Local Thai NGOs discuss efforts to end commercial sexual exploitation

Deena Guzder, for the Pulitzer Center

Watch Narisaraporn Asipong of the Mercy Centre (a shelter for slum children in Bangkok) and Sarochinee Unyawachsumrith and Kurt Heck of Goodwill Group Foundation (an organization to empower disadvantaged women) speak about efforts to curb sex tourism in Thailand:

In Thailand, the multi-billion dollar sex industry is driven by commercial transactions between rich tourists who use their economic clout to make unchecked demands on relatively poorer locals. Bangkok-based NGOs note that a prerequisite for protecting and empowering vulnerable people is ensuring their socioeconomic welfare. And, as Sarochinee Unyawachsumrith of Goodwill Group Foundation notes, tourists must stop thinking that everything in Thailand--including a human body--is for sale. Over 10 million tourists visit Thailand annually; corruption in the Royal Thai Police, especially since the political unrest of April 2009, affords these tourists a degree of impunity. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. is one of the few prominent U.S. politicians to propose legislation to curb domestic demand of the international sex industry. "The buyers of commercial sex must be sensitized to the harm they cause women and girls and to the fact their money fuels modern day slavery," Smith said at a joint briefing of the Congressional Caucus on Human Trafficking and the Congressional Victims' Rights Caucus in July 2009. "A cultural shift that recognizes the link between commercial sex and the trafficking of women and girls would starve the modern-day slaveholders. If potential buyers knew of the unspeakable lives of servitude and degradation these victims suffer, I think they would think twice before laying down their money."

Modern day slavery is the second largest--and fastest growing--criminal industry in the world, according to the Polaris Project. Named after the North Star that guided slaves towards freedom along the Underground Railroad, Polaris Project has provided a comprehensive approach to combating human trafficking and modern-day slavery since 2002. Karen Stauss of the Polaris Project notes, "There's a strong legal argument that an American man who would travel to Thailand and have sex with someone who he knows was trafficked—and sees evidence such as she's being locked in, crying, bruised—is violating the law," says Stauss. The statute used domestically to prosecute sex offenders, Section 1591, is comprehensive. "One of the great things about Section 1591 is that it targets the entire human trafficking network," says Stauss. "Rather than only going against pimps and others in a managerial position, it places johns [purchasers of commercial sex] in this category." Stauss notes that a recent conviction of a man in Kansas who had sex with a trafficked woman could set a precedent. "This case, along with the William WilberForce Act, allows federal prosecutors to go after a sex tourist who exploits a woman held against her will abroad," notes Stauss. The William WilberForce Act authorizes appropriations for fiscal years 2008 through 2011 for the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, to enhance measures to combat trafficking in persons, and for other purposes. The law, on paper, may hold sex tourists responsible for contributing to modern slavery; however, in reality, sex tourists still enjoy relative impunity. Stauss notes that federal prosecutors rarely investigate cases where a sex tourist knowingly takes advantage of trafficked women although the same act in the United States is considered a crime: "This application of the law [against sex tourists] has never happened in the past because these cases are messy and federal prosecutors often lack the political will and resources to investigate."

Another NGO with offices in Bangkok, ECPAT International, released a report on August 13, 2009 warning that the number of children and young people trafficked within their own country is increasing. Such trafficking frequently involves movement from rural to urban areas or from one city or town to another, without the need for travel documentation. This exploitation is likely to continue proliferating due to the profits generated by sex trafficking. Global profits made from trafficking of people (men, women, and children) into forced commercial sex are estimated at USD $27.8 billion per year. Almost half of these profits are estimated to come from people trafficked into or within industrialized countries. The annual profit per victim per year can be as high as USD $67,200, according to ECPAT.

The report highlights the factors that heighten the risk of trafficking: poverty; low levels of education; lack of employment opportunities; socio-cultural norms and circumstances including gender and minority discrimination. Other factors include: harmful traditional practices and cultural values that fuel child sexual exploitation or push young people into labor or survival migration; volatile family environments, such as domestic violence or parents with drug or alcohol addictions; separation from families, perhaps because of family breakdown, natural disaster, armed conflict or migration. In Thailand, trafficked women are further jeopardized by a lack of a birth certificate or identification, which makes them ineligible for any government assistance.

ECPAT International calls for states to ensure that community-based prevention programs to stop trafficking of children and young people are reaching at-risk populations; international legal standards for protecting children and young people from trafficking have been incorporated in national legal framework policies; and, specialized government services for children and young people who are victims of trafficking are integrated in national policies.

Even when women and men are not trafficked, prostitution is never a "choice" a person makes in the same way he/she would choose to become a doctor or an architect. Purchasers of sex who think otherwise are willfully blind to the vast economic disparities plaguing our world -- disparities that force people to make decisions they otherwise would not. Earlier this year, the United Nations said the global financial meltdown has pushed the ranks of the world's hungry to a record 1 billion. War, drought, poverty, unjust trade agreements, and corporate globalization have left 1 in 6 people suffering from acute poverty. And, as Thomas Pogge notes in World Poverty and Human Rights, poverty impacts certain parts of the world much more intensely than other parts. According to Pogge, in a world where poverty was felt equally, "severe poverty would kill some 3,500 Britons and 16,500 Americans per week . . . each year, 15 times as many U.S. citizens would die of poverty-related causes as were lost in the entire Vietnam War." Pogge goes on to write that, despite a high and growing global average income, billions of human beings are still condemned to lifelong severe poverty, with all its attendant evils of low life expectancy, social exclusion, ill health, illiteracy, dependency, and effective enslavement.

Vast global economic disparities have a created a precarious situation in which the world's richest can exploit the world's desperately poor. "The lives of tourists here [in Thailand] is wonderful," says a young Thai woman featured in the 2009 documentary In the Land of Smiles, "but for many Thais life is difficult. Some days they have food and other days they don't."

Thailand is not only known as "the land of smiles" but also as "the land of the free", the latter taken from Thailand's former name Siam meaning "free". The name, today, is highly ironic. People who are manacled in the sex industry, whether literally by traffickers or figuratively by poverty, are anything but free.