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World View: Meeting to fight child sale to brothels

Monday, December 17, 2001

By Andrew Perrin, Special to the Post-Gazette

MAE SAI, Thailand -- Mr. Chai sold his 13-year old daughter into prostitution for the price of a television set.

He had no regrets.

His wife had one.

When Mrs. Chai discovered that her eldest daughter wasn't working in a nearby town, as the agent who'd bought her daughter had promised, but instead was selling her body in Bangkok's international sex markets, she wept.

The tears were not for her daughter.

"I should have asked for 10,000 Baht (about $228)," she said. "Not 5,000 Baht. [The agent] robbed us."

Mr. and Mrs. Chai live in a thatched hut in Pa Tek village on the outskirts of Mae Sai, a bustling township situated on Thailand's northernmost border with the military state of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Tensions run high between the two countries' rival armies, and bullets occasionally fly across the muddy waters of the Mae Sai River that separates them. Yet the sporadic outbreak of hostilities has done nothing to hinder the two main trades in town -- drugs and daughters.

The smuggling of vast quantities of heroin and amphetamines from Myanmar and China through Thailand has given this region it's infamous tag -- The Golden Triangle -- but it's the explosion in the recruitment of young girls into the sex industry that has put this particular border town on the map.

Little Mae Sai has even found its way onto the agenda of the Second World Congress against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, which begins today in Yokohama, Japan. National governments and child protection agencies will meet to exchange information and review their policies.

There are no reliable statistics on the number of children working in the sex industry worldwide, but the lowest figure cited is 1 million. The United Nations Children's Fund estimates that one-third of sex workers in Southeast Asia are 12 to 17 years old. Many get bought and sold in Mae Sai.

Every year, hundreds of young girls from Mae Sai -- and thousands who pass through from Myanmar, Laos and southern China -- are sold into prostitution and spirited away to Bangkok where they feed the insatiable appetite of the multi-billion dollar commercial sex industry. Sex tourists come to Thailand from all corners of the globe, and Thai men are reliable customers, as well.

Few villages in the region have contributed as many daughters as Pa Tek.

It is populated by Burmese immigrants who have escaped persecution and poverty at the hands of the ruling military junta. Most are permitted by the Thai government to live and work in the border area yet they have no legal status. Many are farm workers earning less than $160 a year.

Desperate poverty makes the area easy pickings for brothel agents, known locally as "Aunties." The Development and Education Program for Daughters and Communities, a non-government organization working to stop the sale of children, estimates that 70 percent of Pa Tek's 800 families have sold at least one daughter into the sex trade.

"Agents will come to the village with orders to fill," said Sompop Jantraka, director of the program. "The people in Bangkok -- mostly foreigners -- can order girls like they order pizza. They will say 'I want a girl with thin hips and big bosoms and a round bottom' and the agents will come up here and find her. And they always deliver."

Virginity is highly prized. Fueling the demand for young girls is ignorance about HIV/AIDS transmission and myths about the curative powers of virginity.

Some brothel clientele -- particularly those from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Middle East -- believe sex with children is less risky because they are more likely to be "clean." In reality, said Phil Marshall, manager of a Bangkok-based U.N. project on trafficking of women and children, virgins may be "clean," but as soon as they've had sex, children are physically more prone to bleeding, infection and disease. Their bodies are smaller; their tissues more porous.

Somporn Khempetch, coordinator of the Child Protection and Rights Center in Mae Sai, has seen firsthand the devastating impact of the child sex trade. This year alone, she said, 50 girls in Pa Tek village died from AIDS.

Despite the risks, there is no shortage of parents willing to sell their children. With prices ranging from $110 to $900 -- almost six years wages for most families -- parental bonds in impoverished households are easily broken.

So established has child trafficking become that many brothel agents live in Pa Tek; they are often friends or relatives of the families from which they buy children.

"We tend to think of trafficking as involving sophisticated crime networks, but much of it is really a cottage industry involving small-time profiteers," Marshall said.

A report to be released this month by the International Labor Organization and U.N. Development Program supports this claim. It challenges current policies that target regional criminal syndicates as misguided. The report's authors say most girls leaving their villages in Asia do so through informal networks, with the approval of their parents.

One conclusion sure to stir great controversy is that many of the girls are willing participants.

"What we have found is that many girls want to leave home and work elsewhere, preferably in cities," said Hans van de Glind, deputy project manager for the ILO in Bangkok and one of the report's authors. "It's not so much a poverty issue because we found that girls from one village would migrate while girls from another, equally poor village, wouldn't.

"Consumerism plays a part. A girl with access to a television and who lives close to a road is more likely to migrate. Suddenly they want to have nice clothes ... and an entertaining life like the people on TV."

Andrew Perrin is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.

For more information:

Official website of the Second World Congress against the Commercial Exploitation of Children:

UNICEF site on the congress:

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