(this paper was submitted as a required assignment in a doctoral class on Social Justice, Spring 2009)
A casual inquiry of an average American adult as to the legacy of the Vietnam War would likely result in comments about the more than 57,000 dead service members, the controversy surrounding its status as a police action or war, the POW/MIA issue or some other hot-button issue from the decades during and immediately following the United States’ engagement in active combat in Southeast Asia. If pressed to provide some accounting of the legacy left for the inhabitants of that region the most likely responses would include references to poverty, the “boat people”, and the takeover by a Communist government of a once-democratic country. Few, if any would cite the tragic legacy left to the women and children by a long-term military occupation in the region.
As early as the late 1950s, the presence of the United States military in Southeast Asia spawned the growth of the sex trade, as demand for sex services, or prostitution, increased dramatically. (Gay, 1985) The Philippine Islands hosted major US Naval and US Air Force bases until the 1990s (when BRAC – Base Realignment And Consolidation – measures went into effect to address the shift to a post-cold war military reality) adding decades after the end of the Vietnam War to the supply of military men seeking sex services from local brothels and sex- centered businesses (Protection Project, 2007) Though prostitution has not been documented in every known civilization (Ringdal and Daly, 2004, p. 8), history has shown us that military bases have long been magnets for the activity, including recent global attention to the plight of “comfort women” conscripted by the Japanese and Korean governments for aid and comfort to soldiers during both WWII and the Korean conflict. (Ibid, p. 338) The stark reality of this trade is portrayed in a BBC documentary from 1988 on the sex trade in Subic Bay, Philippines that centers around the local girls and how they survive providing services as Bar Girls to Sailors and Marines stationed on the base or in port on various Naval vessels. In the documentary, an American pilot discusses the common nature of prostitution in Subic Bay, stating “you’ll find girls whose mothers, grandmothers were bar girls; whose (American) fathers fought and died in the Vietnam War and whose grandfathers were in WWII…it’s sort of a family business for lots of these girls” (BBC, 1988) The documentary portrayed clearly the harsh realities of living in Subic Bay as a poor, single woman. According to the main character interviewed in Olongapo Rose, most girls come from very poor homes, many from the provinces (these are the rural villages far from the cities) and have few options for employment other than their bodies and their beauty. Once the US military presence disappeared from the Vietnam theater and later from the Philippines, the economic impact of the loss was significant, and sex tourism became the next viable option. (Gay, 1985)
Long known for a generally permissive attitude toward sexual activities, local factors such as economic and political instability have played major roles in enabling the sex trade to thrive as a viable economic activity, and this has encouraged more unscrupulous government officials to leverage the long-held belief that Asia remains a sexual Shangri-La for western men. (Trading Women, 2002) to entice global visitors to bring their money to their countries. According to the United States Department of Justice, the International Labour Organization calculated that in the late 1990s, between 2% and 14% of the gross domestic product of the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand was generated from the proceeds of the sex tourism industry. (USDOJ, 2008) As distasteful as this concept sounds on the surface, its sad legacy is compounded logarithmically when it is discovered that a great deal of the sexual tourism being undertaken is targeted at the availability of child prostitutes in these areas of the world.
Unlike young women who may find themselves choosing to work in the sex trade based on limited availability of options, hundreds of thousands of children are being trafficked across international borders for the sole purpose of generating income based on the demand for sex with children. According to the Trafficking in Person Report (2007) published by the US Department of State, “globalization of markets and labor forces, and the concomitant relaxation of travel barriers have spawned new trafficking scenarios and routes”. UNICEF estimates that as many as one million children are caught up in the multi-billion dollar commercial sex trade across the globe each year. (UNICEF, 2001) In fact it is believed that almost a third of the sex workers the “Mekong subregion” in 2000– 2001 were children and it is unlikely that number has significantly diminished (ibid). Though the problem of trafficking children into the sex trade is global, this paper will limit its scope to the examination of the issue in three Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Child prostitution is not a new phenomenon (Walker, 2002) but since the mid-twentieth century as global travel became more common, law enforcement agencies have seen a significant increase in tourism for the express purpose of seeking sex with children. (US DOJ, 2008) One example cited in the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US Department of State characterizes the appalling realities for many children in these countries.
