Date: Sep 13, 1994
From: tun@macpsy.ucsf.EDU
Subject: Red Light, Green Light: The Global Trafficking Of Women
By Judith Mirkinson 
[This article originally appeared in the Spring 1994 issue of
Breakthrough, a political journal published by Prairie Fire
Organizing Committee. To respond to the article, to order a copy
of the publication, or to subscribe, please send mail to]
     Entertainment girls, hospitality girls, prostitutes, massage
girls, it all means the same thing. They're part of the
globalization of the world's economy. Goods to be shipped across
borders, through one airport to another, sometimes overland.
Commodities in a multibillion dollar industry. Only the products
are women and children being sold for profit. We're talking here
about international sex trafficking.
     There are several categories of trafficking. The first and
largest (which this article will concentrate on) is that of the
transnational sex industry: international prostitution. There is
also the mail-order bride industry. The other main category is that
of exporting workers in exchange for foreign capital to be sent
back home. In the case of women, these are usually domestic workers
or nurses. The women all perform services that are deemed necessary
and vital to the host countries, yet they live in the margins, more
often than not, invisible.
     The traffick is that of poor women to richer men. The flow of
poor women from the South to North is the largest, although now
there is also an increase of women from the former Eastern bloc.
The most frequent destinations for the women are Europe, North
America, Japan, Australia, and the Middle East.
     The women come from rural areas and city slums. They are
either recruited as tourist workers or are often kidnapped and
forced into sexual slavery. Others are simply sold outright. In
some countries there are actual markets where women are sold in the
streets. Actually to call most of them women is a misnomer, for
often they are young girls, ages 10-15. Some have not even reached
the age of menstruation, many have no idea what sex is.
     Think of it. You're a young girl brought from Burma, you have
been kidnapped or bought. You're terrified. You have no idea where
you are, what country you're in, what's going to happen to you. If
you haven't been raped along the way (or sometimes even if you
have) you're immediately brought to the "Room of the Unveiling of
the Virgin." There you are raped continuously - until you can no
longer pass for a virgin. Then you are put to work.
     These girls are bought for $400-$800. They're told they will
have to earn this money back before they can leave the brothel.
They're charged for all their clothes, food, and board and usually
receive only 20 percent of the money they earn. In reality they
often earn back four to five times what they owe before the
managers tell them they're on their own. Once that happens the
women are often no better off than before. They have no livelihood
other than sex work, they have no home, and they've been
stigmatized for life.
     It's not that any of this is exactly new. Women have been
bought and sold for thousands of years. We're all only too familiar
with the "world's oldest profession." Mail-order brides have also 
been commonplace - did you see The Piano? But the selling has
become more organized and systematized. It's the scope, money, and
reasons involved that make this business one that has reached
catastrophic proportions.
     The numbers are staggering. Here are just a few of the
statistics. It's estimated that from one to two million women and
children are trafficked each year. During a 1991 conference of
Southeast Asian women's organizations, it was estimated that 30
million women have been sold worldwide since the mid-70s. Over
100,000 women are shipped each year to Japan to serve in indentured
servitude in bars and brothels. Thousands of young women and girls
are sent from Nepal to India and from Burma to Thailand. In the
past year 200,000 women have been sent from Bangladesh to Pakistan.
Young women have been found in China on their way to the brothels
of Bangkok. Women from Latin America and Africa are turning up in
Thailand and Europe, just as those from Latin America and the
Caribbean are shipped to the U.S., although a real study of the
traffick into the U.S. and Canada hasn't been done. These numbers
mostly exclude the issue of internal trafficking for "domestic
     How did these numbers come about?
     During the 60s and 70s tourism became one of the big
industries for developing nations. Promoted by the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank and agencies like U.S.AID, countries
were urged to exploit their natural resources by developing resorts
and hotels to attract foreign capital. Part and parcel of the
tourist attraction was sex. Package tours were developed to include
airfare, accommodations, cars, and women or men for sexual
pleasure. In Thailand, for instance, travel brochures promote "sun,
sea, and sex." They build on the patriarchal and racist fantasies
of European, Japanese, American, and Australian men by touting the
exotic, erotic subservience of Asian women.
