Monday, September 3, 2007

Let's Be Careful About Blaming Poverty For Sex Trafficking

Human sex trafficking is a complex issue. It has taken me the past three years to get my head around the subtleties in understanding the causes of this horrible travesty . Certainly poverty plays a role, but I have learned through experience, that sex trafficking is caused and exacerbated by numerous factors. The first and foremost reason for human trafficking in general is greed. Selling human beings is a big money business - everyday, billions of dollars are exchanged for human lives. One statistic claims that two children are trafficked every minute. Whether this is accurate or not, we do know that over a million people are enslaved annually.

In the commercial sex trade in particular, there are serious dollars at stake. Sex tourists, pedophiles, and a thriving local population engaged in prostitution feeds this multi-billion dollar industry. It was estimated in 2005, that in Cambodia alone, there was $500 million dollars at stake in sex trafficking and the commercial sex industry. This is staggering when you consider the impact these dollars have on legitimate tourism spending and internal governmental corruption.

But, let's get back to causes of child sex trafficking. We have covered greed in general, but there is another form of greed that is infecting Southeast Asia - materialism. Both Thailand and Vietnam are experiencing a significant economic boom - the per capita income in both countries has increased significantly, while the standard of living (at least in Vietnam) remains remarkably stable.

This means people are living better. Yet, families are still engaged in selling their own daughters - why? The answer is easy - money. Not money they need for food and clothing, but rather; money that they need to buy a new television, iPod, or other possessions that create the illusion of success and wealth. In Vietnam, the second largest city is An Giang. As of 2006, 90% of An Giang was in debt for purchases made on credit. An Giang is also a major source of young girls being brought into Cambodia for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

This is not rumor - it is a fact. I have seen this first hand and have dealt with the victims of this horrible crime. But, there are other factors. Laziness is another contributing cause. In some Asian cultures, it is expected that the children will actively work to support the families. This is not a cavalier statement - rather; this is a full year of traveling into the provinces of Cambodia and encountering able bodied parents that did not work. I cannot tell you how many families we have worked with, where the parents don't want to work or say they can't work, expecting their children to shoulder the burden of providing the families' income.

One young lady, I will call "Mandy", currently in our transitional living center, did not want to return home. We were out at the local market and talking about her family situation, when a young woman was crossing the street - she had a handicapped leg and a palsied arm. In her other hand was a can used for begging money. Mandy looked at me and said, "She has a reason to not work, but she does any way - what is my mothers excuse?"

Granted, this is not simple either - there are severe issues in a society suffering from post-traumatic stress, but this ambivelence has a two-fold effect - one, the children who are out working for the family don't attend school, which further dampers their ability to succeed in the 21st Century and two, it makes children vulnerable to expoitation. Girls are often recruited to work in karaoke bars, massage parlors, and brothels - first as errand girls, but later will be persuaded to make more money by 'greeting guests' (a local term for engaging in sex acts).

Ignorance is another factor. I am very cautious listing this, because it has been used as a false defense by parents, families, traffickers, and others - claiming they didn't know the girls would be abused. But, I have met sincere families wanting a better future for their daughters, who send them into the city or other situation, only to find later that they were fooled. Wonderful groups, like the Chab Dai Coalition in Cambodia are making inroads with prevention strategies to address this issue.

Don't get me wrong - poverty does plays a role. Cambodia as a whole is vulnerable to sex trafficking. But to believe that if we cure poverty, we cure sex trafficking, is naive. The two are connected, though not exclusive to each other. Particularly, not in the way some organizations would make the case. If Cambodia became the richest country in the world, sex trafficking would still be an issue. Sex trafficking infects every country at some level. Demand is the driving force with greed as its co-pilot. We have to approach human sex trafficking in a holistic way - understanding the complexity is the first step in finding ways to combat it.

Poverty is on the list, but the more dangerous causes like materialism and greed are far more insidious. There are additional causes, so in the coming months, I will come back to this issue. If you have any insights or thoughts, let me know - I am interested in your response to this issue. Much of the media and press has not dealt with or addressed the causes, but rather; the symptoms of sex trafficking. In the meantime, let's keep poverty as a serious global issue affecting Cambodia, but not the principle reason girls are being sold into slavery.

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