‘Two Sisters, ages 10 and 12 years, lived in Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Their parents agreed to deliver the young girls to a German national’s rented apartment for sex in exchange for money. While at the apartment, the German man sexually abused the girls and documented the abuse on video. Tipped off by a neighbor, the girls were rescued by a non-governmental organization.’
While it defies logic from a comfortable, western frame of reference, the abject economic circumstances in which too many families find themselves lead to unfathomable decisions. In the scenario reenacted below, a child is being negotiated away to a western middle-aged man. The child, who appears to be no older than 9 or 10, is clinging to the arm of the brothel owner (or family member) and will eventually turned over to the tourist when a financial deal is struck. (Trafficking in Persons Report, 2007)
The 2001 UNICEF report – Children on the Edge – describes the typical contributing factors leading to a child’s life being detoured by exploitation. Although there are certainly numerous cases of male child prostitutes, being a female child means being born with one strike against you. In many societies, this relegates you to a status below any male children, as is the case in many traditional Asian cultures. (UNESC, 2003) In fact, UNICEF (2001) estimated that sixty-percent of the school-age children not attending school were female in Southeast Asia.
Recent data published by the US Department of Justice (2008) cites poverty as a consistent factor in the misfortune of these children, citing it as “the most significant societal factor that pushes children into prostitution”. The Department of Justice notes that a majority of the sex tourism hot spots across the globe are burdened with extreme and pervasive poverty, which is often the result of the instability of the political regimes and governments as well as the economies. With poverty comes illiteracy in epidemic proportions which limit the opportunities for viable employment, all of which lead to very poor living conditions for much of the population. This poverty results in children being trafficked, whether stolen by brokers, or brothel owners, (US DOJ, 2008) and in some, very sad cases, sold by family members for as little as $50. Others are lured with the promise of a better life. Regardless of the trickery used, the end result is still the same – a horrible existence of repeated rapes, beatings and torture. (UNICEF, 2001)
Trafficking in children for the purpose of sexual exploitation is not limited to poor, developing nations, there are common issues that are shared among the victims, regardless of their country of origin. Estes and Weiner (2001) note that children at risk for sexual exploitation in the United States include runaway youth – whether from their home, or from a juvenile institution; ‘thrownaway’ youth, or what Estes and Weiner are describing as youth who have been abandoned by their families of origin and left to fend for themselves; and homeless children, not otherwise classified. The common threads shared by these children regardless of continent are poverty, sporadic participation in formalized education and instability at home. In describing the risk for children in the United States, Weiner and Estes use a dual descriptive outlining both the external (macro/contextual) factors as well as the internal (micro/situational) factors. The External (or Macro/Contextual) factors include:
- Socio-economic factors
- Societal attitudes toward children and youth
- Social anomie among children and youth, i.e., a lack of connectedness on the part of youth with the larger society and their place within it
- Child victims of crime and violence
- Societal responses to crimes committed against children, including sexual crimes
- The presence of pre-existing adult prostitution “markets”
- The presence of groups advocating child-adult sexual relationships
- Sexual behavior of unattached and transient males including the military, seasonal workers, truckers, motor cycle gangs, conventioneers
- Community knowledge and attitudes concerning HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases
Internal (or Micro/Situational factors) include:
- Family dysfunction
- Parental drug dependency
- History of physical and/or sexual assault
- Personal drug dependency
- School/other social performance failures
- Gang membership
- Active recruitment into prostitution by others
- Parents or other family members (including siblings)
- Local pimps
- National and or international crime organizations
Lastly, Estes and Weiner (2001) report in the individual factors that contribute to children being swept into the dark world of sexual exploitation – poor self esteem, chronic depression, external locus of control and a seriously restricted future orientation. The seriously restricted future orientation, while a problem certainly in the United States, is compounded greatly when applied to countries without the vast resources for children, education and health and human services that are available in the United States and other developed countries. In the United States, a wealthy country by any measure, the children most at risk are those without hope; those without support and without the belief that there is a chance for a better tomorrow. The despair that drives children into the streets in a country where there are so many options for a better life is certainly compounded in the poorest, developing countries. In fact, of the strategies mentioned (Estes and Weiner, 2001), increasing the interagency cooperation and coordination between local government, schools and human agencies is cited as a requirement. In countries where mandatory schooling is at best, unequal and at worst, just a paper policy, cooperation and coordination, let alone education and hope for a brighter future seem dim dreams for a distant time. Can a change in national education policy begin to light these dark recesses of human nature and help to bring children most at risk in Southeast Asia to a place of empowerment and hope? Can a simple shift in education policy and practice help to decrease the numbers of children falling in to the sexual exploitation as their only means of survival? An examination of the history of sexual tourism as well as data on emerging education trends in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand will help to answer some of these questions.
