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

 

Introduction, Donna M. Hughes

 

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At the end of the twentieth century, local and international forces have merged to escalate the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Policies, practices and crises are combining to increase both the supply of women and girls vulnerable to exploitation and the demand by men for women and girls to be used for their profit and sexual gratification. Sexual exploitation takes many forms, such as sexual harassment, incest, rape, child marriages, temporary marriages, female genital mutilation, pornography, bride trafficking, battering, sexual torture and prostitution. All of these practices violate women’s dignity and autonomy.

Globally, one form of sexual exploitation, prostitution, is becoming more normalized and industrialized, with some powerful agents and institutions advocating for its widespread legitimization and legalization. As prostitution has increased, the demand for women and girls has resulted in widespread recruitment and trafficking to fill the brothels, bars and street corners.

In July 1997, a group of survivors, activists and service providers came together from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, North America and the Middle East to report on the situation for women and girls in their region and discuss efforts to combat sexual exploitation and provide services to victims. Participants in "Working With Women and Girls in Prostitution: Programs and Policies" focused on how sexual exploitation affects the physical health and mental well being of women and girls, and what obstacles prevent women and girls from escaping prostitution. Making the Harm Visible has its roots in that international meeting in New York City organized by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Making the Harm Visible is a collection of writings from women who are working to make the harm of sexual violence and exploitation visible. They speak out about their experiences, provide services to survivors, and create policies that force governments and communities to protect the rights of girls and women, not profit from their exploitation.

Women from every world region report that the sexual exploitation of women and girls is increasing. All over the world, brothels and prostitution rings exist underground on a small scale, and on an increasingly larger scale, entire sections of cities are informally zoned into brothels, bars and clubs that house, and often enslave, women for the purposes of prostitution. The magnitude and violence of these practices of sexual exploitation constitutes an international human rights crisis of contemporary slavery. In "Prostitution: A Form of Modern Slavery," Dorchen Leidholdt, the Co-executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, examines the definitions of slavery and shows how prostitution, and related forms of sexual exploitation, fit into defined forms of slavery.

In some parts of the world, such as the Philippines, prostitution is illegal, but well entrenched from providing "recreational services" to military personnel. In "Blazing Trails, Confronting Challenges: The Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in the Philippines," Aida F. Santos describes the harmful conditions for women and girls in prostitution in the Philippines, with problems related to health, violence, the legal system, and services. In other regions, such as northern Norway, organized prostitution is a more recent problem, stemming from the economic crisis in Russia. In "Russian Women in Norway," Asta Beate Håland describes how an entire community is being transformed by the trafficking of women for prostitution from Russia to campgrounds and villages across the border in Norway.

Political changes combined with economic crises have devastated entire world regions, increasing the supply of vulnerable women willing to risk their lives to earn money for themselves and their families. Aurora Javate de Dios, President of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, discusses the impact of the Southeast Asian economic crisis on women’s lives in "Confronting Trafficking, Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation: The Struggle for Survival and Dignity." Economic globalization controlled by a handful of multi-national corporations located in a few industrialized countries continues to shift wealth from poorer to richer countries. In her paper "Globalization, Human Rights and Sexual Exploitation," Aida F. Santos shows us the connection between global economics and the commodification and sexual exploitation of women and girls, especially in the Philippines. Structural adjustment programs implemented by international financial institutions impose loan repayment plans on poor countries, which sacrifice social and educational programs in order to service their debt to rich nations and banks. Fatoumata Sire Diakite points to structural adjustment programs as one of the factors contributing to poverty and sexual exploitation in her paper "Prostitution in Mali." Zoraida Ramirez Rodriguez writes in "Report on Latin America" that the foreign debt and policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are primary factors in creating poverty for women and children. These forces leave women with few options, increasing the supply of women vulnerable to recruitment into bride trafficking and the prostitution industry.

Social problems such as sexual and physical abuse within families force girls and women to leave in search of safety and a better life, but often they find more exploitation and violence. Physical and sexual abuse of girls and women in their families and by intimate partners destroys girls’ and women’s sense of self and resiliency, making them easy targets for pimps and traffickers who prey on those who have few options left to them. These factors are evident in many of the papers from all world regions in this volume, such as Jill Leighton and Katherine DePasquale’s, "A Commitment to Living" and Martha Daguno’s, "Support Groups for Survivors of the Prostitution Industry in Manila."

Government policies and practices also fuel the demand for prostitution, as they legalize prostitution or refuse to enforce laws against pimps, traffickers and male buyers. In Making the Harm Visible, we see how countries with governmental structures and ideological foundations as different as the Netherlands and Iran, both promote and legalize sexual violence and exploitation of girls and women. In "Legalizing Pimping, Dutch Style," Marie-Victoire Louis exposes the liberal laws and policies that legalize prostitution and tolerate brothels in the Netherlands. On the other extreme, religious fundamentalists in Iran have legalized the sexual exploitation of girls and women in child and temporary marriages and the sexual torture of women in prison. Sarvnaz Chitsaz and Soona Samsami document this harm and violation of human rights in "Iranian Women and Girls: Victims of Exploitation and Violence."

Global media and communication tools, such as the Internet, make access to pornography, catalogs of mail order brides, advertisements for prostitution tours, and information on where and how to buy women and girls in prostitution widely available. This open advertisement normalizes and increases the demand by men for women and girls to use in these different forms of exploitation. Donna M. Hughes describes her findings on how the Internet is being used to promote the sexual exploitation of women and children in "The Internet and the Global Prostitution Industry." In this milieu, women and girls become commodities—bought and sold locally and trafficked from one part of the world to another.

How do we make the harm of sexual exploitation visible? In a world where sexual exploitation is increasingly normalized and industrialized what is needed to make people see the harm and act to stop it? The women in Making the Harm Visible recommend four ways to make the harm of sexual exploitation visible: listen to the experiences of survivors, expose the ideological constructions that hide the harm, expose the agents that profit from the sexual exploitation of women and children, and document harm and conduct research that reveals the harm and offers findings that can be used for policy initiatives.

First, listen to the experiences of survivors. The contributors to this volume speak eloquently, passionately and urgently for the voices of survivors to be heard and used as the basis for a global movement against sexual exploitation. The power of survivors’ testimony and their visible participation in political struggle is emphasized. The survivor testimonies of Jill Leighton, Alexia, Christine Grussendorf and Jenny speak clearly about the violence perpetrated against women and children in prostitution. In her poem, "They Are Showing Your Face," Victoria Marinelli shows us the harm of media sensationalization, which further exploits the victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. The sexual abuse, exploitation and torture of women political prisoners is recounted by Ladan Pardeshenas in "Women’s Activism for Freedom in Iran" and by Aida F. Santos in the Philippines in "Memories." Malka Marcovich, in "The Violence of Silence: Survivor Testimony in Political Struggle," calls upon her experience in interviewing the survivors of Nazi Germany’s "final solution" to argue the importance of survivor testimony in a movement against violence. Angel Cassidy strongly and succinctly states the need to speak out about the violence and exploitation in "Never Be Quiet." And in "Not Sex Work," Victoria Marinelli gives us her manifesto against redefining sexual exploitation as "sex work."

Second, expose the ideological constructions that hide and excuse the violence, exploitation and harm. We are bombarded with misinformation and ideological constructions of prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation that make the harm invisible, benefit the sex industry and provide cover for the men who buy and exploit women and girls. We need to expose the explicit and implicit rationales used to justify the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Contributors to Making the Harm Visible challenge the excuses men use for exploiting women and children, and call for everyone to do the same. The oldest excuse is the biological determinist one that men have to have sex. If they don’t have a wife or available partner, then buying a woman or using a child is the only alternative. Men often escape accountability for the harm they inflict by this simple, but false, assumption. The same underlying thinking applies to men in the military, who supposedly need to buy women as part of "rest and relaxation." In the papers from the Philippines and Cambodia, the presence of military personnel is sited as resulting in increased sexual exploitation of indigenous women. In "Corregidor Tales," Aida F. Santos describes the underground remnants of cells where "comfort women" were kept in sexual slavery for Japanese military personnel during World War II.

Historically, patriarchal religious ideologies have justified the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls in many forms, including child marriages, temporary marriages, and women’s lack of sexual autonomy. In the paper on Iran, several forms of sexual exploitation of women and girls have been legally instated under fundamentalist rule. In "Trafficking and Prostitution in Bangladesh: Contradictions in Law and Practice," Sigma Huda describes the no-win situation that girls and women face after being trafficked or prostituted. In countries to which Bangladeshi girls are trafficked, such as Pakistan, the victims face long prison sentences for illegal entry into the country, or under harsh Islamic law, can be stoned to death for fornication.

