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

Globalization, Human Rights and Sexual Exploitation, Aida F. Santos










The crisis in Asia has occurred after several decades of outstanding economic performance. Annual GDP growth in the ASEAN-5 (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) averaged close to eight percent over the last decade. Indeed during the last 30 years proceeding the crisis per capita income levels had increased tenfold in Korea, fivefold in Thailand, and fourfold in Malaysia. Moreover, per capita income levels in Hong Kong and Singapore now exceed some of those in industrial countries. Until the current crisis, Asia attracted almost half of total capital inflows to developing countries, nearly $100 billion in 1996. In the last decade, the share of developing and emerging market economies of Asia in world exports has nearly doubled to almost one fifth of the total.


This record growth and strong trade performance is unprecedented, a remarkable historical achievement. Moreover, Asia's success has also been good for the rest of the world. The developing and emerging economies of Asia have not just been major exporters; they have been an increasingly important market for other countries' exports. For example, these countries bought about 19 percent of US exports in 1996, up from 15 percent in 1990. Likewise, the dynamism of these economies helped cushion the successive downturns in industrial economies on the world economy during 1991-93. In recent years, they have also been a source of attractive investment returns. For all these reasons, the developing and emerging market economies of Asia have been a major engine of growth in the world economy." ("The Asian Crisis. A View from the IMF," address by Stanley Fischer, First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF at the Mid-Winter Conference of the Bankers' Association for Foreign Trade, Washington, D.C., January 22, 1998)

Open your computer, and access your Internet server. Type in “prostitution,” wait for some seconds, and countless web sites appear, offering you a “sexual paradise” of options for getting advertisements on how and where and even possibly who are available for paid sex, around the world. And for an equivalent of a good lunch in a moderately priced restaurant in Manila and possibly the equivalent of a deli or coffee shop meal in New York, one can surf and access the numerous catalogues of women, and not too rarely, children, who are available for your picking. Type in “brides,” and you can again have a “delectable” choice of women and girls ostensibly wanting to meet, and not too unlikely, marry men from other cultures, from overseas. Female vital statistics, that are vital to the trade and country of origin, that too is important and often familiar, are made available to the prospective groom or in most instances traffickers. You can begin making your choices long before you come and visit the countries where you find the brothels, the nightclubs, or the homes of these women and girls. Life has been made simpler and much more enjoyable in the comfort of your home, office or even an airline seat. This is one aspect of globalization.

Or if you’re not this type, you can surf cyberspace to examine stock markets, to have a fairly good grasp of capital transfers, of businesses plunging and surging, of investment opportunities and profit possibilities. And trafficking of women and children is one big business. It is said that pornography is one of the global profit-making industries, and that the budget for the so-called “entertainment” industry in Japan is equivalent to the military budget. Not so surprising if you realize the fact that “entertainment” in the name of R&R and militarism go together. This is another aspect of globalization

Globalization. Keyword in the discussion of economic paradigms in many circles, from governments to non-governmental organizations the “in” word. 

What does this mean in our ordinary lives?

Imagine this room as one big market, where all countries of the world can bring in their products, can sell and exchange goods and cash, in a premise of equal opportunities. We can probably even have fun comparing trading tips, commercial successes, and product development strategies. That is assuming we are all equal, and that the opportunities are able to be accessed by all and advantages and disadvantages of the global market known to all the participants.

Let’s then examine the following components of a global market, which essentially is about movements or mobility or transport of capital 

Where are investments being placed? Who are investing? What businesses are flourishing?

In the few times I visited the US or Europe and even parts of Asia-Pacific, I did not see many of the big-time Filipino businesses. Although Jollibee, a Filipino Chinese-owned fast food corporation, has opened its first branch in California. In the words of a manager of Jollibee during the inauguration, Filipinos can now be proud that we have entered the global market of fast food corporations, and emphasized that the services of that branch will be "world-class." That’s one Jollibee, one Filipino fledgling multinational overseas. Consider what we have back home, in cities as well as industrializing towns including some sleepy districts outside the main cities of the three major islands of the country‑Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Shakeys, Kenny Rogers, and now the newest, Burger King. Add here in the realm of technology and transport, Sony, Samsung, Goldstar, Philips, and Toyota, Daewoo, Kia, BMW, Mercedes-Benz. 

