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FOCUS September 2004 Volume 37

Gender and Human Security:Trafficking of Women in Asia

Jean Enriquez

Six years ago, in 1998, an estimate put 30 million women and children in Asia as trafficking victims (UNICRI, 1998). While trafficking has many purposes, women and children are trafficked mainly and visibly for sexual exploitation in its varied forms - for brothel, bar and street prostitution, for military rest and recreation, for sex tourism, the bride trade including child marriages, for pornography, and for bonded labor. The victims come from poverty stricken or conflict-ridden areas of the region, while mostly young women come from indigenous or ethnic minority communities. The destinations are the affluent cities, and the buyers are men - from almost all sectors of society.

Trafficking in persons is a regional security issue as this massive movement and sale of humans is facilitated by organized crime syndicates (such as the Yakuza in Japan), with layers of intermediaries from private entities to corrupt government and law enforcement functionaries who gain from this trade in human beings. With the sex industry largely integrated into the mainstream economic sectors such as "adult entertainment", sex tourism, prostitution and pornography, many of which are either legal or tolerated in many countries, trafficking operations rake in billions of dollars in profits at the expense of wounded women and children. The United Nations estimates that trafficking in persons globally is a 5-7 billion US dollar per year operation (Arlacchi, 2000).

Trafficking in persons uses a broad range of recruitment methods. Aside from coercion, methods based on deception, enticement, false promises and abuse of power or of position of vulnerability are employed. New information technologies facilitate the global marketing of women and children. They provide unique and pernicious means through which women and children are promoted in unprecedented and dehumanizing ways without threat of arrest or prosecution.

Trafficking in persons is made worse by restrictive immigration policies. Trafficked women are considered criminals and not trafficking victims in many countries in the region. Victims therefore fear letting authorities know of their situation. As immigration laws become more discriminatory, traffickers and illegal job recruiters (the major international players who facilitate migration through various channels) bring the victims to even more dangerous situations.

Trafficking in persons is also a security issue as it causes untold suffering on women and children, even loss of lives in many cases. The health consequences, the violence, and the sexual abuse suffered by trafficked women and girls are similar to those who were battered and raped. The difference is that when women and girls are subjected to this kind of violence in prostitution, it is viewed as "sex." (Raymond, et al, 2001).

Thailand has become the trafficking hub in the region. It is a source and transit area for women trafficked to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan (ILO, 1998). It remains as a major destination for women trafficked from the Mekong countries (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma/Myanmar), the Yunnan Province in southwest China, and more recently from Russia and Eastern Europe (Bangkok Post, 2001).

Due to huge unemployment problem in the Philippines, gender- differentiated economic status and the sexual objectification of women, many are lured by illegal job recruiters to accept non-existent jobs, and eventually end up in trafficking situations. All 73 Philippine embassies and consulates record trafficking for prostitution, illegal labor and bride trade purposes. (Report to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, 1998).

A distinct and disturbing phenomenon called bride trafficking within China has been noted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government entities. The big demand for brides also led traffickers to kidnapping or luring women and girls from Vietnam, Laos and other neighboring countries into China.

India and Pakistan appear to be the focal point for the massive trafficking of women and girls from Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma and even Bhutan. Over 5,000 girls from Nepal are trafficked to Pakistan during the last 10 years continuing at the rate of 200-400 women monthly.

New Zealand is a transit point for Thai women trafficked to Australia and Japan. Syndicates in Thailand and New Zealand exploit the visa exemption privilege for Australians to traffic women. One Melbourne sex trafficker brought 40 Thai women to Victoria as "contract workers," depriving them of their passports and earnings until their contracts were worked off, and restricting their movement. The women had to have sex with 500 men before receiving any money.

Role of governments

Where are the state players in all these? Economic policies that leave women bearing the brunt of unemployment woes on the one hand and cheap labor demands on the other indirectly lead to trafficking. Asian governments have adopted overseas contract work as development strategy even as governments in the more affluent countries avoid commitments to protect migrant workers.

Government officials in many countries have been found to be tolerating, if not themselves doing, trafficking. The legalization of the industry of prostitution in states in Australia proved to aid trafficking from neighboring countries, especially Thailand and the Philippines. Meanwhile, the criminalization of prostituted women in many countries while leaving the buyers, pimps and establishment owners free, intensifies the oppression of women and reinforces the socially constructed role of men as receivers of sexual services.

