How NGOs are adopting a missionary position in Asia

A sex-worker rights activist in Thailand tells Nathalie Rothschild about the reality of the prudish, neo-colonial anti-trafficking industry.

Nathalie Rothschild

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We all know that there is a big sex industry in south-east Asia. In fact, it often seems that sex is the only thing we hear about in reports from this part of the world as the media peddles salacious stories about ‘sex tourism’, ‘ladyboys’, virgins for sale and girls tricked into prostitution. But in recent years another kind of trade has boomed there: the anti-trafficking industry. And local sex worker rights activists tell me that this industry is a far bigger problem for them than punters looking for sex or company.

Today, there are hundreds of non-governmental organisations in Cambodia alone working to ‘rescue and rehabilitate’ sex workers. Local sex-worker representatives even claim that there are more anti-trafficking activists than there are genuine trafficking victims.

Indeed, last year an audit of the USAID Counter Trafficking in Persons project reported that in 2009 the Cambodian government convicted just 12 people of trafficking offences. As for trafficking victims, the audit concluded that it was beyond the scope of the five-year project – initiated in 2006 with a budget of $7.3million – to establish ‘baseline data’ on the numbers of victims.

Andrew Hunter from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) tells me that there are NGO-run women’s shelters across Cambodia that rely on funding from donors like USAID and that they use ‘lurid stories of sexual abuse to raise money. It’s kind of pornographic in a way – but it seems making up stories of the enslavement and sexual degradation of women raises more funds.’

The USAID report explained that other organisations and researchers had also failed to establish just how many trafficking victims there are in Cambodia. One of the obstacles identified was that ‘Human trafficking victims may be unaware, unwilling, or unable to acknowledge that they are trafficking victims, so it is difficult to reach them…’

For Andrew, saying that women are unwitting victims – even if they vehemently deny it – is tantamount to denying ‘the idea that women have agency’. (Ironically, the anti-trafficking industry is to a large extent made up of self-described feminists. But feminists have traditionally fought for women to be regarded as autonomous, free-thinking individuals, not as clueless victims.)

As for enforced prostitution, Andrew says that ‘women (and men) generally take up jobs because they need to earn money’ and the same is true for sex work. ‘The fewer skills you have, the less choice you have, but many women do choose sex work.’

‘Large numbers of sex workers in Cambodia are former garment workers’, Andrew continues. ‘They find conditions in the sex industry better than in the garment factories. In fact, a few weeks ago, Cambodian garment workers organised massive strikes demanding higher wages – and sex workers were on the picket lines supporting them.’

Yet a recent BBC documentary claimed that thousands of young girls are being sold into sexual slavery in Cambodia and that prostitution is not something women take up voluntarily.

The documentary was presented by Stacey Dooley, who made her television debut in the 2008 BBC series Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, in which six young British ‘fashion addicts’ toured factories and slums in India. Up until then, Dooley had been interested in little more than clothes and makeup, but now she goes around the world investigating topics such as the use of child soldiers and child labourers in the developing world.

In her report from Cambodia, Dooley hardly has a dry-eyed moment. As Alang, an 18-year-old prostitute, tells Dooley her story (she was sold to pimps by her aunt at the age of 12) the young Brit weeps uncontrollably. After waiting nine hours to accompany police on a raid to ‘bust some brothels’, Dooley starts crying because the cops fail to catch any pimps. And so on. She also visits an impoverished widow whose youngest daughter attends activities organised by the Sao Sary Foundation. This is an NGO which runs lessons for rural children whom they’ve identified as being at risk of falling prey to traffickers.

Andrew has heard it all before. ‘The idea that large numbers of women are sold into the sex industry by their families is based on a premise that poor people are stupid, ignorant and naive – not to mention cruel.’

‘Yes, this kind of thing used to happen’, Andrew tells me, ‘in the period after the civil war when Cambodia started “opening up”‘. During the time of the UN peacekeeping operation in 1992-93, women from rural areas started going to cities to find work, but were often forced into degrading situations. But as women went back to their villages and told their relatives of their experiences, people started to learn, explains Andrew. ‘The same is true all over south-east Asia. Ten years ago, when sex workers in Cambodia were crying out for assistance on this issue no one was interested. So they formed their own unions to fight for their rights as workers. Since anti-trafficking money became available, however, suddenly every NGO is worried about “rescuing sex workers”.’

The anti-trafficking industry boomed in the early Noughties, when then US president George W Bush launched the ‘war on trafficking’ as a ‘soft power strategy’ to accompany the global war on terror. However, the thinly veiled agenda was to abolish any form of sex work. Funding to organisations that ‘promote, support, or advocate the legalisation or practice of prostitution’ was suspended.

In addition, two years ago, the Cambodian government passed the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, drafted with the support of UNICEF. As researcher Cheryl Overs has shown, it criminalises ‘almost all social and financial transactions connected to sex work, whether they are abusive or consensual, fair or unfair’. According to Andrew, this has had devastating effects, driving sex workers onto the streets where they are more vulnerable and into karaoke bars where they are not allowed to carry condoms.

In her documentary, Dooley also meets a young girl who was tricked into prostitution at the age of 13 and has suffered horrific abuse, including being forced to drink alcohol mixed with crushed glass. Andrew says this kind of abuse becomes more likely when the sex industry is driven underground and sex workers cannot organise to protect their rights.

Moreover, ‘many of the agencies working with “trafficking victims” in fact illegally detain sex workers after they have been rounded up in police raids. I have met sex workers who have been held against their will for up to three months in so-called shelters.’ Andrew tells me that many shelters are set up specifically for ‘protection cases’ – ‘young girls taken by NGOs from villages in order to hide them from traffickers’. So, in order to prevent young girls from being taken away from their families, NGOs take them away from their families… ‘Usually, they teach them things like sewing and in that way offer ready-trained workers for the garment industry, where women are indeed exploited and paid paltry wages.’ Also, ‘there are plenty of US-backed DIY-NGOs in Cambodia who want to save young girls, offering them bible study dressed up as literacy classes.’ This is a missionary position indeed.

Over at Dooley’s blog, there is now a lively discussion going on, with Cambodian activists and researchers refuting some of the claims made in her documentary. Others are appalled at Dooley’s patronising tone. Indeed, she speaks to the Cambodians she meets as if they are children, looking at them with puppy eyes as they tell her of their hardships and explaining, in simple, clearly enunciated English (even though there were translators in the film crew) how she would do her best to help them and how she feels their pain.

For Dooley, who confesses she is a bit of a prude and has never met a prostitute before, the red light districts of Cambodia are understandably overwhelming. It’s hard for her to imagine that anything other than ‘brothel busting’ could be the answer to the exploitation some girls experience. But good intentions and sympathy can do a lot of harm. Dooley may want to show that she understands poor people’s desperation, but, in the end, she comes across as a wide-eyed, ignorant, well-heeled westerner wanting desperately to Do Something. She lectures and hectors everyone from western men to Cambodian police for failing to help girls in need.

Yes, Dooley is a ditzy young woman who got a gig with the BBC by fluke, but she perfectly epitomises the neo-colonialist streak to anti-trafficking. Documentaries such as hers only help portray developing world countries like Cambodia as places of vice and beastliness on the one hand, and ignorance and innocence on the other; as places filled with people who need to be rescued and civilised.

My guess is that Cambodians could do without such ‘help’ and that British television viewers could do with some programmes exposing the dubious interests and machinations of the anti-trafficking industry in south-east Asia and beyond.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

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