As recent economic realities exert pressures on the poorest economies, the problem of sexual exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable populations will continue to be a major obstacle to equality across the globe. In his March 10, 2009 article in Time Magazine, Dan Fletcher quotes the World Bank on the impact of the economic crisis on the developing world:
“The slowdown in growth will likely deepen the degree of deprivation of the existing poor. In many [low-income countries], large numbers of people are clustered just above the poverty line and are therefore particularly vulnerable to economic volatility and temporary slowdowns.”
In countries like Cambodia, where the average family income is $300 per year (NBC News, 2008), these statistics will worsen already existing issues surrounding the exploitation of children from the poorest villages and families. Consider the quote of an indicted sex tourist – a retired U.S. School Teacher – who offered this ‘justification’ of his activities:
“On this trip, I’ve had sex with a 14 year-old girl … and a 15 year-old… I’m helping them financially. If they don’t have sex with me, they may not have enough food. If someone has a problem with me doing this, let UNICEF feed them.” (USDOJ, 2008)
Cambodia, considered a country of origin, transit and destination for the trafficking of women and children (Protection Project, 2007), presents the newest and likely most at risk population for global sexual exploitation. Suffering from years of war, followed by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia is just emerging as a sovereign country. As such, the poverty of its rural populations and its obscurity as a tourist destination leave its children in a particularly precarious position with regard to sexual tourism. The Protection Report section on Cambodia lists Cambodia as an “undiscovered destination, an exotic country where anonymity is high and where many children are vulnerable” (p. 105) As a poor country in the process of rebuilding, Cambodia welcomes the dollars that legitimate tourism brings with it. According to Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism, there were fewer than 500,000 tourists logged in 2000. By 2004, that number had grown more than 50% to over 1.05 million and the latest statistics (through 2008) cite visitors of more than 2.12 million bringing in more than $1,595,000,000 to the economy. (Ministry of Tourism, 2008) The Ministry projects that the number of tourists will exceed 3 million by 2010. Due to Cambodia’s infancy as a nation, it remains relatively inexpensive as a tourist destination, especially as compared to Thailand, positioning it to be favored as cash-strapped tourists in a soft economy seek the most for their travel dollars. This too compounds the issue of sexual tourism, as global economic pressures on poor countries will fuel an interest in being perceived as less restrictive and more open to international travel. If the statistics of a 2001 travel study, jointly conducted by World Vision Cambodia, the Ministry of Tourism and the Cambodian National Children’s Council remain constant, there were more than 460,000 sexual tourists roaming the streets and villages of Cambodia in 2008 for the express purpose of seeking a sexual liaison. (the study calculated that 21.7% of Cambodia’s tourists in 2001 came for sex; 32.5% for cultural tourism; 25% for business and 20.8% for official business) (Niron, Viriya and Grey, 2001) Further exacerbating the issue of tourism for sex in Cambodia are the issues of Cambodia’s reputation for lax law enforcement and the extraordinary poverty circumstances of so many families in Cambodia, which sends children into the workforce at very young ages to help the family simply survive. As Thailand, which will be discussed next in this paper, has sought to enforce more stringent laws regarding sexual