Pile Them High, Sell Them Cheap: Women and Sex for Sale

By Elizabeth Willmott-Harrop

February 2003

This article was first published in the UN Chronicle Magazine.

TradingWomen“Trading Women”, David Feingold’s compelling documentary about the trafficking of women and girls into the Thai sex industry, unravels the complex social and political tapestry forming the backdrop to the global trafficking menace.

Narrated by Angelina Jolie, produced by Dean Slotar and edited by Sam Lee of Ophidian Films, “Trading Women” profiles the hill peoples of Thailand, noting that lack of citizenship, with its associated landlessness, poverty and vulnerability to police corruption, is an overriding factor in the women becoming easy prey to sex traffickers. The documentary illustrates that it is frequently a local person, such as a neighbour or friend, rather than an anonymous criminal, who kidnaps or manipulates the women into leaving their home. However, both form part of an intricate international network of buyers and resellers.

In response to the hill peoples’ plight, the trafficking project of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)-Bangkok, which Feingold heads, has conducted a highland citizenship project to train and support non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to assist these people in meeting the requirements for registration and citizenship. The project is a result of a partnership between UNESCO, the UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking of Women and Children (UNIAP) and a wide variety of Thai and hill tribe NGOs, universities and government agencies. “Trading Women” takes several misperceptions about sex trafficking and turns them on their head, starting with the in depth analysis of the hill people, who have been superficially depicted by the media as loveless parents selling their daughters into trafficking.

Feingold also overturns perceptions around the international Thai sex attractions, such as Pat Pong in Bangkok, which actually have few if any trafficked workers because they offer better working conditions and pay and are staffed by Thai nationals. It is actually the hidden domestic sex industry which he says accounts for 99 per cent of the demand for trafficked women. However, Feingold argues it is not the clientele who creates the demand – if that were the case they would attract premium rates. To the contrary, as trafficked women are often completely outside of any community support network, as “illegals” they are easily controlled, moved and exploited for as little as $2.00 per hour, of which they often receive not a single cent. This makes them a desirable commodity for criminals looking for maximum returns on their “investment”.

A clear and consistent message of the film is that trafficking is not a localized problem. The international crime of trafficking is susceptible to a complex range of influencing factors, which include the economies of supply countries and their neighbours, government anti-drugs initiatives affecting agricultural communities, sexual demand for particular ethnic types, the legal status of communities, restrictive immigration policies, official corruption and cultural stereotypes.

Anti-trafficking initiatives with a single country focus, which do not take a broader regional or international perspective, are therefore unlikely to succeed. In commenting on the effects of a narrow geopolitical focus, Phil Marshall, Programme Manager of UNIAP, coined the phrase “the ‘push-down, pop-up’ phenomena”, whereby trafficking in one area is suppressed only to create a new neighbouring market. Feingold agrees: “This is a cross-border problem, a regional problem, not a one-country problem, which requires international collaboration.” It is for this reason that anti-trafficking organizations, such as UNIAP, draw on the resources and expertise of national and international NGOs, UN agencies and Governments.

Feingold pulls no punches in his commentary on the “hell of good intentions” of organizations waging war against traffickers: “Trafficking conferences, conventions and government statements of goodwill are not enough. It is time we stopped simply presenting horror stories of individual women, and looked at the root causes. It is time we stopped feeling good about feeling bad.”

Liberty & Humanity

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Institutionalisation and the Children of Sex Trafficking Victims in Nepal

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The Light Behind My Eyes Has Died

Poem about the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation.