Global Woman (eds. B. Ehrenreich & Arlie Russell Hochschild) 4* with skipping

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.


3 responses to “Global Woman (eds. B. Ehrenreich & Arlie Russell Hochschild) 4* with skipping

  1. “Clashing Dreams” by Hung Cam Thai was the most surprising article:
    1. Highly educated women in Vietnam are unmarriageable because no Vietnamese man wants a wife with more book-learnin’ or higher earning potential. In the case study, a Vietnamese lawyer decides to marry a man who works as an assistant cook at a Chinese restaurant in small-town America.
    2. Viet kieu men are often unmarriageable because they have too little education; Viet kieu women prefer white guys with real jobs. However, by their status as Americans, they are able to acquire a college-educated Vietnamese girl. Thus two unmarriageables can, and often do, pair off through arranged marriages.
    3. Unfortunately, in addition to the sheer unavailability of Viet kieu women, Viet kieu men go back to Vietnam for brides because they believe Vietnamese girls will be more traditional.
    4. Highly educated Vietnamese women are interested in international husbands primarily on the mistaken belief that a man will be more flexible about gender roles if he’s been living in the U.S. for 20 years. The lawyer lady wants such simple things, such as to be allowed to work outside the home and not to have her in-laws live with her.
    5. The disconnect leads to problems. Divorce almost never happens because there are massive quantities of extended family involved, and divorce brings shame on everyone.

  2. Great, great post. It is saddening to know that women still get abused like this and sold, no less. It is a result of poverty and maybe desperation. I believe that each person has a moral code inside them, but circumstances can make them choose to look another way or accept situations. I am Filipina myself and stories of domestic helpers who were once professionals back home but earning less are well-known but not less heartbreaking. There are other Filipinas especially in the Middle East where glitz is even more tempting where they have days jobs and then sell themselves at night.
    This is on Global Woman?

    • Global Woman is a collection of over a dozen pieces, each somewhere between social science and popular reporting. Over a quarter of the pieces are on Filipinas because there are so many aspects to Filipina migration. I have to warn you, a lot of the book is skimmable–women’s studies is notoriously self-indulgent. There’s also a lot worth reading, though.
      I think the title is intended to riff on how we imagine “global women” as smartly dressed executives jetting off to London and Dubai, but in fact most female migration consists of migrant women.

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