tourism and the protection of its children, Cambodia remains largely unregulated. This fact was seen firsthand by reporters filming a documentary with MSNBC and International Justice Mission (an international, faith-based human rights group specializing in victims of sex trafficking and bonded labor) In a plan to rescue some of the youngest victims, Gary Haugen – the director of International Justice Mission, tries to “buy” a group of young girls for a “sex party”. In planning his rescue, Haugen contacted local Cambodian police who initially seem very interested in cooperating in the raid and arrest of the perpetrators and pimps. However, as the time for the alleged party draws near, the pimp and brothel owner become increasingly wary, leading Haugen and the NBC/MSNBC producers (posing as sex tourists interested in young children) to believe that they have been tipped off – and likely by the police (NBC News, 2008) In fact, after a review of the hidden camera footage, MSNBC producers find that many police are “on the take” and indeed, informants or tipsters, as they watched and listened to one police officer promise one of the producers (undercover as a sex tourist) that for $150 (U.S.) he could make sure neither Robert nor his clients would be arrested. But it is not only the lax law enforcement that contributes to this issue. The $150 extorted by the police officer represents approximately 5 months of pay, rendering any real enforcement of the law moot. The children and their families face similar dilemmas where survival depends on money, and there are limited ways in which to earn money in a poverty-ravaged country. According to the Dateline-MSNBC investigation, the pathway to sexual exploitation often begins with a family living in abject circumstances, struggling just to survive. In some cases, children are sold into sexual slavery by their parents or other family members. While others are tricked by seemingly-legitimate job offers or outright kidnapped off the street and forced into prostitution. With no education and few options for making a living, the story told to MSNBC producers of one young girl (age 14) highlights the desperate need for change in policy, practice and policing. This girl came from an extremely poor family in Vietnam. In an unfortunately common circumstance, she was walking home from school one day, and was approached by a woman offering her what seemed like legitimate work in a café. Thinking that she had found a way to help her family survive, she went with the woman, only to find that the café was really a brothel, and she was trapped. Without money or the resources to return home, she was forced to “pay her way” by having sex with grown men, many of them American. (NBC News, 2008) In America, we tout higher education as a necessity for survival and earning a decent wage throughout one’s lifetime. In Cambodia, where the opportunities to achieve even a primary education are limited, the options for someone to earn a living diminish logarithmically. Though local government enforcement in Cambodia lacks consistent support for the eradication of child sexual exploitation, at the national level, the government is beginning to make changes in its communication about the problem, including the sponsorships of public service advertisements raising awareness among the locals and visitors alike, such as this one, published on the back of the Phnom Penh Visitors Guide and map, distributed to all visitors arriving at the airport and the other – an ad appearing in the “Cambodian Scene” magazine .
While Cambodia’s children are at great risk due to the country’s poverty, relatively new political stability and lack of coordination between national and local government agencies, the willingness of the government to openly address the issue provides a layer of protection not available in every country reviewed for this paper.
