Set Me Free
Siriporn Skrobanek reports from Bangkok
on the horrors of a modern form of slavery.
‘I was told by an acquaintance to work at his restaurant in Japan. I decided to accept his offer as I thought my family might improve their life if I sent them my salary. Soon after my arrival in Japan, I realized that I was sold. My life since then has been like that of an animal.
‘I was sold three times. I begged my last owner to let me go home but she said I owed her lots of money which I had to pay back by sleeping with customers. I was always scolded and forced to do all kinds of terrible things.
‘It is impossible to describe how horrible and miserable my life was. For six-and-a-half months I was totally controlled by her. Every day I had to go out and sleep with men. I had no physical nor spiritual freedom. She threatened that wherever I escaped to, I would be traced and killed and so would my parents in Thailand. What I did was the only way to set me free from her. There was no other alternative.’
RON GILING / PANOS PICTURES
This letter was written by Gun, a 25-year-old Thai woman from an impoverished rural family, to her Japanese lawyer. In 1991, she and two Thai friends escaped from their captor by stabbing her to death. They fled with her bag, thinking that it contained their passports. They did not know that in the bag there was seven million yen ($80,000) in cash. They were arrested in the same night. In 1994 the prosecutor charged them with premeditated murder and they received a life sentence – though due to international campaigns and petitions their imprisonment was reduced and they are now serving their last year in prison.
In the global flow from South to North, there are now as many women migrants as men. But whereas male migrants are absorbed into the formal sector, female migrants have no option but to join the informal one – as domestic workers, ‘entertainers’ (a euphemism for prostitutes) and waitresses. These low-paid jobs have limited prospects and little security. Women such as Gun from countries like Thailand are pushed into the sex industry in more advanced countries within their own region or in the North.
Several hundred thousand are victims of international trafficking which generates billions of dollars of profit for the traffickers. A recent study on illegal business in Thailand revealed that trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution generates higher profits than illegal gambling, the drugs trade or arms trafficking.
Most women who are trafficked are poor and uneducated. Like Gun, they allow recruitment by an agent as this seems like their best option. Often they are not told they will have to work as prostitutes. Poverty and unemployment lead them to pay money – which they can little afford – to be taken to a new country with the promise of a new job. They pay an agent’s fee of 15,000 to 30,000 baht ($350 to $600). When the women are sold to employers in Japan, this amount is added to the bond which they must pay back, usually at more than double the agreed price. Japanese employers pay the agent thousands more for the service of a woman when she arrives in Japan, which means that her debt is inflated to between 400,000 to 700,000 baht ($9,200-16,200). And then women are often resold before their first debt is paid back. It can take them years to pay all of these debts.
Japan, the richest country in the region, has become a major destination for trafficked women. ‘During the boom, we had to charter a whole plane to carry all the women,’ a female trafficking agent told a magazine in Thailand. Her network included organized criminal gangs in Japan and corrupt Thai officials. Local organizations estimate that 80,000 to 100,000 Thai women are working illegally as prostitutes in Japan.
The United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery considers trafficking of women as a serious crime and a gross violation of human rights. Yet there is no efficient international mechanism to stop the crime and provide redress for affected women, whose numbers are growing in every region of the world.
There are penal codes dealing with trafficking in all countries involved. But most only enforce their immigration laws to punish and deport the women, instead of considering them subject to a modern form of slavery. This revictimizes the women who are criminalized and endangered by their illegal status.
Nida, from northern Thailand, had been trafficked to Japan where she fell out of a window escaping a ‘client’: ‘I felt a sharp pain in my back, and I could not move my legs. I was still conscious when my friend took me to the hospital. The first hospital would not admit me because I was a foreigner. And others did not want to give me any treatment because I tested hiv-positive.’ As illegal immigrants, women who are trafficked are left to fend for themselves.
Escape is not easy, though many try. Nor is earning a living afterwards. Nuj, from the Thai side of the Thai-Burmese border, escaped from her agent with a little money. She plans to do a hairdressing course. ‘Then I’ll go home and open my own shop. When that day comes, perhaps all the depressing experiences will fade away from memory.’
The answer is not to fight against migration or prostitution per se but to stop the abusive practices against women who are trafficked. And to recognize that these women are simply trying to make a living. We should focus on how to promote women’s rights to freedom of movement, ensure that they are able to make well-informed decisions – and stop their exploitation.
Siriporn Skrobanek researches trafficking in Thailand and is one of the authors of The Traffic in Women: Human Realities in the Sex Trade.
The Global Alliance
PHILIP WOLMUTH / PANOS PICTURES