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Sirirat Pusurinkham (left) prepares a speech on prostitution in Thailand for a panel discussion on women and racism convened in Durban, South Africa by the World Council of Churches and the World YWCA.
Prostitution in Thailand
Child prostitution is a serious social problem in Thailand. Prostitution is a form of enslavement that currently involves perhaps 800,000 children under the age of sixteen, bought and sold for a profit that exceeds that of the drug trade or weapons sales or lotteries or sports gambling.
The Thai culture has a long history of prostitution but the problem has never been as grave as it is at present. Prostitution has been a way of life in Thailand from time immemorial, and has not been considered an evil by Thai society. The blame can be found in the habits of Thai men, the governments focus on foreign tourism, and in the inactivity and lack of concern of Christian churches and Buddhist temples. The latter take the position of "Hear no evil; See no evil; Speak no evil," and do little or nothing to counter the evil of prostitution.
There is little health protection for prostitutes in Thailand, and HIV/AIDS has greatly proliferated. There are numerous stories of brothers and sisters crying and dying in pain, with the loss of all hope. We have countless stories of their suffering loneliness, illness, misuse and imprisonment in filthy airless rooms. In August a senior Thai health official said that AIDS had become the main cause of death in the country. I have to carry out a lot of funerals, so I know this is true.
Prostituting children, the exploitation of children, and their enslavement for financial gain are among the most despicable acts in the whole panoply of human evil. They represent a sad story of human degradation. Girls as young as 10-12 years old service men in the sex industry. Many of the girls typically have sex with ten to fifteen men every day, and sometimes as many as 20 to 30.
There are several major reasons why prostitution, including child prostitution, is a growing industry.
In Thailand the position of women is a traditional one, remaining from the traditional position they have been assigned in Thai Buddhism. This is found in the traditional cultural attitudes of Thai men, and in the consequences of military presence, and its resulting culture of recreational sex. The social turmoil in Thailand provoked by World War II was a seedbed for the growth of prostitution in the country. It spurred the first example of a sex entertainment center for international tourists in Thailand.
The Vietnam War and the resultant R&R activities of service men in Thailand led to a dramatic increase in the use of Thai prostitutes by foreigners in the country. This period was followed by an aggressive tourism campaign, which encouraged tourists to come in great numbers. Most of these tourists were single men. The rapid increase in commercialization was encouraged by the news media.
Tourism has brought enormous growth in the construction of hotels, golf courses, condominiums, restaurants and various kinds of entertainment in the cities, and in provincial villages as well. Tourisms impact on the sex industry to what is now called sex tourism has been a major contemporary contributor to the growth of child prostitution in Thailand.
In Thailand there has been both migration within the country from farm to city and immigration from outside the country. Farming cannot provide a living anymore. Many farmers even go to work in other countries to keep their families from starving. There are no opportunities in rural areas.
Many young women from other countries came to Thailand because they want to improve their standard of living, and to support their families. Many of these young women are attracted by the promise of work, only to find themselves locked up in a brothel where they have to earn their release. Most of these young women come from countries in the region where employment is most difficult to secure. Because immigration has encouraged prostitution more and more young women, or girls, are being imported from neighboring countries. That society has denied or failed to acknowledge the oppression, exploitation and abuse of women.
It is also a racism issue. The women are recruited from the more than 40 indigenous groups in the country because they have a low status in Thai society and are generally poor. As a member of the Taiya indigenous group, who are spread between China and Thailand, I am very aware of this problem. The country puts down our indigenous people they live in the mountains, and no one wants to know their problems. The way to stop this prostitution is to give indigenous people more opportunities economic and educational because this is a poverty issue.
Thailand is now in a financial crisis. Many people have lost their jobs, and women and children suffer the most. The Thai government has found that since tourism is a quick way to earn foreign dollars it cannot easily stop this lucrative if degrading business. A beautiful country, beautiful women, and inexpensive living enable the sex industry to annually earn ever more money. There are two parts to the Thai policy of promoting tourism: one is to sell the physical and cultural beauty of the country; the other is to promote the Thai people, which of course includes sex-related services. "Amazing Thailand," a tourism campaign from 1998-99, promoted to foreign men to come and see Thailands beautiful women and to enjoy the thriving sex industry.
The men arrive from the Europe and the US, and often a bus is waiting at the airport to take them straight to the girls. All of this is organized through the Internet and not only in Bangkok. There is an urgent need to control this trade. The men pay the girls $4, sometimes $5. After the pimp has taken his share, the girls are left with less than the price of a meal.
The growth of prostitution in Thailand has had an almost worldwide effect. There are laws against prostitution, but they are not enforced. The police force is corrupt and often joins with the pimps in making money.
In Thailand today, women and children are oppressed, abused, exploited, and degraded by society. Daughters of poor families are often sold into prostitution. Some parents sell their children because they need the money for food or dope. Many parents are "duped" into selling their children and do not realize the lives their children will lead. The parents dont understand the danger of HIV/AIDS, how prevalent sexual-related diseases, and how they are a death sentence for children. According to recent UNAIDS statistics, out of a total population of 60 million people in Thailand, 755,000 are living with HIV/AIDS.
The children go because they feel that they can help their families. They feel in debt to their families, and want to help improve their lives. Thai culture emphasizes that children should listen to their parents and help their parents.
Thailand is still predominantly a male-dominated country. Most of the government officials are male, and it is usually business MEN who recruit prostitutes. There is a need to teach men that they must respect women.
Prostitution, of course, means selling ones body for sexual use and exploitation. A fundamental human relationship between two human beings is debased to profit-making, in violation of the Will of God. Sex tours encourage men to do something in a foreign country that they would not do in their own country. Sex tours degrade a countrys reputation. Sex tours are immoral. Sex tours spread disease. Sex tours treat girls and women like things, not persons not like they are children of God.
The church of Jesus Christ ought to always respond to the least in our midst the poor, the exploited, the abused, the oppressed as Jesus did. The Thai church should be no exception. It should address the problem at several levels:
The church has a mission to work for the liberation of all oppressed people. Christ is the foundation of this mission. We should be working hand in hand, and should study the problems of society to find solutions together, encouraged by prayer and study of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
I close with the 1991 poem
"With No Immediate Cause" by Ntozake Shange, concerning the
plight of women in the world:
The Rev. Dr. Sirirat Pusurinkham is an United Church of Christ minister in Chiang Rai, Thailand, a northern city near the border with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. In addition to pastoring a 350-member congregation, she teaches in two seminaries, oversees a drug rehab treatment facility, directs a micro-enterprise development project, and runs an AIDS ministry. Sirirat can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org