Thailand has long been held in awe by travelers as a destination of sexual fantasy and holds the dubious distinction of being an established destination for the acquisition of child prostitutes (Lau, 2008) Tagliacozzo (2002) notes Thailand as the most prolific of all Southeast Asian nations in terms of its tolerance of the abuse of children related to sexual exploitation. As is the case in many developing nations, Thailand’s rural residents experienced increasing poverty in the latter portion of the last century, and as noted previously and in multiple literature citations, poverty is a driving force in the success of sexual exploitation of women and children. In fact, according to Niron, Viriya and Grey (2001), poverty and ignorance contribute greatly to the chances that women and children will be pulled into prostitution and exploitation. The government of Thailand recognizes ignorance and illiteracy as a major risk factor for sexual exploitation and although Thailand remains, by sheer virtue of numbers, the primary destination for sex tourists, its approach from the top down differs in scope from Cambodia’s and in totality from Vietnam’s in that publicly, action is being taken and a position has been claimed in the debate. In a Special Interest publication, Karen Emmons (2007) writing for the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) reports that a bureaucratic restructuring in 2002 created the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, within which Dr. Sasithara Pichaichannarong, one of Thailand’s Deputy Permanent Secretaries leads efforts to eradicate sexual tourism as an attraction. More than just window dressing, child protection officers working with UNICEF Thailand note that the numbers of children being trafficked for sexual purposes in Thailand has dramatically decreased over the past decade, due in large part to the government’s concerted efforts to address the issue. One UNICEF officer notes that Thailand’s compulsory education requirement of nine years has contributed to the decline in this statistic. While Cambodia also requires 9 years of compulsory education, their efforts are less centralized at this time, and much less effective in the rural areas, whereas Thailand’s efforts have been coordinated from the top and enforced across the board, with the assistance of NGO’s and travel agencies interested in the plight of exploited children. (ibid) Still, Thailand acknowledges some “geographic challenges” to the enforcement, referring to remote areas and long-held cultural beliefs. Emmons report notes that
“the decline of children in the sex industry is attributed largely to NGOs calling for a change and working with UN agencies to lobby the government for needed legislation. The Thai government responded with several fronts of policy and legislation, beginning with the National Policy and Plan of Action for the Prevention and Eradication of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in 1996 and eventually developing the Child Protection Act of 2004 that touched on every aspect of child protection.”
Indeed Thailand’s binary approach to the problem of the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) brought together a national mindset and culture change, with international organizations dedicated to the eradication of these practices, and combined this with a new focus on education as the answer. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) News on CSEC and Thailand’s response, the country has adopted what they refer to as a “pro-active” stance.
“Thailand focuses the principle thrust of its efforts in prevention through education which constitutes the first line of protection for children. The Royal Thai Government and its agencies represented by the Thai Education and Labor and Social Welfare Ministries, recognizes that better education is vital in eliminating the root causes that lead to commercial sexual exploitation of children. They work to improve access to and the quality of education. Knowledge empowers children to protect themselves by helping them to recognize and avoid high-risk situations. A key effort here is to ensure that children, especially girls, attend school so that they can eventually support themselves and become less vulnerable to pimps and other people who may try to coerce them into the sex trade. The government has granted educational scholarships as well as long-term and interest-free loans for children from low-income families.”
According to TAT statistics, this approach has already resulted in a drastic decrease in the number of children working in the sex trade. In comparison to the Cambodian situation, Thai children have the full support and public backing of their government and where the consequences for non-compliance are much greater than they are in Cambodia. Thailand also enjoys a more stable economic environment than Cambodia as a whole, adding to their ability to achieve this success.
Even with the enormous effort being put forth from the government and partnering international organizations, in 2007 the Protection Project reported that Thailand remains “one of the most significant international sex tourism and child sex tourism destinations”. Established during the years of the Vietnam War, like the Philippine Islands, Thailand became a favorite destination for soldiers on leave from their military duties. In fact, the United States and Thai governments signed an official “Rest and Relaxation” agreement in 1967 to facilitate easy travel for servicemen on leave from the war. After the war, Thailand turned to tourism to bolster its economy, and remains a major tourist destination due to its stability and hospitality to visitors from around the world. While this is quite positive for the Thai economy, the accompanying statistics on the percent of GDP that the sex trade represents remains astronomical, and by some estimates, represented three times the profits from drugs in the mid-to-late 1990s. (World Health Organization, 2001)
One of the greatest challenges in stemming the practice of child prostitution and exploitation is the difference between the cultural definition of the age of consent versus the national/legal definition. In 1996, Thailand – in efforts to address and stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) – adopted a national definition of the age of consent, setting the legal age of a child to be anything younger than 18 (Protection Project, 2007). Unfortunately, the cultural beliefs remain in the populations’’ psyche, so children as young as 14 are considered, culturally, as adults. This compounds the enforcement and protection of these vulnerable groups against sexual exploitation when family values and cultural morays conflict with political will. However, in Thai culture, the taboos against sex with much younger children is so strong that any Thai citizen seeing an adult man with a 10 year old child heading for a hotel room, would immediately call the police (Protection Project, 2007). A case study done on Thailand’s Sex Tourism heralds the decline of child sex tourism in Thailand as a major export, noting the efforts in place at the highest levels to stop the trade. These public service ads, developed by ChildWise for Thailand elevate the awareness of this dark and devastating practice to everyone – potential victim, and perpetrators.
