles of poverty and debt. Their parents are subsistence farmers or villagers with few work opportunities, their traditional lifestyle and values constantly eroded by development and consumerism.

Many rural families are landless or in debt to money lenders. As a result, men go to the cities for casual work. Often they don’t return, however, leaving their wives to raise families single-handedly. Faced with such pressures, some parents view their daughters as commodities which can be traded. Brothel owners have networks of agents combing the villages for troubled families with daughters, making tempting offers of good jobs in the big cities and resort areas. So begins a cycle in which relatives, village headmen, police, government officials, and business people all benefit from the girls’ labor.

In some places, as much as 90 percent of girls have left their village to work. Once lured, forced, or sold, the girls find it difficult to escape prostitution. The reality is usually very different from what they’ve been promised. Many believe they are going to work as housemaids, in beauty salons, bars, or other fields of entertainment; instead, they find themselves imprisoned in damp, dirty, over-crowded conditions. Often abused by clients or pimps, these children face the ever-present danger of contracting HIV, which is epidemic in Thailand.

Easy Prey

Over the last two decades, Thailand’s sex industry has developed into a highly lucrative commercial industry. A 1997 government survey estimated that the country has 65,000 prostitutes, but the International Labor Organization (ILO) says the unofficial figure could be as high as 300,000. This includes debt-bondage deals and systematic exploitation of poor families with available daughters.

The demand for child prostitutes grew as AIDS became more threatening and people believed younger girls would be safer. The belief that sex with a child is rejuvenating, along with the image of Thailand as a sex-tour destination for pedophiles and others, also contributed to the thriving trade. The ILO puts the nation’s annual income from sex tourism at more than $20 billion.

The introduction of consumer goods, and the need for money to buy them, has fostered the attitude that the sale of young girls to brothel agents is an acceptable form of income. In some northern Thailand villages, up to 70 percent of young girls, some as young as 11, have entered prostitution. While many were sold by their parents, others were introduced to the sex industry through an older sibling or relative.

Local leaders – village headmen, police, even government officials – are often involved in recruitment and transportation. In the Mae Sai area, they provide protection for brothel agents moving girls to the south. Documentation is sometimes arranged, so that youngsters without the necessary legal papers can travel around the country.

Located on the Burmese border, Mai Sai is an area where drugs such as opium and heroin are cheap and widely available. Many parents and young people are addicted, especially among the Akha hill tribe. When addicted parents are arrested, their children must fend for themselves. Some adults may even encourage their children to start drinking, sniffing glue, or using other drugs before they reach ten. Many intravenous drug users share needles, increasing the risk of AIDS.

Children along the border often don’t have birth certificates or have lost them. In many cases, their parents migrated from Burma, Laos, or China within the last 15 years. Girls without documents have difficulty enrolling at school or obtaining certificates of their academic record. Without a certificate, they can’t obtain legal employment. This makes them easy prey for brothel owners and employers with unsafe working conditions. They can’t complain to the police because of their illegal status.

Encouraging Alternatives

Launched in 1989, the Daughters Education Program was conceived as a community-based initiative to prevent girls from being forced into the sex industry. Today known as Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC), it assists 400 girls and their families. Its headquarters are in Mae Sai, with other centers spread across Chiang Rai. From these bases, staff work among Akha and other hill tribe groups and lowland villages.

The program offers young women from 8 to 18 years old an alternative to prostitution by providing them with education, job training, and help getting work. It considers education and training the keys that will allow these girls to find alternative employment, improve their communities, and reach their full potential. Eight distinct projects focus on children at risk, child rights, child sexual abuse, and forced labor.

DEPDC works closely with teachers and village leaders to identify girls most at risk. But complicity in the trade by families and village members is a major stumbling block. The staff incorporates a mix of official documentation, information, and persuasion. They urge parents to reconsider their options and provide education about the perils of the sex industry, including information about HIV/AIDS, brothel conditions, laws, penalties, and other potential dangers. In many successful cases, children have decided to continue their education despite their parents’ desire for monetary gain.

The crime of selling a child is finally starting to attract heavier penalties. But agents still scour villages for vulnerable families, glamorizing big cities and Western culture. The complex web of corruption remains a major obstruction to justice. Thus, despite the program’s success, the sale of children into the sex industry continues.

This report was provided by the Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities. To find out more, write to:

Mae Sai
Chiang Rai 57130

phone 66-53 733-186
fax (66-53) 642-415

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