Thursday, June 12, 2003

Associated Press

Hill tribe girls flood sex trade

NEW YORK — Thirty years ago, virtually no women from Thailand's hill tribes were snared in the country's thriving sex trade. Now they are flooding the brothels and sex-karaoke bars.

Anthropologist and filmmaker David Feingold set out to determine why about one in three Thai sex workers comes from the highlands — despite development projects, anti-narcotics campaigns and efforts to fight sex trafficking.

His five-year investigation became the documentary film "Trading Women," now reaching U.S. audiences through public television. It has been screened at the United Nations and will be shown June 20 to the National Press Club in Washington.

His film quietly interviews hill tribe girls in brothels, in karaoke bars where sex with customers is optional, and in their home villages. It also seeks the views of brothel owners, U.S. politicians, Thai police, and health officials who take an annual census of sex workers.

He listed a number of problems that have led highland women to leave the countryside and migrate to the sex trade: drug eradication programs with too little emphasis on alternative crops; population pressures; loss of land to other Thais, and conflict in neighboring Myanmar.

But the greatest risk factor is the women's precarious legal status: Minority groups have enormous difficulties obtaining Thai citizenship and therefore have few economic opportunities.

In addition, discrimination against women intensifies their economic desperation, said LaShawn Jefferson, head of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch.

International conferences tend to globalize the issue, as if Eastern European and Thai women had the same needs, he said, while U.S. policy-makers sometimes overemphasize law enforcement.

The State Department released its third annual "Trafficking in Persons" report Wednesday, which says Thailand is striving to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.

It says Thailand should intensify law enforcement at home together with neighboring countries, and it notes that "many of the victims are from stateless ethnic tribes in northern Thailand."

The report is the first to recommend sanctions against countries that don't fight trafficking. However, a department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the emphasis is not on punishment but on funding local efforts.

Thai officials estimate 200,000 women work in Thailand's sex industry, not the 2 million sometimes claimed.

Feingold found that most hill tribe girls serve the domestic sex market — not the sex tourism and export market for which Thailand became notorious.

Girls fleeing strife-torn Myanmar, known as Burma, also have fallen prey to sexual exploitation.

Feingold hopes drawing American attention to the problem will lead to lasting solutions.

"Trading Women" has been shown on public TV in New York, Boston and San Francisco, said Arthur Ellis of Philadelphia's WHYY, the first to show it. Miami will see it in July and Philadelphia will have another airing later this month.

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