I read this thoughtful review of Global Woman 5 years ago, and now I’ve finally read it. Last Sunday, I walked past hundreds of Filipina women who have come to Hong Kong to work as domestic helpers. They live in little cubbyholes smaller than walk-in closets, so on their day off they congregate on the side of the street just to get out of their “homes.” They often go for years without seeing their own children, and their husbands drink and philander and feel emasculated.
As modern women cease to keep house, raise children, care for the elderly, and sleep with undesirable men, poor migrant women step in to fill the gap. Several of the pieces in Global Woman profile Filipinas who work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong, live-in eldercare assistants in Taiwan, nannies in New York, each picking up the “care deficit.”
The most heartbreaking of the articles was on prostitution, of course. Nicholas Kristof has been doing a great series on modern-day slavery which, besides revealing humanity in general as disappointing, reaffirms that women are reliably brutal to other women. (Here, here, and here.) If you needed more of that, the best piece in Global Woman carefully traces the mechanics of human trafficking in Thailand. No soul-searching, just the facts (“Because She Looks Like a Child” by Kevin Bales):
1. Siri, who is 15 but looks 11, sleeps with about 15 men a day and never leaves her brothel. She tried to run away once but the police helped return her, and she was brutalized into submission.
2. Siri’s parents sold her to a broker, a woman from their village. They were paid US$2,000, more than the family makes in a year.
3. When surveyed, 2/3 of families who had sold a daughter said that they could have afforded to live without the money. They spent the money on things like “a color television or video equipment.”
4. Families from northern Thailand, where the girls are mostly from, have always been significantly poorer than southern Thailand. It has been a long tradition to sell children as servants or prostitutes to southern Thailand.
5. Thai society has always been accepting of prostitution. Almost all men and women think prostitution is acceptable for single men, and 2/3 of men and 1/3 of women think it’s also fine for married men.
6. Thai society has traditionally used harem-size as a status symbol. As southern Thailand gets very rich very fast, all men move up the ladder in terms of sexual status. Depending on wealth, a man might take second or third wives or set up mistresses. The low-budget version is to have prostitutes. It’s also common to go out with the guys and buy a round of drinks and a round of sex.
7. With all this demand for commercial sex, the price of daughters has skyrocketed. Thailand’s economic boom has not hit the northern backwaters, so the country is full of must-have items like color TVs that are out of the economic reach of poor northern families.
8. Siri’s parents sold her for about $2,000 as an advance on Siri’s labor. Siri can’t go home until her advance is repaid. The broker immediately sold her for about $4,000, which became her new debt. She tried to run away once, which only increased her debt. She also pays interest on the debt, plus room and board at the brothel. It’s basically an impossible amount to ever pay back. Some girls manage to behave well enough that the pimps treat them as paid-off and let them send a fraction of their earnings home. When a girl gets HIV or is otherwise worn out, she gets sent home. No one talks about their experience because it would bring shame.
9. The pimps are employees, and the brokers make commissions. The people who really make the profits are middle-class businessmen who have diversified holdings in slaves, houses, businesses, etc. Having a few girls in your portfolio is a good investment decision, and the pimps are just hired muscle.
10. Brokers are often government officials, teachers, and other persons in positions of public trust. About half of them are women. They are sometimes returned prostitutes who have become wealthy farmowners due to their prostitution money, who can offer credibility to the claim that going to the city can lead to a better life.
11. The involuntary market forms about the bottom 5% of the sex market, usually servicing unskilled laborers and students. As Thai girls wise up, often from the TVs that their sisters paid for, women are being recruited (falsely, usually as “dishwashers” or “domestic helpers”) or abducted from Burma and Laos to fill the demand.
The persistence of human trafficking is the greatest shame of our time, but there is so little to be done about it because there’s always more demand, and always more supply. It bothers me to see problems which have persisted for so long and will continue to persist throughout my life because they are too big for people to really get behind.
The long-term solution, I think, is education of girls and the equal prosperity that such education brings. I went to a fund-raiser once where a speaker said, “If you’ve been working in development for a while in any field, you’ve probably realized that no matter what your issue is — health, environment, workers’ rights, peace, education — women’s education is at the heart of its long-term success. When you educate a boy, you get an educated boy, but when you educate a girl, you get an educated family.