Merchants of Flesh

By Leuchtag, Alice | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview
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Merchants of Flesh


Leuchtag, Alice, The Humanist


Violence against girls and women has been declared, by the Worldwacth Institute among others, the most common human-rights violation on earth. Yet a prevalent form of such violence often goes unrecognized as such--namely, internationally organized prostitution.

White slavery and indentured servitude are not terms applicable only to a distant and benighted past; they are as applicable today as they ever were. Throughout the so called free world, literally millions of girls and women do not voluntarily choose to become prostitutes but are duped, kidnapped, raped, coerced, or sold outright into the trade. And the poorer the country, the more likely it is that many of its girls and women find themselves trapped in a brothel life.

Internationally organized prostitution depends on a pernicious combination of Third World poverty, First World economic development policies, laws that permit international trafficking and indentured servitude, and worldwide patriarchal cultural norms that encourage male sexual prerogatives. But despite the sheer magnitude of these factors, there are some signs of hope. More and more women, both in the Third World and the developed world, are discussing the global politics of prostitution: the direct links between developmental policies pushed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and the experiences of 14- and 15-year- old village girls in such countries as Kenya, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, and Honduras. In some places, activists are organizing to help the children and women who have been forced into a life of prostitution. And feminists and others are beginning to demand an end to those policies, laws, and practices which promote prostitution as a multinational growth industry.

Lured and Sold

Each year thousands of uneducated, orphaned, abandoned, and destitute girls and young women across Asia, the Pacific, and Africa are given false promises of good jobs, transported across borders, and then sold into brothels in urban centers from Bombay to Bangkok to Nairobi. A 1991 conference of Southeast Asian women's organizations estimated that 30 million women had been sold worldwide since the mid-1970s. Traffickers scour train stations, poor villages, and urban streets looking for young girls and women who appear vulnerable. In 1991, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated that there were 200,000 Bangladeshi women in forced prostitution in Pakistan, yet not a single trafficker was arrested or convicted that year. When arrests do occur, it is always the women who are arrested and charged with violation of immigration laws.

New Delhi has become a major center in South Asia for the international buying and selling of girls and women. In Bombay, there are at least 100,000 prostitutes in 25 grubby red-light districts. Many were lured into the city by promises of domestic or factory jobs or marriage. The women (some actually girls as young as 11) learn too late that they are being sold into prostitution. Shamed by their fate, frightened, and financially indebted to the brothel owners for their food and clothes, few can escape their circumstances; and even if they do, it is unlikely they will be accepted back into their villages because their families often come to depend upon the money sent home from their meager earnings (after the brothel has taken at least so percent).

Washington Post reporter Molly Moore has collected the stories of some of these women ("Third World Prostitutes: Entrapped by Fate in a Sordid Trade," February 16, 1993). Asha, whose name means "hope," is typical: she was 12 years old when a man from her rural Bangladeshi village offered to take her to India and marry her. Instead, once in India, the man sold her to a trafficker who in turn sold her to a brothel. Asha resisted, ran away, and was brought back; after a year or so, she lost her spirit and her desire to escape. Now she has been a prostitute for a decade.

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