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oices of Thai Women

by Rangsima Limpisawas

"Fate" by Troy Bennett, 1995


The editors of Voices of Thai Women wrote this editorial on child prostitution and children's rights.

The government-sponsored Bill for the Abatement of Prostitution, essentially a reform Bill to the 1960 Act, [was] enacted on December 21, 1996. From its early days as a draft to its final passing by the Senate, the Bill attracted heated public debate. Among other things, people disagreed over punishing parents who sell their children into prostitution.

Opponents to punishing parents argued that this is unjust and divisive. They said that parents sell their children because of poverty and punishing them makes them victims twice over -- of an economic system that has left them behind and of a justice system that picks off the easy targets.

Furthermore, the law, by drawing on the idea of children's rights, moves into the heart of the family, pitting children against parents and weakening the one institution that stands between them and hopelessness. They forecast a bleak future of alienated individuals where children sue their parents for divorce or damage, and grandparents die alone in hospital beds. Traditional Thai customs of obligation to family were contrasted with a contemporary Western obsession with defining and defending individual rights.

The Foundation for Women, along with others, argued instead that each one of us has an obligation to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse. The obligation is to the child directly, not always mediated through the family, particularly in circumstances where the family has failed them. For example, in cases of incest, the child often depends on outsiders' action and condemnation of the crime for their escape. Most people agree with punishing incest offenders. In our view, selling your daughter into prostitution is not so different to warrant absolving them of responsibility.

The question of punishment is, of course, intractable. The debate itself, however, raises other interesting questions. If poverty is a major part of the problem, whose duty is it to solve the problem? Where does the responsibility of children to contribute to family income begin and end? What makes one family more likely than another to sell their children?

A father of a young woman working in Japan, interviewed for the Foundation's study of trafficking in women, was matter-of-fact about his daughter's obligation. "The hardship is my daughter's problem," he said. "I'm not affected by it. It's alright by me. Besides, children have a duty to repay their parents. They must struggle, make a living and make some money. They are not supposed to be idle."

It appears to us that when child prostitution is the means for saving the family from both poverty and dissolution, the risk and cost is all the child's.

In an ideal world there would be no poor families, no children working in brothels, and no children beaten and abused by their parents. The question in this less-than-ideal world is who do we, as a society, seek to protect? The family as a whole or the children? Fortunately in most circumstances there is no need to differentiate. But where it is necessary, it is useful to be clear that children do have a distinct right to be safe and secure and that we have the corresponding responsibility to see that they are protected from abuse.

Bracketing children's rights with Western imperialism is a diversion. The issue is less one of cultural dominance than what Thai people consider right and wrong. Do they think it is morally defensible to sell children as one would sell chickens or pigs? Whether or not people think in terms of "rights" as such is not important.

It is also a diversion to raise the bogey of "Western-type alienation and selfishness". Are we engaging in a bit of "Occidentalism", a reverse Orientalism, when we employ cliches' about Western cultures to confirm our own superior state? In our experience, there is as much evidence pointing to continued family solidarity in the West as to disintegration.

More importantly, though, by promoting the value that all children are important to each one of us, regardless of family, we are more likely to avoid alienation. If we can point to any mistake in the West, it is that their communities have not taken enough responsibility for children as a whole and left too much responsibility to mothers and fathers.

Children's rights say clearly to parents that children are not theirs to do with as they please. The attendant obligation for us, as a society, is that we take more responsibility for poverty and hardship.

from Voices of Thai Women, Oct. 1996

contact info:
FFW, P. O. Box 47
Bangkok 10700 Thailand

"Prostitution is often described as "the world's oldest profession" -- implying that it's inevitable, given the nature of men and womyn. Myths about the happy hooker have a lot in common with the myths about womyn who enjoy being raped and wives who enjoy being beaten, thought it took feminists longer to see the connection. . . .

For a time, some feminists felt that in considering prostitution, it was necessary to distinguish between womyn who were forced into it and those who chose it. However, by the 1980s, many activists had concluded that prostitutes were usually driven into "the life" by a desperate need for money. In addition, studies indicated that many had been victims of incest or sexual abuse as children. . . .

Feminists eventually organized around the issue of prostitution on a global scale -- they had to, because the traffic in womyn crossed national boundaries. Thus in 1988 a conference held in New York City brought together womyn from all over the world. Speakers from South Korea and the Phillipines described the thousands of prostitutes who lived in poverty and misery near American military bases in their countries, and the "sex tours" that brought in foreign men to use these womyn. . . . A speaker from Japan reported that thanks to a labor shortage, young womyn in her country could now get decent jobs, and few were becoming prostitutes. As a result, the Japanese sex industry was importing 100,000 womyn a year from the Phillipines, Taiwan, and Thailand, where jobs were scarce. Often, the womyn came to Japan expecting to work as waitresses or models and were forced into prostitution. Some were only children."

from *Moving the Mountain: The Womyn's Movement in America since 1960
* by Flora Davis (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, NY, 1991), p. 326.

You can visit a FAQ which contains information about thai prostitution and enslavement at

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