Sex Tourism And Prostitution An Issue For WRI?

The dozen or so women who attended the Women’s Theme Group at the WRI Triennial (28 July to 3 August, near Namur, Belgium) met regularly to discuss the increasing militarization of women’s lives. One interesting aspect to the discussion was the role of religion in women’s lives, and how this either added to or undermined militarization. The question was asked “Think about your experiences as a woman growing up in a particular religious culture—or in an atheist environment. Do you see any connections between religion and militarisation in your culture?” On another day the discussion urged participants to think about stories they knew which illustrated a link between militarisation and poverty.

Another aspect was the issue of forced prostitution. As one woman noted, WRI has been against military conscription since its founding. Prostitution (which is often connected to militarism) can be seen as the forced conscription of women’s bodies. At a later plenary session, the theme group urged WRI to become actively involved in the struggle against the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Niramon Prudtatorn of the Thai organization Friends of Women (FOW) spoke at the 30 July meeting of the theme group on forced prostitution. She was followed by Juliane von Krause of Terres des Femmes, a group which is also working against the sexual exploitation of women and girls (Terres des Femmes, Postfach 2531, 7400 Tübingen, Germany. Tel. +49 7071 24289).

Ulla Eberhard of Graswurzelrevolution-Föderation Gewaltfreier Aktionsgruppen introduced the speakers with these words, “The Vietnam war increased prostitution in Asia. There is a fear that the war in the Gulf will do the same there. If not in the Gulf region, then perhaps elsewhere—a newspaper recently reported that US soldiers in the Gulf were being sent to Thailand for rest and recreation (R&R).”

Niramon Prudtatorn then gave her presentation. “Prostitution is seen as a women’s issue in Thailand, the responsibility of women only,” she said. “But not just foreigners are clients—there is a Thai tradition of men going to prostitutes, too. US soldiers still come two or three times a year, in fleets of 90,000. German tourists come, some 250,000 of them. 60% of them are men. You can see the contrast—35,000 Thais apply each year to visit Germany—60 to 70% of them are women.

“Ten years ago travel agencies included the price of visiting prostitutes in the ticket. Informal investigations revealed about one million prostitutes in Thailand, 800,000 of them under 16 years of age. The government figures estimate about ten times less than this. Thailand has a very bad image which does concern the government. The government blames women for AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. Thai women’s groups see how the women are blamed, researched and studied. Why not study, arrest and blame the men? Why are women divided into good women and bad women? Why are men who use prostitutes seen as ‘real’ men? Four to six million men go to prostitutes—this should be seen as a problem, too.

“Prostitution should be seen as a human rights violation. Why do some people have the right to buy other’s bodies? If we want to promote the idea of social development, prostitution is not only an economic problem. We must look long-term, and see these one million women as having families, these six million men as having six million families. AIDS adds an extra dimension, as prostitution is an international issue now with AIDS and foreigners.

“FOW has worked for decriminalization. We don’t want to see our sisters in an unhealthy career. FOW now is in the National Commission on Women’s Affairs and lobbies for decriminalization. Legislation is now in draft form. There is strong punishment for pimps and those over 18 who enter voluntary.

“In the South of Thailand there is one district which has 48 to 60 brothels, or some 7,000 to 8,000 girls working under 14-15-16 years of age. The biggest pimps are the police and even those in the Crime Suppression Division (which deals with prostitution), where FOW now has good contacts.

“Many Thai women over 30-35 go to another country, to marry foreigners and save some money to open a small business. Inside Thailand ‘good’ women are not suppose to associate or talk with ‘bad’ women. We must overcome this also. I am embarrassed when I travel overseas because I am seen as a prostitute. There is a new law in Germany, which states that Customs agents can turn Asian women back, even if they have the proper papers, because of this idea. We must fight these perceptions. We have to fight two battles, patriarchy and upper class prejudices.

“Don’t come to Thailand and pity the women. See what you can do in your own country. We don’t want money, we want understanding. Teach German men, who come as tourists, not to look at women as sex objects.”

VICTORY IN THAILAND

On 30 January 1984, at midnight, a brothel in Phuket Province caught fire. It caused the deaths of five women who had been lured into prostitution. They burnt to death because they were locked inside the brothel. Although this happened over six years ago, the Thai public still remembers it.

In March 1990 the brothel owners were sentenced by the Provincial Civil Court of Phuket to pay damages to the mother of one of the prostitutes who was killed.

Before the suit was brought up in the civil court, it had been filed in criminal court by the Phuket public prosecutor. The brothel owner had been sentenced to life imprisonment; two other defendants were given sentences of 30 years and 21 years respectively.

This is the first case of its kind and serves as an example of how existing legal procedures can be used to punish a brothel owner and how the prostitute’s mother could claim damages from the brothel owner.

The mother, Mrs. Pa Chaisit, asked for and received help from the Bangkolvbased women’s group Friends of Women (Fow) in filing the claim. During the witnesses’ examination Ms. Naiyana Supapung, a lawyer for FOW’s Women’s Rights Protection Section, found two prostitutes who had been rescued from the fire. They have decided to claim damages from the brothel owner for having been forced into prostitution and detained in the brothel. An FOW lawyer is helping the women pursue their case.

FOW has appreciated the work of the police and the Phuket public prosecutor in this case, stating, “If the authorities concerned were always to proceed in a similar fashion, the legal punishments would be more effective and fewer women would be forced into prostitution. Although prostitution will only end when poverty disappears, it also depends on the setting up of legal measures to punish the operators and male customers of women and children forced into prostitution.”

From Friends of Women newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 1, August 1990.