Finally, the lack of anti-trafficking laws in many countries that prosecute the perpetrators (including buyers), protect victims, and prevent trafficking in the long-term is abetting the problem.

Interventions to combat trafficking

On a positive note, the Office of the Prime Minister of Korea proclaimed in April 2004 its determination to fight trafficking in women, close down prostitution establishments by 2007, and start in September 2004 the seizure of entire earnings of business owners who are found to have arranged these illegal transactions.

In addition, counseling centers will be established near red-light districts to help women who are forced into prostitution and provide legal assistance. The government also plans to revise a law to provide various protective measures such as attendance of counselors (psychologists) during investigation sessions, police protection, and medical and legal service to the victims. Also, foreign women who suffer from withheld wages and sexual exploitation can have their repatriation delayed until the investigation concludes. Prosecutors can ask for further delay in the repatriation of victims, even after indictment of people accused of trafficking, if needed.

In Malaysia, huge numbers of Filipino women escape trafficking situations. But some have been charged with illegal migration. In a positive development, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) proposed that the government set up a national task force to curb trafficking of women and children. It also wants the government to consider having comprehensive legislation for women and children and provide a shelter program for victims of human trafficking. According to SUHAKAM Chair, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman, the task force should comprise high-powered government agencies. A joint effort and commitment from the Immigration Office, the police, the Ministry on Women, Family and Community Development, and other relevant parties to tackle the problem is needed.

SUHAKAM is concerned that at present the trafficking victims are being prosecuted under the Immigration Act, while the perpetrators of trafficking escape prosecution. Where there is clear evidence that girls have been trafficked, they should be brought before the Pardons Board so that they are sent back to their home country as soon as possible according to Abu Talib. Also, he proposed that Malaysia ratify the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Protocol). He added that all applicable laws relating to trafficking of women and children should be amended with regard to evidence, burden of proof and punishment. He asserts that the government must have the political will and commitment to review outdated laws to prevent these immoral acts from having more innocent victims.

The Philippines enacted an anti-trafficking law in 2003 that severely penalizes perpetrators, including buyers, while protecting the victims and preventing the problem through long-term economic and public education programs. A project by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women - Asia-Pacific (CAT W-AP) gives gender education to young boys to reexamine the concept of masculinity that gives men entitlement to women's bodies, and to develop positive views. Community-based programs are also initiated by CAT W-AP to mobilize barangay (community) leaders to monitor and prevent trafficking of women and children at their level.

The Protocol has created a global language and legislative model to define trafficking in persons, assist victims, and prevent trafficking. Consent is irrelevant under Article 3 of the Protocol,1 thus protecting all victims of trafficking, not just those who can prove that they were 'forced.' In drafting anti-trafficking legislation, governments should follow the example of the Protocol and treat trafficked persons as victims and survivors of human rights abuses, and not as migration criminals. The Protocol similarly encourages states to address the so-called demand side.

It is also important for governments to initiate multilateral and bilateral agreements for the protection of victims and the prosecution of traffickers. This is an integral part of confidence-building in the region.

No government policy should promote prostitution. Listening to trafficking survivors' groups is critical. States must eliminate structural factors - poverty, racism, militarist responses to conflict, gender discrimination - that push women to trafficking networks.

This article is based on a paper of the same title presented at the 18th Asia-Pacific Roundtable with the theme "Confidence-building and Conflict Reduction" (30 May - 4 June 2004, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Jean Enriquez is the Deputy Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women-Asia Pacific (CATW-AP).

For further information, please contact: CATW- A P,Suite 308, Sterten Place, 116 Maginhawa St., Teacher's Village, Quezon City, Philippines; ph (632) 426-9873; fax (632) 434-2149; e-mail: jean.enriquez@catw-ap.org


1. Article 3 provides the definition of trafficking in persons:

(a) "Trafficking in persons" shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs;

(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) has been used;

(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered "trafficking in persons" even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article;

(d) "Child" shall mean any person under eighteen years of age.
The Protocol came into force on 25 December 2003.

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