Sadly, however, the destination retains its allure as a sexual hot spot so as the attention shifts away from ‘sanctioned’ brothels, and to the streets, Thailand’s most vulnerable citizens – the poor and minority/immigrant children – find themselves at risk of falling prey to this monster. Today, the child prostitutes in Thailand are almost exclusively foreign-born, drawn to Thailand’s relative prosperity in comparison to the rest of the region (ibid) In general, though Thailand’s days as a destination of first choice for predators seeking sex with children are waning. The combination of factors including too much international attention, national efforts to combat child sexual exploitation, and a concerted government crackdown, in concert with a population becoming more educated and less desperate, the children of Thailand finally have some hope, but at what cost, as these predators have not relinquished their predilections; only taken them to neighboring destinations where the rules are fewer, the public attention scant with a supply of poor, hungry children to provide the leverage the sexual traveler seeks. (Wink, 2005)
Vietnam, like Thailand stands in contrast to Cambodia in that its emergence from war has been longer in development, and without the ghosts of a regime like the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam is listed, though as a country at “high risk of becoming a significant child sex tourism destination” (Protection Project, 2007) Its close proximity to other source, transit and destinations nations like Cambodia and Thailand is a major risk factor, as is the increasing attention and world pressure on these countries to stem the tides of CSEC, leaving Vietnam for now, as a vulnerable option for the sexual predator tourist. The Protection Project (2007) also reports that the problem of child sexual tourism is virtually unknown in Vietnam, making general awareness a major hurdle to overcome. Unlike government-coordinated efforts in Cambodia and Thailand, the Vietnamese government has yet to publicly acknowledge the problem of child sexual exploitation, let alone address it with public service advertisement and nationally-sponsored programming.
Like its neighbors, Thailand and Cambodia. Vietnam has of late begun to market itself as a tourist destination of choice for the international traveler. Vietnam has enjoyed recent surges in tourist activity, hosting more than 3.4 million tourists in 2005 – an increase of more than 15% over 2004 tourism statistics – similar to the tourism gains experienced in Cambodia and Thailand. Any increase in tourism, coupled with long-standing beliefs about sexual practices in the exotic and unknown Far East are prescriptions for disaster in nations with economic inequities and lax regulations and protections for children, as Cambodia and other similarly-positioned countries have experienced. Vietnam, however has additional issues contributing to its problem of child sexual exploitation. (Protection Project, 2007)
Since the 1980’s, Vietnam’s movement toward market reform and a policy of renovation (“doi moi”) has opened greater opportunities for its citizens. While most observers count this as a win, there are multiple aspects to this issue. Often seen as a “Western condition”, the economic growth experienced in recent decades in Vietnam has created greater gaps between wealth and poverty, pushing some young people into prostitution for reasons similar to what is seen in U.S. urban settings. Further, improvements in the access to information and world events have created demand for goods and services heretofore unknown. These changes in the context of a traditional society exert predictable strain on institutions once generally stable. (Protection Project, 2007) While these problems hint at a Western perspective, remnants of the communist core loom large over the issue of child prostitution. Unlike the openness seen in Thailand, and increasingly in Cambodia where information and publication of the problem and issue of the sexual exploitation of children is available to all, Vietnam maintains tight control on the information released to the public and to NGOs. International publications addressing the issue of child prostitution continue to be banned from publication in Vietnam and when interviewed for the Protection Project Report in 2006 – 2007, Vietnamese officials and NGO representatives were tight-lipped and reluctant to address the issue in any depth. This leaves Vietnamese reported statistics from the 1990s that indicate approximately 10.5% of the citizens involved in prostitution in the country were minors, open to debate. Twenty-first century estimates have the rate of child prostitution and involvement in sex trade at 15% (Michaelson, 2003). Unlike Cambodia