Modern slavery - forcing millions of women into the sex trade

As the world commemorates International Women's Day, concern is rising at the alarming growth in the trafficking of women. Marwaan Macan-Markar focusses attention on this serious problem, which is expected to be taken up again later this year when the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime comes up for adoption.

A SHORT play staged by a Filipino theatre group has become a popular feature on the international conference circuit, given the powerful message it conveys - women are abused when they are lured into the international sex trade by criminal gangs.

Written by Maria Paulin-Ballesteros, the play draws a parallel between women subjected to sexual exploitation and a chicken dish that is a favourite in the Philippines, 'lechon manok'. And Paulin-Ballesteros describes her work, titled We're Syndicated, Ma'am, as a 'fowl play'.

This Filipino human rights activist was inspired to write the play after attending an international forum, where three Filipino women narrated their plight after being forced into the sex trade in Nigeria. And the response the play has received - through its live performance or a videotaped account, in Asia, Europe and North America - has satisfied Paulin-Ballesteros.

'While Filipino consumers crave the lechon manok, male customers around the world are going crazy over their young women,' she told a Filipino newspaper in an interview. Paulin-Ballesteros' concern has been echoed by other human rights activists, who are equally worried about the rapid rise of women being transported around the world for the sex industry. Currently, according to available reports, close to two million women have been forced into 'sex slavery'.

In February, Regan Ralph, the executive director of the women's rights division of the United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), underscored the urgency for an international response to such abuse during his testimony before the US Senate's committee on foreign relations.

HRW has been involved in documenting and monitoring this 'serious human rights violation' for many years, Ralph revealed. 'We have reported on the trafficking of women and girls from Bangladesh to Pakistan, from Burma to Thailand and from Nepal to India.'

In his view, the current trafficking in women is 'a slavery-like practice that must be eliminated', since it involves the 'illegal and highly profitable transport and sale of human beings for the purpose of exploiting their labour'.

He even exposed its prevalence in the United States. In August 1999, for instance, a trafficking ring was broken up in the southern state of Georgia that transported up to 1,000 women from several Asian countries into the United States and '(forced) them to work in brothels across the country'.

Similar evidence was presented in late February at a public hearing before the European Parliament. Close to 500,000 women are smuggled into Western Europe every year, experts said. According to researchers, nearly 60% of the women forced into the sex industry in some Western European countries are controlled by Russian and Albanian criminal networks.

No control

The situation in Britain illustrates this scenario. According to research conducted by the University of North London's Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit, six out of 10 women in London's brothels have been 'trafficked' from countries such as the Ukraine. The study added that the 'criminal gangs trafficking prostitutes are not confining their activities to major cities'.

And once the women arrive in Britain, they are informed by the gangs responsible for their journey that they owe the gangs 'thousands of pounds for accommodation, fees to the brothel and advertising'.

In most cases, the manner in which women have been trapped into the sex industry hardly differs, say rights activists. The woman is approached with the promise of a good job in another country, 'and lacking better options at home, she agrees to migrate'.

Once overseas, however, she is delivered to her employer. In these new surroundings, the woman has 'no control over the nature or place of work, or the terms or conditions of her employment'.

What is more, when the woman learns she has 'been deceived about the nature of the work', she finds escape 'both difficult and dangerous', given the coercive and abusive situations in the brothels.

Kevin Bales, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Surrey, in Britain, sees this explosion of 'modern slavery' as a result of many factors, among which are 'corruption' in governments and the 'silence' that has encouraged it.

In his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, Bales argues that the international community needs to perceive the difference between modern slavery and slavery as it was known before the Atlantic slave trade of 200 years ago.

'If you insist on defining slavery as 'the legal ownership of one person by another' then slavery has pretty much disappeared. But the key to slavery is not ownership, but control through violence...(or its threat). Couple that with economic exploitation in which someone is paid nothing and you have a good working definition of the new slavery that encompasses about 27 million people around the world,' he says.

Human rights groups, too, have brought to light that aspect of the sex industry. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), for instance, defines trafficking as a situation where someone is persuaded, tricked or forced into leaving their country for the promise of a 'better life', only to end up in forced or slavery-like conditions.

But to guarantee the rights of these women, most rights groups feel that new international standards are required, including a broadening of the definition of 'trafficking', harsher punishment for those involved in the international trafficking of women, and guaranteeing that the victims have an opportunity to seek 'remedies and redress for the human rights violations they have suffered'.

And rights activists have stepped up their efforts to achieve such guarantees from the international community, given a projected UN convention that is due to be taken up this year - the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime. To end this cycle of human trafficking, they add, the language of this convention should not be watered down. For that would be 'extremely detrimental to women'.

Marwaan Macan-Markar is a correspondent for the Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article is reprinted.

