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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”




Thailand's Brothel Busters
By Maggie Jones

A U.S.-based group is spurring high-profile raids to free sex workers. But
what happens when the women don't want to be saved?

From the outside, the Pink Lady in Chiang Mai, Thailand, had all the
markings of a brothel: the bodyguard stationed at the front door, the
blackened windows, the motorcycles parked out front late at night. Inside,
it looked like a cheap diner, with frayed vinyl booths and tables.
Flashing Christmas lights hung from the bar. The stereo played Thai pop

Several times in 2001, investigators with an American organization called
International Justice Mission (IJM) -- a religious group staffed by
Christian lawyers -- paid undercover visits to the Pink Lady. The group --
usually two to three men -- would order rounds of Heinekens and talk with
as many girls as possible, recording the conversations with a hidden
camera. Eventually they compiled a 25-page report that included
photographs, addresses, and excerpts from Thailand's penal code -- which
outlaws brothels -- and presented it to the country's Department of Public
Welfare. A week later, police descended on two brothels and two nearby
houses and rounded up 43 women and girls.

To IJM, it was a successful "rescue" mission, one of dozens that it and
other organizations have undertaken in Thailand, India, Cambodia, and
other countries. On IJM's website and in its fundraising brochures, these
rescues are advertised as effective ways to help girls and women who have
been trafficked across borders and forced into prostitution. But despite
IJM's lofty goal -- to gather evidence that will lead to prosecutions of
brothel owners and free their victims -- the raids don't often net the big
players or lead to significant jail time for traffickers.


And then there's the sticky problem of whether some of the women even want
to be rescued at all. One organization in India, known as STOP (Stop
Trafficking, Oppression, and Prostitution), has been criticized for
"saving" women against their will. And an NGO worker complained last year
in the Kathmandu Post that a group of Nepalese women had to bribe rescuers
to let them stay in their brothels. "I've never seen an issue where there
is less interest in hearing from those who are most affected by it," notes
Phil Marshall, manager of the United Nations' Project on Human Trafficking
in Southeast Asia's Mekong region.

In the days following the Pink Lady raid, the rescued women and girls were
locked into two rooms of an orphanage by Public Welfare authorities, and
many of them hardly seemed relieved. While some told of having been
promised waitressing jobs and then being forced into the brothel, others
had chosen to work there, and several complained that they had not yet
been ready to leave. "We need to make money for our families," one woman
cried. "How can you do this to us?"

During the one hour each day when they were allowed outside the building,
four girls soon slipped out the front gate and disappeared. A few nights
later, 11 of them strung together sheets, shimmied down the second-floor
window of the orphanage, and climbed over a concrete and wire fence. Nine
more ran away weeks later. During one of the escape attempts, a woman fell
from a second-story window and was hospitalized with back injuries.

Some of the women felt there was no longer a life for them outside
prostitution -- that brothel life had ruined them. Others saw the brothel
as their only hope to earn money. Some of the escapees were clearly trying
to return to Burma, a daunting and dangerous journey, and more than a few,
social workers believe, were heading back to the brothels. Within one
month following the raid, a total of 24 girls and women had run away from
being saved.


You won't find these complications featured in IJM's literature, or in the
group's media appearances. Nor were they discussed in congressional
testimony during debates over the Trafficking Victims Protection Act,
passed in 2000 and widely considered the key element in the U.S.
government's new war on global sex trafficking. In addition to providing
funding for anti-trafficking initiatives, the legislation gives Congress
power to impose sanctions on countries that don't aggressively tackle the
problem. According to human-rights groups, as many as 250,000 women and
children are caught up in Southeast Asian sex traffic every year. As
countries such as Thailand, India, and Nepal try to convince the United
States that they are addressing trafficking, brothel raids are likely to

IJM won't say how many women they've helped rescue or what happened to
them afterward. Sharon Cohn, IJM's director of anti-trafficking
operations, says her organization targets only women who are smuggled
across borders or coerced. IJM director Gary Haugen says he's never met a
prostitute who's been upset about being rescued. "All the conversations
I've had have been with victims who expressed how grateful they were to be
released from a place of horrific abuse."

But that doesn't mean others aren't caught in the raids -- or that all
trafficked women necessarily want to be rescued. Burmese migrants, for
example, rely on traffickers to flee to Thailand, and into the sex trade,
because they have few opportunities to support their families at home,
where they'd live in fear of gang rape and forced labor. One 19-year-old
Burmese sex worker told me she could have found work in Thailand as a
domestic, but she'd heard stories of girls who weren't paid or were beaten
by their employers. (In one recent case, a Burmese domestic worker in
Thailand died after her employer set her on fire and left her without
food, water, or medical care for three days.) "Some women, particularly
those with families to support, see brothels as their best option," says
Marshall. "And given their other choices, I think this is understandable."

During a recent anti-trafficking conference in Hawaii, experts and
human-rights advocates called for a list of "best practices" for raids and
rescues -- including more attention to who does and doesn't want to be
taken from brothels. IJM officials say they have been working to
coordinate their investigative work with other organizations and the Thai
government, to make sure women receive "aftercare" following the raids.
But clearly, the spectacular busts won't stop anytime soon -- and neither
will the flow of women and girls into brothels. "If it were your
12-year-old daughter in the brothel, you'd want the raid," says Marshall.
"But you also have to acknowledge that it's someone else's daughter that
might end up in the brothel because your daughter got out. Raids don't
necessarily address the roots of the problem and can actually make things
worse if they are not done right."

Several months ago, Cambodian officials working with IJM -- and with
Dateline NBC cameras rolling -- raided a brothel in Svay Pak, a notorious
shantytown outside Phnom Penh. Thirty-seven girls and young women were
taken from the brothel and placed in a shelter. One was only five years
old; several girls were under 10. But after the TV cameras were turned off
and IJM had left the country, six women, thought to be about 18 or 19
years old, climbed over the fence at the shelter and ran away. Local aid
workers believe that the girls, who were illegal migrants with few places
to go, returned to a brothel. And a new group of children is expected to
arrive in Svay Pak's brothels before long.

Maggie Jones was a Pew Fellow in International Journalism while reporting
this story.

This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National
Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous
readers like you.

Source: © 2003 The Foundation for National Progress November/December 2003

Taken from: HIV Information for Myanmar  []