and Thailand, Vietnam has yet to embark on a public awareness campaign aimed at mitigating the practices and making it harder for sexual tourists to practice their trade within the country. The closest Vietnam has come to addressing the issue at a national level was the issuance of Prime Minister’s Decision No. 151/2000/QD-TTg which was released at the end of 2000 and included vague language about “accelerating educational communication, increasing dissemination of information through public media and expanding various activities of civil society organizations, all aimed to encourage the public to fight against prostitution and trafficking of women and children in all its forms.” While the language appears intentionally vague in terms of admitting to the problem of child sexual exploitation, it is a step in the right direction. By 2003, another ordinance appeared, outlining expectations for education and communication for citizens and children, as well as requirements for establishments to abide by labor laws regulating the ageof employees, and pornographic prohibitions. The approach is clearly not as direct as is being undertaken in Thailand and Cambodia, but it is a start. The dissemination of information and communication against the practices related to exploitation of children is reported to be available, but the control of media to external sources appears to be much lower key than other similar initiatives, and likely related to the government’s reticence to address the issue in the global public sphere. (Protection Project, 2007)
Regardless of the nation discussed, some factors are universal. Most of the children involved in prostitution and at risk for sexual exploitation come from circumstances of extreme poverty, and in many cases where parental care is missing; meaning absent, or neglectful parents. Boys as well as girls are subject to abuse in this industry and there are some indications that the interest in young boys is increasing (Protection Project, 2007). The seeking out of female virgins is a consistent problem as well, leading tourists to seek younger and younger females to insure the best chance for virginity. Most of these men were over the age of 50, rich and powerful. Many child-preferential abusers seek out employment in education service industries, such as companies that hire teachers to teach English in Vietnamese or Thai schools, so that they can gain access to many children, and earn their trust by virtue of their position and interaction with the children (Protection Project, 2007).
The world gained a glimpse into this reality when John Mark Karr, the man who in 2006 gained brief infamy for “confessing” to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey of Colorado, emerged. After an adolescence marked with questionable encounters with underage girls, Karr attended college at the University of North Alabama where he majored in early childhood education. He never graduated and the school refused to recommend him for licensure or certification as a teacher, due to the fact that the administration received complaints of inappropriate interactions with the students during his internship. His bizarre path continued as he bounced from one substitute teaching job to another between Alabama and California, where he was either asked to leave or outright fired for inappropriate behavior (Associated Press, 2006). Eventually Karr made his way to Honduras where he also failed to gain any traction as a teacher, being released as soon as a week at one school before transitioning to Thailand with a tourist VISA which should have prevented him from working as a teacher, but did not. The lax environment in Southeast Asia allowed this progressive and potential (if not actual) pedophile access to hundreds of young girls, while he was employed in a number of Thai schools (Kher and Montlake, 2006). Sadly, one need not search obscure academic journals to find evidence of the risks posed to children in these countries, as recently as three years ago.
The perpetrators of child sexual exploitation come from almost every country with any wealth. The United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, Korea, Japan, China, Australia, Germany, the Middle East and Taiwan are often cited as countries of origin for the predators, but there is also significant evidence that local (non-foreign) exploitation is as common as the international trend (Loan and Ha, 2006). Finding compliant victims for the perpetration of sexual activities is aided in these tourist destinations by hotel clerks, bar and nightclub owners, taxi drivers, street vendors and bike drivers who are familiar with the trade and the drill. Other approaches include the pretense of an interest in fostering or adopting children from local shelters.
