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Making the Harm Visible
Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls
Speaking Out and Providing Services

Confronting Trafficking, Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation in Asia - The Struggle for Survival and Dignity, Aurora Javate de Dios










The year 1998 is particularly important for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and our networks in all of the regions because we are observing a decade of promoting women’s human rights and fighting sexual exploitation. This year also marks the 50th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrined the principles of equality, the dignity and worth of the human person, and nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, religion or race as fundamental guideposts for all of our human rights work. It is interesting to note that we are observing these two events in the midst of the most serious economic crisis in Southeast Asia coupled with political uncertainty and instability in many parts of Asia, including South Asia. These two phenomena are very much interrelated and have serious implications for the intensification of sexual exploitation of Asian women in general, but manifested in particular forms such as trafficking and prostitution. What I intend to share with you is a brief outline of the many recent developments in the Asian region that impact on and pose serious challenges for our advocacy for women’s human rights and against sexual exploitation. In the second part of my work, I will highlight the numerous ways in which groups and networks like the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, institutions and governments have been trying to organize and strategize against sexual exploitation.

In this discussion, the term sexual exploitation is used to mean the abrogation of the dignity of a person by another for profit, gain, sexual satisfaction or any other motive. Class, nationality and gender are factors that aggravate sexual exploitation. Prostitution and its main recruitment mode, trafficking, will be highlighted as this constitutes the most oppressive and the most entrenched patriarchal institution that perpetuates male right and access to women and children’s bodies. Prostitution, in all its various forms, including pornography, must be seen in the overall context of women’s status in society and the political and legal regime as well as the socioeconomic conditions that define and impact on women’s enjoyment of their human rights. Sexual exploitation spans a continuum of abuse and violence against women and includes, but is not limited to rape, prostitution, incest, battering, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation and dowry deaths. Prostitution and trafficking are made possible because of practices, institutions, behavior and attitudes that violate women’s human rights. We in the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women view sexual exploitation as a human rights issue, a development issue and an issue of gender discrimination and violence. When woman cannot enjoy their fundamental human rights on an equal basis with men because of practices that exploit her sexuality and gender, we cannot all claim to enjoy human rights.

Intensification of Economic and Political Crisis

The economic crisis in Southeast Asia, triggered by a financial crisis, has been at the center of the news lately. Governments of the so-called tiger economies are alarmed at the devaluation of their currencies and the decline of economic growth rates that, until earlier this year, seemed very stable. High performing economies are experiencing joblessness at unprecedented rates. For instance, Thailand claims an unemployment figure of 1.8 million, while Indonesia has recently reported 2 million jobs lost as a result of the economic and political chaos in that country. South Korea’s unemployment likewise rose by 1.5 million people and the Philippines predicted that 4.3 million Filipinos will be out of work this year. Even the strong Japanese economy is experiencing an unprecedented period of recession and unemployment. The economic crisis is exacerbating the problem of irregular migrant trafficking and as Yorio Tanimura of the International Organization of Migration said, "the situation is ripe for smugglers to exploit people’s insecurity." Already labor importing countries such as Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand have announced drastic moves to report undocumented migrant workers. Malaysia has repatriated, sometimes forcibly, over one half million of its 1.7 million foreign workers, many of whom are Filipinos, Indonesians and South Asians. Thailand, both a sending and receiving country, intends to repatriate 300,000 irregular workers in addition to the 100,000 aliens already deported last year. South Korea already repatriated 49,569 undocumented foreign workers, most of whom come from South Asia, Philippines and Indonesia.

These grim statistics affect women’s lives directly and indirectly because they themselves are overseas contract workers or are dependent on the earnings of their husbands who are migrant workers. Women’s economic positions and employment both in the public and private sectors such as the export sectors—electronics, textiles, footwear—and the informal sector that are dependent on these industries have been seriously eroded by shutdowns resulting in massive layoffs. The retrenchment of overseas workers likewise impacts on women as overseas contract workers, which in recent years have become overwhelmingly female with a ratio of 22:1 in the Philippines; 3:1 in Indonesia; and 3:2 in Sri Lanka. Women, 40 percent of whom are heads of households, are left to manage dwindling resources for food, health care, and education with very little help from governments who are unable to deliver promises of social safety nets.

Job losses, loss of income, and a spiraling cost of living, especially for basic necessities, mean that the basic survival of women and their families is threatened across the region—from Korea and Thailand to the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. In many countries, many of the gains that have already been achieved in terms of equal protection and equal pay are now being reversed or are not being effectively implemented at all. Such is the case in the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, China, Taiwan, Indonesia and others.