Liberal ideologies about sexuality also overlook the harm of exploitation by uncritically viewing all sexual activity, including prostitution, as forms of sexual expression that should be permitted and protected as individual choices and rights. This sexual liberal philosophy merges with the neoliberal economic policies and practices to rename prostitution as "sex work." This reconfiguration of sexual exploitation is condemned by numerous contributors to Making the Harm Visible.

The contributors to this volume also ask us to critically examine explanations of prostitution that search for the cause of "self-destructive behaviors" in girls or women’s personal deficits and defects. Although women in prostitution often suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, several of the authors urge us to see this as a symptom of the harm of prostitution, not as the root cause. Although, several authors discuss poverty and economic crisis as factors in compelling women and girls into prostitution, they remind us that this is what is fueling the supply, but equally important is men’s demand for women and girls they can buy.

Third, expose the agents that advocate for and profit from the normalization and legalization of sexual exploitation, whether they be individual men who buy women in prostitution, or governments and United Nations bodies that advocate for legalization of prostitution or the recognition of the prostitution industry as a legitimate economic sector. The Dutch government has legalized prostitution, legalized brothels and is putting into place a system of taxation to profit from the prostitution industry. The Netherlands is the leading advocate for the legalization of prostitution and redefinition of trafficking of women to include only those women who can prove they were coerced or deceived into prostitution. In "Human Rights: A European Challenge?" Malka Marcovich describes efforts to set new standards that will deprive women of their human rights in Europe as the European Union is being constructed. Mary Sullivan, in "Marketing Women in Australia" describes how Australia is incorporating legalized prostitution into its economic and tourism plan. In "Legalizing Prostitution: Legitimating Abuse," Donna M. Hughes argues against the legalization of prostitution in Eastern and Central Europe as a way to combat the trafficking of women from that region.

Fourth, document the harm and conduct research on sexual exploitation. The harm of sexual exploitation often remains invisible until someone focuses their attention on it and documents their findings. Often issues need to be theoretically reframed and different questions posed. Several women, Jill Leighton, Jenny, and Norma Hotaling, point out that even when there are visible signs of trauma in women’s and girls’ lives, no one asks the simple question: "What has happened to you in your life?" The contributors use their findings to describe and analyze the forces that compel women and girls into conditions of exploitation and, often, slavery. In "Strip Clubs According to Strippers," Kelly Holsopple systematically asks women about the verbal, physical and sexual violence that they were subjected to while working as strippers. Norma Hotaling reports on research she and others have done on violence against women in prostitution in "Women in Prostitution in the United States." In "The Health Effects of Prostitution," Janice G. Raymond surveys previous research and reports on the multiple physical and mental health problems suffered by women in prostitution, many of which lead to shortened lives or death. The contributors to Making the Harm Visible urge us to ask different research questions about the demand from men to sexually exploit women and girls and the rationales that are used to justify this violence. The Research Project on Men and Prostitution in Japan provides us with a strong quantitative base and framework on which to examine men’s use of women in prostitution. In "Why Men Buy Women in Prostitution," the findings from a survey of 2000 men on their use and attitudes towards prostitution are reported.

One of the most glaring problems in combating sexual exploitation is the lack of assistance for its victims. The need for services is poignantly evident in Minerva Kalenandi’s testimony, "You Need Some Place to Escape To," in which she describes being turned away from a domestic violence shelter even though she had sustained serious injuries from a pimp. Compared to services for other victims of violence, there a few services for prostituted women, resulting in women receiving little or inappropriate treatment. Since prostituted women are viewed with prejudice, they are often treated disrespectfully in treatment programs. Also, since few mainstream service providers recognize the harm in prostitution, the trauma the women have suffered is not addressed.

Innovative programs for women escaping sexual exploitation that address the harm caused to victims, though few in number, have been created in many world regions. Numerous contributors to this volume report on the services they are providing to victims of sexual exploitation. They describe innovative work and share ideas on programs and projects to assist women and girls. The founders of these programs bring a feminist analysis to the multiple problems faced by women and girls in situations of sexual exploitation. The women and girls are treated with respect and care to restore their dignity.