Visit city centers. In Manila, recruitment agencies proliferate side by side with karaoke bars, nightclubs, discos, hotels, motels, shopping malls, in the areas which used to traditionally be the site of old-style Filipino houses of the old gentry, fancy restaurants and serene neighborhoods. In many of these recruitment agencies fancily called, in some instances, cultural entertainment incorporated, or professional promotions limited. In those services or “entertainment” establishments, women and mostly young women, are either queuing up or staffing the premises. But recruitment also happens invisibly and informally in barrios or villages, by neighbors, friends, clan members, family relations, and even teachers and other professionals serve as conduits for local and overseas migration.

The shopping malls in Manila and elsewhere horrified a relation of mine after being out of the country for more than a decade "they were so huge, gigantic is the word I used, and so “first world.” In fact he said that these malls are even much more “modern” than the usual malls in many parts of the US. Enter the shops--Gucci, Christian Dior, Adidas, Nike, Body Shop, Revlon, Puma, Benetton, Esprit, Doc Martens, YSL, Marks & Spencers, etc. Yet, I have yet to find a Filipino multi-national corporation‑assuming we have one‑in some world capital airports, or even other Asian names, like Sundarban, or Salma’s Boutique, in the way that these other brands I mentioned above, are part of cityscapes, airports, shops, malls, tourist sites, and neighborhoods. In many of these shops, except in Sundarban Hotel, women -- young fancily dressed young women--are the staff, charming customers as they have been trained to do by the management. 

The currency crisis is beginning to change all this. In Indonesia, an estimated half of its 200 million people will not be able to eat by the end of 1998; unemployment had doubled in Thailand, tripled in South Korea at a daily rate of 7,000 per day, and Malaysia (Asia Focus, Reuters, July 7, 1998). In the Philippines, unemployment rate is galloping to a whooping 4 million and inflation is officially pegged at over ten percent. The relentless flight of Western capital has created this maddening scenario of poverty and violence. The International Monetary Fund (IMF)--the global institution which made these economies dependent on foreign capital and created the foreign debt, ironically pointed out, “These governments were overwhelmed by the inflow of foreign capital and by economic success and they did not have strong structural protection for the economy. So you essentially have a big bubble which just burst.” (Ibid.) Such a blaming statement from one of the culprits that blew into this big bubble!

Of people Where are they going‑being sent? Who is facilitating this human movement? What kinds of jobs do they get?

Globalization presupposes that the market operates from similar, if not related principles, of migration or mobility. However, the operational reality is that national economies are dissimilar, in fact, unequal and developing in uneven stages that are specifically contextualized in different cultures. In a geopolitical context, nations and states are unequal, and therefore the political and economic policies, as well as responses to the global market, are different, and in many cases proceeding from this given inequality of nations in the global community. 

The case of Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan, two domestic helpers employed in Middle Eastern households, one dead, the other repatriated, are a classic cases where the Philippine government was strong internally-driven and externally pressured not to act immediately to protect its citizens. There was unequivocal admission that to act or protest against the degrading treatment of these women would jeopardize the diplomatic ties between the countries, and in a kind of a threat, the possible loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Middle East. 

It has been said that one nation’s development may be another or other nations’ maldevelopment. 

The basis of relative socioeconomic mobility of some female populations in the world has been on the exploitation of other women, especially migrant women. As women in some parts of the world get educated, and become socially and economically independent, they can afford domestic helpers, amahs, servants; thus freeing them from the traditional constraints of the gendered division of labor, unfortunately, transposing the burden from them to other women.

Beyond the households are other forms of female subordination in transnational factories. Women workers are vulnerable to sexual abuses ranging from harassment to rape. The working conditions are poor, and not conducive to productivity, much less to the workers’ well being. Improving working condition requires a shift of capital budget to welfare, taking away profits from capitalist owners. Consider these examples (Matsui, 1997):

·         China: Zhili toy factory for the brand name Chicco--87 workers killed, 47 injured in a fire; no alarms, sprinklers, unqualified electricians employed; steel bars and locked doors prevented workers mostly young women from escaping; no compensation from the company; M-B Sales, supplier of toys to McDonald’s had 23 workers in a Zhuhai factory hospitalized due to benzene poisoning in January 1992; the death toll in industrial accidents in China rose to 20,000 in 1994 alone.