The intensification of political, ethnic and sometimes religious conflicts in the region has a direct impact on the sexual exploitation of women. In Burma, for instance, there are an estimated 120,000 refugees, the majority of whom are women and children of Karen, Mon and Shan origins. Many have been subjected to the most horrendous forms of abuse such as rape, physical labor, and forced conscription by the Slorc forces. Women in communities which are occupied by the military are subjected to harassment, rape and forced marriages by soldiers who have been trained to be brutal in dealing with ethnic minorities in what is termed the "school of rape." In Indonesia, reports revealed that during the height of the rioting against Suharto, as crowds vented their anger, more than 100 Chinese and non-Muslim women and girls were attacked and raped in Jakarta alone. As in Bosnia-Herzegovina, women belonging to ethnic groups that are perceived to belong to the enemy camp are targeted for attack and looked upon as sexual prey and treated as prostitutes and sexual objects.

Increased Sexual Exploitation and Commodification of Women

Despite the emergence of so-called tiger economies in Asia, economic crisis and political conflicts have been a constant feature of the development of the region, becoming more apparent and intense at certain historical junctures. Although it is the most rapidly growing region, approximately two-thirds of its people are living in poverty. Whatever the economic picture is—either one of economic boom or economic bust—women, by their active increased labor and participation at all levels of the economy, formal and informal, have been the engines of growth in Asia, but have not benefited equally from the fruits of economic development. The United Nations Development Program Human Development Index of 1997 reports that globally sixty percent more women are illiterate compared to men, and many of those women are in the South Asian region and parts of Africa. Female wages are seventy-five percent of male wages, and sometimes lower, in the case of Asia; no society, including Asian societies, treat women as well as they treat men.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of women’s continuing marginalization and unequal status in almost all Asian countries is the pervasive commodification and sexual exploitation of women and increasingly of girl children.

The CATW-Asia Pacific study in 1997 showed that Asia has become the major locus for sex tourism, prostitution and mail order brides. Contributing factors to the growth of the sex industry in Asia and around the world are the mobility of people via tourism, the migration policies of governments, military prostitution, and the building of the infrastructure for sexual entertainment in Asia for the military, during the Vietnam War and after. Prostitution has become a high stakes business, with huge profits for brothel keepers, pimps, procurers, recruitment agencies, airline companies, hotels, travel groups, marriage bureaus, and many others. The trading of women and an increasing number of girls is carried out and mediated in many direct and indirect approaches, and is oftentimes glamorized by including language that makes such practices acceptable. One no longer uses the word prostitute, but instead uses "sex worker," "entertainer," "guest relations officer," or "cultural dancer." An organized international lobby is working very hard to make prostitution a part of the categories of work for women that should have adequate legal and labor protection.

In many countries in Asia, sexual exploitation is on the rise, most notably prostitution and trafficking in women. Japan represents one of the biggest markets for the sex industry where so-called women entertainers from Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, the Ukraine and other eastern countries number an estimated 200,000. They work in clubs, karaoke bars, pornography shops, massage and sauna establishments, snack bars, sex telephone booths, catalogues, videos and video games. Although prostitution is illegal, it is openly flaunted publicly through promotional materials like tissue papers and posters and is an entrenched part of business and corporate entertainment.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau have also been noted as pro-prostitution and trafficking loci. Fake contracts, often for domestic service, facilitate trafficking in Hong Kong where a large number of East European women are also trafficked for prostitution purposes. There are an estimated 40,000 prostituted children in Taiwan, many of whom come from ethnic minority groups. Trafficked women, from Thailand and other countries, are often detained and deported.

Military prostitution in Korea is massive with 18,000 registered and 9,000 unregistered prostitutes. Sex tourism is also very much integrated in tourism activities. In Indonesia, prostitution is officially condemned, but is sanctioned at the local levels where localisasi or localized bordello complexes are maintained and patronized by military and government officials. There are 71, 281 registered prostitutes; 60,000 of whom are between the ages of 15-20.

In the Philippines, 300,000 is the estimated number of prostitutes found in a range of so-called entertainment establishments, such as karaoke bars, dirt poor cabarets, beach resorts, and health clubs. Child prostitution is one the rise, estimated by EPCAT to be about 100,000.