     "They [sex tours] offer meetings with the most beautiful and
young Eastern creatures (age 16 to 24 years) in a soft and sexy
surrounding and in the seductive and tropic night of the exotic
paradise. You get the feeling that taking a girl here is as easy
as buying a pack of cigarettes.Many of the girls in the sex world
come from the poor northeastern region of the country or the slums
of Bangkok. It has become more a habit that one of the nice looking
daughters goes into the business. They have to earn money for the
poor family. With this little slave you can do practically
everything in the field of sex the whole night and you will not be
disappointed with the girl. She gives real Thai warmth."
- Excerpts from a Dutch tourist pamphlet on sex tours in Thailand
     The war in Vietnam brought a military buildup in Asia that
ironically proved fortuitous to many countries' economies. Korea,
Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Okinawa built up a
burgeoning sex industry outside the bases. Rest and recreation ("R
& R") actually created new cities and added much-needed capital to
the overall economy of each nation. It is estimated that by the
mid-80s the sex industries around the bases in the Philippines had 
generated more than $500 million. At the end of the war in Vietnam,
Saigon had 500,000 prostituted women - this is equal to the total
population of Saigon before the war.
     Many of these countries developed policies and passed
legislation to aid the sex business and "support the boys."
Thailand, for example, passed the Entertainment Act, which included
an incredible policy called "Hired Wife Services." By the mid-70s
there were 800,000 prostituted Thai women.
     Asian women were (and still are) looked upon as fragile,
exotic, sexual flowers, there for men to do with as they wished.
Men were convinced that practices that might be frowned upon or
illegal in their own countries would be available in places like
Bangkok and Manila. This has become true for both heterosexual and
homosexual men, for the sale of young boys is also big business.
     "If you want extremely young girls, or generally speaking, if
you want something for which you could get 'hanged' in your own
country, you can find it in these places without the risk of
getting hanged. You can expect a nod of the head, the Asian clasp
of the hands, all accompanied by a 'thank you.'"
- German tourist brochure on Thailand, 1983
     Tourists arrived by the thousands, bringing in the much-needed
yen, marks, and dollars. Almost 75 percent of the five million
tourists who come to Thailand each year are males. Some companies
go so far as to arrange special tours as incentives and rewards for
their employees. Tourism has emerged as the single largest foreign
exchange earner in Nepal, Thailand, and the Philippines. Men are
guaranteed a good time and, to sweeten the deal, are given the
impression that they are actually doing good deeds.
     "When you screw here, you may not do it for Germany but you
certainly do it for the welfare of Kenya."
- German tourist
     Tax-free zones, industrial zones, and capital growth centers
are also becoming centers for trafficking. One of the lures for
businesses and for their employees is the promise of available
women. The police and governments are completely complicit in the
running of the sex trade. Sexual services are provided on a regular
basis to government officials to keep them in line. Government
profits are so immense that they are loathe to complain anyway.
     It's gotten to the point where entire villages in northern
Thailand and southern Burma (see related article, page 25) are
being decimated of girl children. In a strange twist parents
welcome, for the first time, the birth of a girl child rather than
that of a boy, because they know they have a guaranteed wage
earner. Most of these families feel they have no other choice than
to give up some of their children.
     And the children are being sold at younger and younger ages.
     This is fueled both by the thrill of child sex and the fear
of AIDS. In many countries there is an age-old notion that
virginity can cure venereal disease. This dovetails into the belief
that the younger the child, the more likely he or she won't have
slept with anyone and therefore won't be infected with AIDS. Thus
girls and boys as young as eight years old are now being sought and
provided throughout the world for their sexual services. Again, the
numbers are horrifying. It is estimated that there are 800,000
child prostitutes in Thailand, 400,000 in India, 250,000 in Brazil,
and 60,000 in the Philippines. Twenty thousand young girls and boys
are brought from Burma to Thailand each year.
     Children are actually more prone to AIDS. Their internal
tissues of the vagina and anus are more delicate and tear more
easily as a result of sexual intercourse (especially with adults).
It is estimated that 20-30 percent of child prostitutes are HIV+.
Fifty percent of the under-18 prostitutes in Thailand are thought
to have contracted HIV. In 1993 from a rare police raid of a
brothel holding young Burmese women, 36 percent tested positive.
When you extrapolate these numbers to the entire population, the
number of women and men who will have AIDS by the year 2000 is in
the millions.
     Trafficking is not only happening in the "under-developed
nations." It is now becoming common-place to see fathers from
Eastern Europe bringing their young daughters to Western European
cities. Often these children are brutalized by the clients and are
forced to seek medical help. As one doctor in the New York Times
     "One father came with his 12-year-old daughter. She was
terrorized and in terrible pain. I asked him why he did it. 'First
of all we are very poor... she is still too young to get
pregnant... she is very young... she will forget.'"