·         Vietnam: KeyHinge Toys, a Hong Kong-owned company producing giveaway toys for McDonald’s. Over 1000 workers, 90 percent young women, struggling for minimum wage, legal working hours, overtime pay, health and safety measures, right to organize; hundreds were dismissed. In 1997, some 220 workers got ill due to acetone poisoning. 

·         Thailand: Kader Toy Factory‑a fire killed 189 workers, 469 injured; Eden Factory, a European joint venture producing Mickey Mouse toys for Disneyland, severely maltreats women and child workers.

And the list goes on and on.

As Asian economies continue to reel from the impact of the crisis, billed by some as more social than economic, lay-offs and retrenchments threaten migrant worker populations. On the other hand, local unemployment has created a heyday for those engaged in the continued human smuggling across borders even as repatriation of foreign workers is the order of the day. In Malaysia alone, undocumented migrants doubled in the first two months of 1998, compared with 1997, while nearly a million are in Thailand, which has announced the repatriation of 300,000 overseas contract workers mostly from Myanmar. Malaysian-based overseas contract workers are dominantly in the manufacturing and service sectors that includes 12 percent in domestic service, mostly women. Experts predict that the repatriation to be undertaken by the Thai authorities will affect the local agricultural sector as most of the migrants work in this economic area. Some 100,000 Filipinos are to be sent home from Sabah, among the other hundreds of thousands in other countries in the region. (IOM News Release No. 805, June 6, 1998, Geneva)

Such a situation creates the push-and-pull tension that affects not just national economies, but millions of households and communities. While local populations are trying to get out in the hope of some better life abroad, overseas workers are being sent home in droves, and they are lucky if there are jobs waiting for them in their homelands. There is no better fuel than these for greater dislocations of populations, increased violence and crimes, and exploitative mechanisms and processes particularly for those who have less in resources and more responsibilities to bear, the women and children. Reports of more than 1,000 people who died in riots in Jakarta and the sexual violence against women and children, workers are on the warpath in Seoul, to mention a few examples that are threatening the region’s stability. It is chilling to imagine other scenarios.

Some may wish to connect the above situations mainly to the currency crisis, but it is important to emphasize that the crisis is a result of the globalization of the economy and the interplay of social, political and cultural domination of a group of countries over others. 

Rise in and Usage of information and communications technologies‑What kind of information is being generated? Who is generating the information and for what purposes? Who benefits? Who or what are the objects in the exchange or flow of information and communications?

The development and use of the Internet has created near instantaneous global communications and facilitated the flow of information. However, this technology also facilitates the exchange of information for the buying and selling of women and children in prostitution, pornography and mail-order brides, and for the global linkup of trafficking syndicates and transnational financial institutions, such as Visa Card and MasterCard. 

The development of computers and the Internet have been premised on the need to develop further usage of the microchip industry; and the development of cyberspace has more to do with products that developed countries could sell, and less on information sharing. The fight for copyright laws and the strict application of such is revealing of who controls the information highway, and the market which has been heavily targeted in many Asian or South countries. 

The Impact of Globalization

·         Increasing feminization of migration. The bulk of migrants from sending countries are women from so-called developing countries, who work mostly in low-waged, badly-conditioned factories and sweat shops, while immigration policies in receiving countries, particularly in rich developed societies, are becoming stricter, and undocumented migrants are especially vulnerable to police actions.

·         Increased racism in countries with high migrant communities, or with different indigenous or tribal populations. In many cases, racism takes form in violent attacks against women and children, who are weak and unable to fight back, and are symbols of masculine possessions, wards of men. The most recent case in Indonesia, where women and children were brutally attacked, abused and raped happened in a context when the entire region is experiencing severe economic problems due to the currency crisis.

·         Privatization of essential social services and cutbacks in national budget for social services. In Manila, the hospital staff, including medical professionals, has opposed the planned privatization of two public health institutions, the Lung Center and the Kidney Center. The employees were not assured of their jobs in the privatized milieu of the centers. More than a month ago, fire gutted the two buildings, demolishing nearly all facilities and equipment and killing some 25 intensive care unit patients. Rumors have it that the fire was premeditated to provide a reason not to rehabilitate the health institutions and stop the opposition. 

Human Rights: Jeopardized by Globalization. If there is any human right that captures the gravity of the potentially strategic mass impact of globalization, that is the right to life.

Dwindling farmlands are converted to factories, housing estates, and industrial complexes. Golf courses push away populations into congested cities where housing facilities for the poor are barely fit for human habitation, if not completely inaccessible. Jobs are scarce except those where women and children are either the lowly paid staff or themselves the commodity. Crime rates are high, especially crimes against women and children and poor people. Subsistence lands are converted into cash crop farming, thus depriving populations of relatively simpler access to subsistence food/crops; while governments are drawing up policies on food security and sustainable development, phrases which have become normalized in the language of national development plans. Peoples all around the region are either getting ill due to malnutrition or actually dying of starvation due to the loss of farmlands, drought, famine, and now, the popular El Nińo phenomenon, and to wars or civil conflicts which make refugees of local populations. Populations who dare stand to protest or defend their rights are quelled often in violent ways. Populations have been imprisoned, tortured, or have died from defending ancestral lands and agitating or revolting for social reforms, particularly in the area of land reform.

Implicated therefore in the basic right to live are other rights:

·         The right to food, shelter and education

·         The right to a decent job that promotes human dignity

·         The right to freedom of expression and association

·         The right to be free from fear, harm and violence

·         The right to health

·         The right to a self-determined reproductive choice and sexuality

Human Rights and Women’s Rights: The Nexus of Gender and Sexuality

In the area of women’s human rights in relation to globalization, the issue of sexuality and how this is coerced, transported and then transformed to serve sexually exploitative male oriented activities or industries/businesses, has been generally left unexamined. Yet, it is an area where a deeper examination is required because it is female sexuality and the constant demolishing and re-construction of it which is in turn made the merchandise in sexual exploitation, especially in prostitution systems, including trafficking. 

The convergence of existing unbalanced gender relations, the globalization of female sexuality as a commodity and the creation of a global market through which the facilitation of goods and services are made are elements in globalization that need our closer examination. As economic growth is the fundamental aim of globalization, it is to be expected that profits in terms of female sexuality as commodity is the ultimate goal. 

People speak of sexual perversions in prostitution and pornography. The question to ask is, whose perversions? For whom? And for what? Who benefits or profits? Others call these perversions "varieties." Who doesn’t want varieties? But what are the premises of one’s access to a variety of sexual encounters and “adventures.” Some say it’s just for “fun.”

Growing evidence from social science shows that women and men behave differently because social and cultural processes and contexts make them different. Imagine a man in a room with a seductive looking female, and a women in a room with a seductive male. Will there be a difference between the reactions in these two nearly similar settings? What will be the difference? It is not difficult to imagine what could happen.

Or, imagine a world where there would be an equal number between females and males in sexually exploitative situations. Men being dragged out of brothels, and nightclubs, still half dressed or naked, forced to face the camera and the media. Or, numerous men, maybe in hundreds being transported across the borders in the South Asian region to be sold in brothels, or to be kidnapped for illegal work servitude. 

Prostitution and pornography are sites of exploitation of female sexuality, whether adult women or children. Traditional cultural and sexual practices are broken down in prostitution and pornography, rendering women and children much more vulnerable, and transforming the dynamics of sexual relationships. In some societies, indigenous cultures contained certain sexual practices, and taboos had developed as a response to the specific situations of populations, and in the area of social reproduction, to facilitate the productive and reproductive roles of women and men, and including children. 


Revised version of a paper read at the Regional Meeting of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), Organizing and Strategizing Against Sexual Exploitation Regionally and Globally, at CIRDAP Auditorium, Dhaka, Bangladesh, June 26-29, 1998.


Aida F. Santos is the project director of the "pilot Project Against Trafficking in Women" currently being implemented by the Philippine Network Against Trafficking in Women. She was the Executive Director of WEDPRO, Inc., a Women's NGO working with women in prostitution, since the early 1990s to 1998. Ms. Santos co-founded several women's groups in the Philippines and a pioneer in lesbian rights advocacy. She has authored and edited several publications, and is a multi-awarded poet and essayist.







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