In South Asia, massive cross border trafficking has been noted from Bangladesh to Pakistan and India at the rate of 200-400 per month by some estimates. Fake marriages, sale by parents and recruitment for jobs and outright kidnapping and abduction have victimized young women and girls. Nepali women and girls have also been noted as being trafficked to India in the thousands and hundreds. AIDS afflicted women are often stigmatized and deported back to Nepal.

What are the patterns and the trends in sexual exploitation of women in prostitution and trafficking?

  • An increase in the number of girl children from poor, rural and urban families. Research has shown that sexual exploiters and prostitute users are also the same cluster of men who abuse children. Although a small percentage are pedophiles, a great majority are ordinary men—business men, sailors, workers and migrants who buy sex to reinforce their masculinity and exercise power over the weak and vulnerable. For foreign men, there is the added layer of racial discrimination and power over third world women and children.
  • Increased trafficking of women and girls from ethnic and minority groups who are very often also experiencing abuse in their communities and/or caught in armed conflicts and civil war.
  • Increasing control of trafficking routes and destinations by syndicates, such as the Triad, Yakuza, Mafia and local criminal groups. Parents, relatives and friends driven by economic imperatives have also been involved in small time operations.
  • Increasing use of technology to market women and children for prostitution, bride trade, pornography and other slave-like practices via the Internet. Trafficking in the guise of marriage matching and pen pal clubs has been incredibly facilitated by the Internet and is now a booming business in Europe and the US.
  • The mainstreaming of prostitution in legitimate business and occupational categories in tourism, hospitality, health and entertainment establishments which are integral to development policies of governments.
  • Massive migration of women for entertainment and domestic work which facilitates trafficking in women.
  • Continuing inability of governments and the international community to respond to the increasing trafficking in women and children.
  • Intense lobbying of certain groups calling for a liberalization of sex industry through the legalization of prostitution and its redefinition as "work" on one hand, and the lobby to make distinctions between forced and free (choice prostitution, child vs. adult, and first world vs. third world).

The Advocacy for Women’s Human Rights and Dignity

I have so far described the alarming trends and patterns of sexual exploitation of women in the region. Let me now just outline some of the most remarkable initiatives of NGOs, women’s groups and governments in response to the crisis of trafficking and prostitution of women and children.

Over the last decade, there has been a tremendous growth in the number of advocates against sexual exploitation of women and children. Organizations in Bangladesh, such as Institute for Law and Development, Bangladesh Women’s Lawyer’s Association, and the Centre for Women and Children Studies and others, have been doing direct service work such as rescue and legal assistance. Networks, such as the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women, have banded together to provide a comprehensive package of services such as health, legal and alternative livelihood to victims of trafficking as well as preventive education programs at the grassroots level. Similar programs are ongoing in Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

A turning point on the issue of prostitution and trafficking are the voices of former prostitutes and victims of trafficking who are providing us with the most authoritative account of trafficking operations, as well as the devastating impact of prostitution and trafficking on the lives of women and children.

Legislative reforms are slowly responding to the issue. In Thailand, an Anti-Trafficking law was just passed and in the Philippines a proposed law is now being discussed. In Venezuela, a landmark ruling given by the labor department rejected the view that prostitution should be considered work.

At the international level, resolutions on trafficking in women and girls, including important documents such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Vienna Program on Human Rights have called for more vigilant action against trafficking. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women is continuing to push for a new convention against all forms of trafficking in women. Governments are slowly taking action, starting with more resolute initiatives against child prostitution and pedophilia.

The struggle against sexual exploitation in all its forms is a struggle for the survival of women, as well as a struggle for the reaffirmation of human dignity of future generations of women and children.


Aurora Javate de Dios, from the Philippines, has been a women’s rights activist for many years. She has served in various capacities in international and national organizations and NGO groups. She was a UN Expert on the Committee on the Elimination from 1994-1998 where she was Rapporteur for two years. As Commissioner of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, she represented the Philippines in many international conferences such as the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and other UN conferences on migration and trafficking of women, among others. She has led the Philippine delegation in fighting for a progressive Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Ms. De Dios is a teacher by profession, specializing in Philippine-Japanese Studies, Third world affairs and women’s studies in Miriam College in the Philippines, where she is currently serving as College Dean. She is a trainer on women’s human rights in different universities and institutions in the Philippines and abroad. Her current NGO involvement includes being the President of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (International) and Executive Director of its Asia Pacific regional office. She has written extensively on the issues of migration, violence against women, trafficking of women, Philippine-Japan relations and politics of dictatorship in the Philippines.







Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
ISBN 0-9670857-0-50
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu