Asian women are considered a commodity in today’s market. In honor of International Women’s Day, on March 10, we shed light on a very serious epidemic of trade exploiting Asia’s girls.

A baby girl, somewhere in Asia. Her family has little money. Without prenatal care or medical help, she barely survives childbirth. Illness and hunger punctuate her childhood; she works for her family, maybe gets a little bit of school. What’s next for her?

Girls and women throughout Asia find education is elusive and jobs are scare, relegating many to find work in the sex industry, as overseas domestics, or in sweatshops.

It is not uncommon for girls in poor families to be sold, both for the money and to lessen the household burden.

In her book about forced prostitution in Cambodia, Somaly Mam recounts how her grandfather sold her to a brothel, and her subsequent efforts to help others in the situation she ultimately escaped from. The organization she founded in Phnom Penh 13 years ago, AFESIP, has opened offices in Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand to combat the regional trade in girls.

“In Thailand’s brothels,” writes Nicholas Kristof, columnist for the New York Times, “Thai girls usually work voluntarily, while Burmese and Cambodian girls are imprisoned.” In Cambodia’s worst brothels, he says, “Pimps use violence, humiliation and narcotics to shatter girls’ self-esteem and terrorize them into unquestioning, instantaneous obedience.”

Somaly Mam finds girls as young as 5 and 6 sold to brothels, explaining, “Since we started AFESIP, the brothels have grown larger and more violent. We find women chained to sewers. Girls come to us half beaten to death… these girls suffer a more brutal sort of torture.”

The U.S. State Department pursues international trafficking of women for sex by investigating U.S. citizens involved in trafficking, and monitoring countries with a history of sex trade. But investigators have a hard time distinguishing between illegal migration and forced trafficking, and between trafficking for sexual purpose and forced labor.
In fact, many advocates argue that labor trafficking is a far worse problem than forced sex work.

Throughout Asia, women are recruited for jobs in foreign countries. Once signed up, they have no control over where they go how much they work, or the type of work they do. The bait may be child care in San Francisco, housekeeping in Malaysia, or factory work in Hong Kong; the reality is often much more arduous, and much less lucrative.

The Immigrant Women and Children Project of the Bar Association of New York City says the majority of their clients were trafficked into domestic work, including immigrants brought to work for UN and consular officials.

The typical employee “gets paid $50 a month or not at all… working seventeen, eighteen hours a day, catering parties, washing laundry by hand even though there’s a washing machine. They’ve had their documents withheld and their phone calls monitored.”

Most of the publicity and prosecution of forced labor have been for prostitution. Writing in the Nation magazine, Debbie Nathan criticizes this focus as a “morbid fascination with forced prostitution, even though more people may be forced to pick broccoli than to rent out their genitals.”

In some Asian countries, sweatshops offer an alternative, with rare stable jobs for women, who often leave behind their homes and families.

Kristof concludes that jobs in Cambodia’s garment sweatshops are among the best in that country: “In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.”

His critics argue, however, that the problem isn’t factory work itself, but the factories with deplorable conditions, where “recruiters” lure children into illegal factory work, as in a case that erupted in China last summer.

Some women instead turn to international matchmaking to escape poverty, assuming that marriage to a man who can afford the cost of “consuming” a mail-order bride, which can range from $4,000 to $15,000, is better than toiling in the rice fields, garment factories, or sex shops of Asia.

The unregulated “wife-import” business draws women mostly from poor countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. Some companies even advertise minors to their clients, says the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.

But many brides find themselves in servitude to their husbands. In the U.S., a woman can only get permanent residency after two years of marriage, tying her to her husband and making her vulnerable to abuse.

In 1994, in a stunning act of violence against his imported bride, Timothy Blackwell shot his abused Filipina wife Susanna to death outside the Seattle courtroom where her divorce petition was being heard.

What alternatives?

Educating vulnerable girls is the best hope for ending poverty and abuse, says the Girl Effect, an organization working to improve opportunities for girls throughout the Third World.

Girls and young women ages 10 to 41 comprise over one-quarter of the population in Asia. And when girls and women earn an income, they reinvest more of it into their families than men, says The Girl Effect; every additional year of secondary school increases their income by 15-25 percent.

NGO’s and governments are finding when women invest in their communities, rates of malnutrition hunger, disease, infant mortality and HIV/AIDS can be reduced, and economic growth improved. Microlenders report an exceptional rate of repayment among women’s businesses, and measure the return on their investments in improvement to the community.

Maybe that baby girl can grow up with more choices.

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