     But she won't forget. The psychological consequences of this
mass brutalization of children are only beginning to be understood.
As one social worker who works with former child prostitutes in  
Thailand put it, "They remind me of empty shells - so much missing,
no sense of self, no hope, no trust. Only a deep hollow we need to
     What is to be done? Clearly the issues involved are both
complex and overwhelming for they touch on one of the basic
foundations around which society has been organized: the
relationship between women and men. The notion of woman as object
is not going to go away any time soon. Nor are millions of new jobs
that could generate the same kind of money about to miraculously
     Then too, there is the moral cloud that envelops the subject.
Despite the periodic glamorization of the profession in movies and
TV shows, prostitutes continue to be looked down upon as the scum
of society, people who somehow deserve their fate. These women are
objects of pity and disrespect. Prostitution is illegal in most
places and it is the women who are punished and put into danger.
     "Instead of punishing traffickers, the judge punished us.IThey
want to prove that we are just prostitutes who have no dignity and
that our words are not trustworthy. They believe that prostitutes
cannot be victims of the slave trade because we have already sold
our bodies."
     Although there is much debate within the feminist movement
around the question of prostitution one thing should be perfectly
clear. Prostitutes are not criminals and they should not be
penalized and jailed. Given the nature of trafficking, one cannot
look at these jobs as ones of free choice. Many women's
organizations are even changing the nomenclature. The term
prostituted women highlights the aspect of coercion.
     Hotlines, drop-in centers, and support programs are being run
in countries throughout the world. For instance, in Korea, My
Sister's Place offers a refuge for women. In the Philippines and
Kenya several drop-in centers exist for prostitutes and
entertainment girls. Empowerment for these women is vital. From
Nepal to India to Peru to Nigeria, voices that have been silenced
are beginning to be heard. They refuse to be victims or to be
looked upon as such. Women who have had no alternatives are
developing livelihood projects and are seeking skills training. The
philosophy of the centers is to be non-judgmental, to give the
women a chance to organize and discuss among themselves.
     "We set no conditions for women to be accepted at the drop-in
centers. They don't have to leave the bars and all possibilities
are open. What matters is that they feel that they are accepted.
Then the process begins so that they accept themselves, and see
that they have capabilities for something else. So from personal
guilt and hatred of themselves, they come to love themselves."
- Sister Sol Perpinan, Third World Movement Against Exploitation
of Women
     Women in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as in Europe
and North America, are discussing the issues of violence against
women publicly and demanding that it be stopped. During the Vienna
Conference on Human Rights held in June of 1993, women organized
a special tribunal to demand that women's basic rights be
recognized as human rights. Rape was declared a war crime against
women and humanity. Women also demanded an end to the trafficking
of women and children.
     "There is no international instrument in existence which
explicitly stipulates that it is a human right to be free of sexual
exploitation. Therefore, a new Convention must be promulgated. We
introduce the new concept/definition of prostitution which is under
the umbrella of sexual exploitation:
     "Sexual exploitation is a violation of human dignity,
     "It is a fundamental human right to be free from sexual
exploitation in all of its forms. Sexual exploitation is a practice
by which person(s) achieve sexual gratification or financial gain,
or advancement through the abuse of a person's sexuality by
abrogating that person's human right to dignity, equality,
autonomy, and physical and mental well-being."
- from Conventions presented to the tribunal in Vienna
     In March 1994, 800 women from around the world met in New York
to discuss preparations for the Fourth UN Conference on Women to
be held in Beijing in 1995. As in Nairobi,  two conferences will
actually take place; the "official" one run by the governments and
the more interesting and vital conference run by women's
organizations and NGOs. When organizers pored through the official
agenda, they found, much to their surprise and rage, that nothing
focused on trafficking. As one Filipina organizer put it, "All
they're interested in is economic development on a mega-level. They
don't see that women's very human rights are involved. Trafficking
is one of the most dire problems facing women today and it must be
addressed and stopped."
     In order to make this happen women are circulating petitions
internationally demanding the inclusion of trafficking on the
official agenda. They hope to get one million signatures by the
     It's not just the destruction of women and children's lives
that makes this such an important issue; it's also what it does to
all the cultures and societies where it takes place.
     Throughout world history, patriarchy has valued women not as
persons but as things, pieces of property to be bought and sold.
Although this view was not held in all societies and at all times,
it is common enough.
     However, it's also true that it has been women who have held
communities together. It is through women that cultures are
developed and passed down to the next generation.
     So what are the implications when societies are literally
stripped of so many of their women, when women's lives are reduced
even further? (For the first time in 500 years, there are now more
men than women in the Philippines.) The very fabric of life begins
to disintegrate. After a while it doesn't take much to sell the
children as well.
     By organizing against sex trafficking, women are confronting
the view of themselves as objects and commodities and are saying
Enough! And in doing so, they're beginning to unravel the historic
intersection between capitalism and patriarchy, challenging the
entire conception of people as things to be moved around or
discarded according to the needs of the marketplace. Sex
trafficking exposes so much - the treatment of women, the
intersection between racism and sexuality, the disparity between
the North and South. That's why it's so important. That's why the
trafficking of women and children must be stopped.
Mail-Order Brides
     "MOBs" - you've probably seen the ads in the newspapers, but
you haven't realized what they were. Here are a couple of examples
from the San Francisco Bay Guardian. These ads aren't just about
people finding companions. They represent million-dollar
businesses.  It's estimated that there are at least 50,000 Filipina
mail-order brides in the U.S. alone.  The buyers are most often
older white men who are looking for women as servants and sex
partners. They've bought the message that Filipina women are
passive and anxious to please - just the kind of woman they want.
     The women are often isolated and scared; many become virtual
slaves in their own homes. Sometimes these "marriages" work out. 
Many times they don't and sometimes there are disastrous
consequences. Women have been tortured and killed. Some men use
their wives as prostitutes or for pornography. Clearly, not all the
husbands are psychotic, but the incidence of violence against
mail-order brides is extremely high.
     The agencies who recruit and then sell the brides are not
sleazy hole-in-the-wall places. They're legitimate businesses. One
of the biggest, Cherry Blossom, which has its headquarters in
Hawaii, is run by a Princeton University MBA.
     One way to stop this business is to get rid of the ads. Last
year GABRIELA Network, a U.S. based organization in support of
women in the Philippines, got Harpers to stop running the ads. Now,
women from around the country are beginning to demand that their
local papers stop the ads as well. Check your local paper. If
they're there, start a campaign to get rid of them!
Domestic Workers
     Perhaps you read about it during the Gulf War. Hundreds of
Filipinas had barricaded themselves in the Spanish Embassy in
Kuwait because they were afraid for their lives. Thousands of them
had been living in virtual slavery cleaning houses and taking care
of the children. When the war started they were raped by soldiers
from both the Kuwait and Iraq armies. When told of the incidents
the Filipino minister responsible commented, "Why don't they just
lie back and enjoy themselves?"
     Part of the economic plan developed by the IMF and World Bank
for the Philippines (and other countries) during the late 60s and
70s was the idea of labor export.  A Philippine Overseas Employment
Agency was established. In the 70s this involved mostly men working
in construction in the Middle East, but by the late 70s and 80s the
majority of Filipinos working outside the country were women.
     Here are some estimated figures (excluding the U.S. and
* 75,000 prostituted women in Japan
* 50,000 maids in Singapore
* 50,000 domestics/prostituted women in Hong Kong
* 75,000 domestics in England
* 50,000 domestics in Spain
* 75,000 domestics in Italy
* 50,000 in Germany
* 150,000 in the Middle East
     In Canada you have to be married or live in the residence of
your employer for two years before getting residency. In Kuwait and
Saudi Arabia your passport is taken from you the minute you arrive
at the airport. In Hong Kong your passport stays with your
employer. The same goes for Singapore. Although there are supposed
to be laws guaranteeing their well-being, many of the women do not
receive their full salaries and are not given adequate housing or
health care. Still the monies they send back are enormous: $2
billion a year - enough to pay the interest on the Philippines's
Judith Mirkinson is a member of the Editorial Board of
Prairie Fire Organizing Committee
P.O. Box 14422
San Francisco, CA
94114 USA
"A single spark can start a barbecue"

Lisa Pease
"There is no doubt now there was a conspiracy, 
yet most of us are not very angry about it. 
The conspiracy to kill the president of the 
United States was also a conspiracy against
the democratic system--and thus a conspiracy
against you. I think you should get very angry 
about that."
                 -- Gaeton Fonzi
		    Investigator, House Select
		    Committee on Assassinations