Older women's health: Facing the challenges

The health concerns of older women require special attention, especially in a changing social milieu in which there are fewer people around to care for them.

by Nasreen Huq

IN a region where women continue to be valued less than men, older women's health reflects their life-long experience of discrimination, deprivation and neglect. The older women of Asia-Pacific today faced similar situations of poverty, malnutrition, poor health care, physical overwork and unhealthy work environments in their younger years. Along with high infant mortality rates, they faced high maternal mortality, maternal morbidity and reproductive tract infections. To add to all these, few of them received immunisation as children or benefited from the public health interventions that have developed since. Consequently, the diseases of the older years such as maturity onset diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, stroke, heart disease, arthritis and cancer are superimposed on an already compromised state of health. These are acute issues facing the societies of the Asia-Pacific region. As life expectancy increases and fertility rates continue to decline, the region would see in the coming years more older persons, particularly older women, needing care and fewer people available to care for them.

Recognising this growing trend, the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action emphasised that older women's ' concerns require particular attention. The long-term health prospects of women are influenced by changes at menopause, which, in combination with life-long conditions and other factors, such as poor nutrition and lack of physical activity, may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. Other diseases of ageing and the interrelationships of ageing and disability among women also need particular attention.' In an effort to call for the non-marginalisation of older people, which includes older women, the United Nations declared 1999 as the International Year of Older Persons, with the theme, 'Towards a Society for All Ages'.

Diverse realities, common problems

Traditionally, women gained value, status and authority within their family and community as they became older, for their wisdom and nurturing role as grandmothers. With modernisation and urbanisation, traditional families are giving way to nuclear families - a single set of parents, their children and a grandparent or two. In this setting and with the growing need for families to have multiple incomes to survive, grandparents, especially grandmothers, have become convenient babysitters whose medical needs are addressed within the economic constraints of the family. Such a responsibility comes at a time when these women expect to have the freedom to focus on their own needs and begin to experience a range of health issues related to ageing. Caring for young children is a demanding task that can isolate women, particularly women who lack financial and social resources to create a support network to maintain their physical and emotional well-being. These burdens would be particularly felt by older migrant women who do not speak the local language of the host country (e.g. older women sponsored by their children to enter and stay in a foreign country).

Longer lives coupled with the tradition of marrying older men means that more women will face the loneliness and vulnerability of widowhood. With a spouse's death, older women face a significant loss of economic security. Discriminatory inheritance laws regarding parental and spousal property greatly contribute to their vulnerable economic situation. Thus, widows become financially dependent on their children, while single older women may have no one to turn to but the state. In several South-East Asian countries, older women who came as migrants from other parts of Asia worked in the informal sector to support their families back home. Few of them had access to state pension schemes. Today, they have practically no savings and are financially helpless.

Older women are vulnerable to violence from both their families and society. The risk increases with their loss of independence. The violence is physical and emotional. Glorification of youth in the modern culture has created negative stereotypes of the elderly, particularly older women, and they are subjected to much abuse as a result of ageism. Widows may suffer from violence by their own children or by relatives. For married older women, they may have suffered a history of violence since their younger years.

Addressing the health needs of older women

Clearly, the lack of health policies, programmes and services that address women's health needs from a life-cycle and holistic approach greatly affects their lives as they age. Special attention should be given to adequately meeting the specific physical, emotional and mental health needs of women aged 50 to 60, 70 to 80 and over 80. The views of older women are therefore important for any health policy and service development to be effective in addressing older women's realities. Mechanisms need to be put in place which would allow these women to be actively involved in the planning, design and implementation of health policies and programmes which concern their own health and that of their community. Care for older women must consider their pre-existing state of health and address their overall health-care needs instead of merely treating the immediate medical problem.

Due to their increased vulnerability in their later years, the issues of cost, quality and mobility or location of healthcare services would have to be considered carefully. Policies which promote parental care and support by the children need to be supplemented by appropriate support mechanisms (such as state-supported income security schemes), and high-quality affordable health and residential care for those older women who are unable to rely on family support. It is also imperative that boys and men are socialised into caring and nurturing roles so that the burden of caring for elders does not fall on women alone. Governments need to be committed to their social responsibility in the area of health and be ready to support effective community-based initiatives in meeting older women's health needs.

It is important to recognise that the ageing process, for some women, may be about declining health, frailty, emotional vulnerability and even senility. For other women, the ageing process may be a very positive experience. Nevertheless, decision-makers who plan policies and programmes for older women must recognise that active ageing will not circumvent the need for adequate caregiving, which can sometimes be intensive in nature. While it is true that older women have many contributions to make, their right to finally take a break from commitments and responsibilities in their old age should not be overlooked. Older women are not only survivors - they have made their contributions to society. In return, society should give them space to seek self-fulfilment.

Doress, Paula Brown; Diana Laskin [et al.]. 1994. The New Ourselves, Growing Older. New York: Simon and Schuster.
United Nations. 1996. The Beijing Declaration and The Platform for Action. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, 4-15 September 1995. New York: UN.
World Health Organisation. 1999. 'Global movement for active ageing'. Ageing and Health. [Information Package]. Geneva: Ageing and Health Programme.

The above article, which appeared in Arrows for Change (September 1999, vol. 5, no. 2), is based mainly on the writer's participation in the conference, 'Women's Health - The Nation's Gain: An International Conference with a Special Focus on Older Women in Asia', organised by KK Women's and Children's Hospital and Tsao Foundation, Singapore, 5-7 July 1999. Nasreen Huq is the coordinator of ICPD Follow-up Activities and is also on the Programme Advisory Committee of the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW).