The documentary Trading Women is described as “the first film to shatter western myths about the southeast Asian sex trade…”
Filmed in Burma, China, Laos and Thailand, the film follows the trade in women, talking to the women themselves and to brothel owners.
TV stations across the United States are now airing the documentary and the film recently screened at the Asia Society in Washington, DC where anthropologist and filmmaker David A. Feingold spoke about his documentary.
An anthropologist by training and a fluent speaker of several Asian languages, including three dialects of Thai and Akha, he explains to the audience, a mix of NGOs or non-governmental organizations’ employees, women’s rights scholars, diplomats and reporters, why he decided to study the sex trade in Asia.
"My simpleminded question was why was it 30 years ago when there was a vast sex industry in Thailand there were no minority girls in that sex industry? There were no Akha, no Lahu, no Lisu, no Yao, no Hmong, no Karen. Did Dad all of a sudden look at little Atsu and say she is worth a TV set?"
His interviews with family members of missing women or with women themselves who returned from work in the larger cities of Thailand and Malaysia obliterate the myth that tribal people suddenly decided to sell their women and daughters for material gains.
All of the women were either tricked into the sex trade through false offers of waitressing jobs or they consented due to dire financial situations at home.
Many famous faces appear in the documentary—Dr. Saisuree Chutikul, former Thai cabinet minister, senator and member of United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, plus, Mr. Kyaw Tint Swe, the Burmese ambassador to the UN—not to mention, famous voices.
Angelina Jolie, an actress known for her movie role as explorer/adventurer Laura Croft, and the mother of a recently adopted Cambodian baby, narrates the film.
She narrates: “Southeast Asia is the center of a great flow of women. Burma, China, and Laos form a reservoir of girls feeding the Thai sex industry, while Thai women feed the sex industries of Japan and the West. But girls also move from Burma and Laos into China. To understand trafficking, you have to understand the circumstances of minority women and why they leave their villages.”
So, why are minority women from Laos, Burma, China and Thailand suddenly in financial crisis and prone to trafficking?
Feingold’s documentary points to the destruction of the hill people’s environment in Thailand because of logging or government reclaiming of land.
Burma’s frequent drug wars, oppressive government and history of army-run forced labor cause many Burmese minority women to willingly cross the Burma-Thailand border to work in the sex industry.
Another factor contributing to the problem is the Burmese government’s closure of universities and even kindergartens for periods of time, interfering with women’s and children’s education.
In China, the growing problem of heroin in the southern province of Yunan leaves fewer men working the land and places the burden to support a family on women.
Another major cause of minority women to enter the sex industry in Thailand is their lack of identity cards—cards that all Thai citizens carry.
Hill tribe members—often viewed as dirty, uneducated and a cause of environmental degradation—are not allowed to become Thai citizens. Tribe members cannot vote, own land or have any rights to fight government decisions that impact their livelihood.
The film introduces us to the owner of a brothel in Mae Sai, Thailand. This elderly woman in neat dress manages five girls, none of whom are Thai. The girls are Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Karen and Lao.
She explains that they come of their own volition and in the past have brought their sisters, daughters and cousins to also work. Thai girls can use their identity cards to travel and work in the higher-paying Japanese sex industry.
However, low prices in Thailand often draw Japanese customers. In Mae Sai’s brothel, a Japanese customer recently paid 30,000 baht or $23 to have sex with a virgin.
Another film, Hollywood movie City of Ghosts (and actor Matt Dillon’s directorial debut) takes the main character to Cambodia where he discovers everything from Buddhist temples to dark alleyways where underage girls are sold by the hour.
The U.S. State Department website on trafficking, HumanTrafficking.com, states that 40-60% of Cambodia’s commercial sex workers are victims of trafficking.
Most academics, including Feingold, consider the demand for sexual services to be different than the demand for trafficked women. Trafficked women are usually in the underground economy, whereas prostitution is in the open.
The documentary illustrates that it is frequently a local person, such as a neighbor or friend, rather than an anonymous criminal, who kidnaps a woman or manipulates her into leaving home. However, both form part of an intricate international network of buyers and resellers.
Although brothels are illegal in Thailand, the government acknowledges their presence in their health consensus aimed at fighting AIDS. The film shows a disturbing scene where health officials question the owner of the Mae Sai brothel about condom use.
She tells them that she advises the girls not to have sex with customers who refuse condoms, but that if the man is paying for a virgin he will definitely not wear a condom.
Feingold notes that in Thailand police raids on brothels are sporadic.
"This is also not an issue where any government is benefiting from this. A lot of them don’t know what to do with it. Police corruption is immense."
An NGO in Thailand that works to educate trafficked women pointed out that some police precincts are more likely to work with them to raid brothels, but those that aren’t cooperating have many brothels in their district providing a major source of income for the police.
In October 2000, President Clinton signed into action a bill produced by U.S. Senators Sam Brownback and the now-deceased Senator Sam Wellstone.
The bill called for a review of various countries’ treatment of women and provided a three-tier rating for each country with the third tier being the worst.
Feingold makes clear that the bill is useful, but questions the usefulness of sanctions. He also disagreed with the report’s treatment of Laos.
"In addition there was a movement to push Laos, of all places, into tier three. Laos might be in tier three for human rights and they maybe should be criticized because they are getting fooled by the U.N. that there is 80 million dollars they might get to knock down poppy fields in villages that have no rice."
He continued to comment on Laos, stating that Laos is anxious to cooperate with anyone on the issue of trafficking. He considers them to have cooperated completely with the U.N. and they worked out repatriation agreements with Thailand.
However, he told the audience that "the dirty little secret is that Laos doesn’t have a trafficking problem...it is a minute one."
Feingold considers trafficking in Laos "to rank somewhere between dandruff and bad breath as a serious social problem." He states that it might be a greater problem in the future when the World Bank road goes through—basically that road will carry girls, drugs and viruses.
Feingold hopes that more concentration and political effort will be expended to get lending agencies to ameliorate the impact of these populations being contacted for the first time.