In "She Let Me Talk and She Listened," Jill Leighton describes how the simple act of listening can save a life. The workers and volunteers in these agencies reach out to women and girls on the street and in jails. In "Phoenix Rising," Kathleen Mitchell relates how the plan for Dignity House was conceived while she herself was in jail after being arrested for prostitution. Many of the service providers in this volume were themselves prostituted women who know first hand the lack of services for women trying to escape prostitution. In Phnom Phen, Cambodia, girls who have escaped brutality and slavery in brothels can find services at the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center. A representative from this newly found center writes about "The Sale of Women and Girls to Brothels in Cambodia."

The contributors describe model programs that provide services to women and girl victims of sexual exploitation and create a space for survivors to come to together to heal and find their voices to speak out and organize. In "Support Group for Survivors of the Prostitution Industry in Manila," Martha Daguno describes the first survivor’s group to be set-up in the Philippines. Other agencies and organizations, such as BUKAL (meaning spring), and Women’s Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization (WEDPRO) are pioneers in developing services for sexually exploited women in the Philippines. Their efforts are chronicled by Aida F. Santos in "Blazing Trails, Confronting Challenges."

The involvement and leadership by survivors is emphasized in many programs. Working on an empowerment model these organizations work through peer educators. In "Casa de Passagem in Brazil," Ana Vasconcelos describes the empowerment and peer education model she uses with homeless street girls in Brazil. Norma Hotaling, in "First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco," describes their survivor run peer support program.

Women and girls trying to escape prostitution face fearsome odds. In "Breaking Free," Vednita Carter describes many of the obstacles the women face and their Afrocentric approach to providing services in Minnesota, USA. Pimps and perpetrators prey on the most vulnerable women and girls. Girls with disabilities are often targeted for exploitation because of their vulnerability. Claudia Vigil describes the work of the Homahi Foundation and its programs for mothers with special needs in "Prostitution and Mothers with Special Needs in Argentina." Services for victims of sexual exploitation receive little attention or support in most communities. Marlene Sandoval started the Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Center in Chile in one room in a house with no running water. She reports on the work of the center in this volume.

Some services to women escaping prostitution are combined with community education and programs that confront men’s harm to women. SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) in San Francisco is the 1998 winner of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Award for Innovations in Government for their cooperative work with the District Attorney’s office to create a program commonly referred to as "the John’s School." Norma Hotaling describes their original and successful work to reeducate men about the harm they cause in "The First Offender Prostitution Program in San Francisco."

Another important aspect to ending the sexual exploitation of women and girls is prevention. Zoraida Ramirez Rodriguez describes her education and prevention programs for schools and community organizations in "Preventative Action Against Prostitution in Venezuela."

Although the women in this volume come from all regions of the world, they share common goals and attitudes. They are survivors and visionaries who are not afraid to confront overwhelming problems and remain steadfast in their work. Most of them know that their goal of ending the sexual exploitation of women and girls is nothing less than revolutionary. In "Surviving Sexual Slavery: Women in Search of Freedom," Chris Grussendorf writes graphically, with a searing analysis, about what is done to women in situations of torturous sexual abuse and exploitation in prostitution rings. She also forcefully proclaims the sustenance and aspiration of the women in resistance to sexual exploitation, "We stay alive because we are women in search of our lives; we are women in search of freedom. I stayed alive because my belief in something better than what they offered was greater than their hatred and destruction. I stayed alive because I wanted to be free, more than anything, I wanted to be free. I wanted to live in a world of respect."

Organization and activism by women is essential to create change and end violence against women and sexual exploitation. In "Women United Can Make a Difference: The Situation in Spain and the European Union," Asuncion Miura describes how women working together changed public attitudes about violence against women and created services to assist victims of battering. Sarvnaz Chitsaz and Soona Samsami relate the importance of women’s leadership in political and social activism to end of women’s oppression and usher in true equality for women and girls in the world. Women must undertake the work of organization and advocacy for women because it is not in the interests of men to do this work, although there are a few men willing to stand against the oppression of women. These writers understand that when the deepest forms of exploitation, violence and oppression are named, challenged and ended and all the victims healed, there will be a true social, economic and political revolution for women.

Author

Donna M. Hughes has been an activist in the feminist anti-sexual violence and exploitation movement since the early -1980s. She holds the Eleanor M. and Oscar M. Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies, and is the Director of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island, USA.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Published by
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, February 1999
Donna M. Hughes and Claire M. Roche, Editors
Donna M. Hughes, dhughes@uri.edu
http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes