Saving the Youngest Workers: The Struggle against the Southeast Asian Sex Trade

Article excerpt

Ten years have passed since the exposure of Thailand's rampant sex industry. The international community has progressed since the early 1990s, when the topic was of such high profile that research visas were not being released to persons studying child prostitution. Following a cover feature on the Thai sex industry in a 1993 issue of Time magazine, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai announced tough new anti-prostitution laws, but in effect, the new laws silenced the cries of the enslaved children. While the world no longer hears their voices, the industry thrives more than ever.

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The Extent of the Epidemic

Although all statistics related to the issue are much debated because of its underground nature, the International Labor Organization (ILO) claims that in 2003 the child sex industry in Thailand contributed between 14 and 16 percent of the national gross domestic product. The UN Office on Drugs and High Crime cites Europol's estimate that the industry is worth several billion US dollars a year.

In 2001, Heather Montgomery, a lecturer in Childhood Studies at Open University and a well-known anthropologist, conducted an in-depth study of a small Thai slum. She found that every household had at least one child working as a prostitute. Their ages ranged from four to 15 years old. Montgomery spoke to many children who did not even have the vocabulary to describe their work and who had been introduced to the industry at even younger ages.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than several hundred thousand children are currently forced into prostitution in Thailand. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) states that more than 1 million new children worldwide enter the industry every year and are forced to serve between five and 10 clients a day. The problem is not limited to Thailand; the US Department of State reports that more than 2.3 million women and children are trafficked in India alone--a devastating contributor to the exponential growth of AIDS in East Asia. However, Thailand has remained the regional hub of the industry for decades.

A Deep-Rooted Infrastructure

Child prostitution developed as a term in Thailand in 1908, when it first became illegal for children under 10 years old to enter brothels. However, "the oldest profession in the world" has thrived as an industry since the Ayudhaya period, dating back to 1350. In fact, the prostitution of children over 14 years remained legal until 1930. By 1949, Bangkok had gained such a reputation that a guidebook was published specifically for tourists traveling to Thailand to indulge their sexual pleasures.

However, in his book From Peasant Girls to Bangkok Masseuses, ILO researcher Pasuk Phongpaichit recognized that tradition was not the only factor in the growth of the Thai sex industry. The structure of the Thai economy was also contributing to the development of the industry. Since the 1950s, Thailand has "rejected the idea of tight economic planning ... to build up a manufacturing sector." Rather, it "counted on private enterprise to achieve economic growth by pursuing the comparative advantage which Thailand enjoys." As the Cold War-era global economy transformed, international trade declined, and low, cheap labor became a crutch for the declining economy. As Phongpaichit writes, Thailand continued to rely on "incentive to attract foreign and local investors to sink money into urban enterprise ... not allowing any of the rural interests to develop any real political torque." These phenomena created what have been recognized by many social scientists as the most optimal conditions for the growth of oppressive industry.

High urban wages and low rural incomes made prostitution cheap for city-earners while providing an astounding income for countryside families. Monetary inflation in the late 1960s and early 1970s decreased the real cost of the service, attracting foreigners to the industry. …