“Foreigners have been reported to approach shelters to ask for adoption or fostering of children and tried to get close or make friends with the children. These men “groomed” the children at the centers, as well as the staff, such as by bringing expensive presents, then gradually asking the staff to take the child with them for outings. An educator at the Thao Dan center in Ho Chi Minh City shared a story of a child who told her that a foreigner took him for an outing and then took him to his house, gave him presents and money, much more than what he could earn for a normal working day as a newspaper seller. The child liked the foreigner and sought the man out himself. However, the next time the child saw the foreigner he asked the boy to touch and kiss him, including kissing in his private parts, as the boy recounted. Others may seek out children in public places, such as on the street and in locations where they may be working as newspaper or souvenir sellers or shoe-shiners” (Protection Project, 2007)
The Trafficking in Persons Report (2007) reports that sex tourists “often travel to developing countries looking for anonymity and the availability of children in prostitution.” The perpetration of these crimes is enabled in countries like Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam where inadequate or corrupt law enforcement, combined with the access provided by the Internet, and the ease of travel meet deplorable conditions, like poverty. Sexual offenders can be found in every socioeconomic group and often work in positions that portray trustworthiness, such as the cases of these U.S. citizens arrested for crimes against children (engaging in sex tourism) that included the arrest of a pediatrician, a retired Army sergeant, a dentist, and a university professor. (TIPS, 2007) To begin a global dialogue to address this egregious practice, the United States Congress voted into law the Victims of TRAFFICKING AND VIOLENCE PROTECTION ACT (TVPA) OF 2000 (Public Law 106-386) on October 28, 2000 (US State Department, 2000). That same year, the United Nations, in response to increasing hue and cry regarding the trafficking of persons, adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons – especially Women and Children in 2000, and it became enforceable in 2003. Known as the Palermo Protocol, this international human rights initiative became enforceable in 2003. The United States signed on in 2000 and ratified it in 2005. None of the Southeast Asian countries studied in this paper have ratified the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol as of 2007.
While the United States has ratified the UN TIP Protocol, the government bases most of its assessments on its own TVPA. In its assessment of countries across the globe, the TVPA sets forth criteria to assign each country a ranking or a “Tier”. The three primary factors considered in the determination of a countries Tier assignment include the following:
- The extent to which the country is a country of origin, transit or destination for severe forms of trafficking;
- The extent to which the government of the country does not comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards including, in particular, the extent of the government’s trafficking-related corruption; and
- The resources and capabilities of the government to address and eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons
The TVPA report is controversial in some circles, seen as yet another way for the United States to justify interfering in other nations’ affairs, and imposing U.S. standards. The assignment to a Tier by the U.S. report is based primarily on specific actions taken by governments to address trafficking, specifically; prosecutions, convictions, and prison sentences for traffickers, as well as victim protection measures, and prevention efforts. Major consideration is not granted for laws and other legal initiatives that have not be acted upon or enforced, and education programs and other ‘softer’ approaches, while deemed appropriate, do not impact a countries Tier assignment. (TIPS, 2007)
Vietnam and Thailand have been assigned as Tier 2 nations, indicating that they do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. Cambodia is classified as a Tier 2 Watch List, classifying it as a country whose government does not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but is noted as making significant efforts to come into compliance with those standards. The Tier 2 watch list designation also indicates that the absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; or the country has failed to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or it is determined that the country is making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country for the future (not immediate). (TIPS, 2007) In contrast, Tier 1 countries have been evaluated as fully complying with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, and Tier 3 countries do not comply in any way with the minimum standards and are not making efforts to comply in any manner (ibid).
Aside from national and international efforts aimed at stopping the perpetrators of trafficking crimes against children, it is only the opportunity for a better life, made available through access to quality education that can have long-lasting impact in these and other countries where poverty requires families and children to make unimaginable choices. While enforcement is necessary, and important, NGOs and other groups must remain vigilant to not only the crimes but to the plight of people living in the dire circumstances that spawn such evil. Only then can the world expect to see an end to the sexual exploitation of children on the scale that it is currently occurring. The evidence of this is emerging in the progress seen in Thailand and Cambodia, giving hope to countries like the Philippines, Honduras and Morocco where countless other children face the horrors of being trafficked by force of someone else’s will, or circumstance of poverty.
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TIER 1 Countries whose governments fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards
TIER 2 Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards
TIER 2 WATCH LIST Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the TVPA’s minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards AND:
a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; or
b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or
c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.
TIER 3 Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so