Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sex Trafficking. Inside The Business of Modern Slavery.

This is a book written by Siddharth Kara, a former investment banker who is now active in the anti-slavery movement. The book looks at human sex trafficking both from a moral/ethical point of view and as business enterprises or a market for commercial sex. The latter approach at first struck me as callous, but I quickly realized how useful it would be, because it tells us much about the sources of those trafficked, about the motivations of those who trade in slaves and about the lax enforcement of anti-trafficking rules. Put very simply, prostitution in unwilling human beings is extremely profitable: the children and women working in the establishments only need to be fed, disciplined, stopped from escaping and ultimately brain-washed, whereas the police and other authorities (such as border authorities) can usually be bribed to look elsewhere if they are not already among the eager customers of the establishments.

To see how the market model works here, consider that all markets have people willing and able to buy and others willing and able to sell. This particular market is no different, though it might be an illegal one. Illegal markets are harder to study, and Kara ran many risks while trying to interview participants in them. Information is also harder to acquire when markets are illegal: no paperwork needs to be submitted to the tax authorities, no regulators need to be appeased, and workers in brothels may be punished for talking to someone like Kara. All this means that the data the book gives us must be viewed as very preliminary and partly based on extrapolation from very few cases, though some countries he visited have legal prostitution of certain types and more data was available. Note that sexual slavery itself is never legal, though.

To give you an idea of the benefits Kara derives from using the market based model, I will quickly summarize his findings on the two sides of the market: the demand and the supply sides. On the demand side of the final market are the men who are willing and able to pay for commercial sexual services. Kara estimates that the percentage of men who use such services may be as low as between six and nine percent of all men. But this number would be enough to 'employ' the whole number of estimated sexual slaves. When the price of sex drops, more men will frequent prostitutes and more men already frequenting prostitutes will do it more often. One consequence of recent sexual slavery is of course a drop in such prices: sexual slaves don't get a cut in the profits of the establishment and this means that the prices can be lowered while still making a good profit for the owners. Kara found exactly this to have happened in Mombay where now lower caste and poorly paid men can afford commercial sex because prices have dropped as much as fifty percent in the last decade or so.

The final demand side is of course the reason why sexual slavery ultimately exists. If no man was willing to buy commercial sex this particular market would wither away and the basis for trafficking decrease. (Slaves might still be trafficked for other purposes such as working in factories or commercial begging).

The supply of commercial sexual services is the final supply side of these markets. The women and children (and perhaps men, too, though Kara doesn't mention them) who sell commercial sex are not necessarily slaves or ex-slaves. But when they are enslaved, the real seller in those markets is the person or the organization which owns them, not the slave herself. She's more akin to the product that is being sold than an entrepreneur, and she herself has been bought in intermediary markets: the markets of sexual trafficking.

These are the markets which take a child or a young woman from her home, break her if needed, and then deposit her in a brothel area of the final market. A part of this market consists of the physical transportation of the slaves, often across country borders, and sometimes a resale of slaves by those who 'gather' them from their homes to the transporting organizations. The latter sounds a lot like the slave markets of the past, the ones we have all read about.

Where are the slaves initially from? How did they end up as slaves? Kara looks at several areas which provide most of the slaves: Nepal, Thailand, Moldava, Albania and Nigeria.

All these countries share certain characteristics: Extreme poverty in the specific source areas and great contempt for women as a sex, with concomitant sexual and physical abuse of girls and women. In Nepal daughters are often sold to sexual traffickers by poor parents who may or may not believe the stories about a good marriage or a carpet-weaving job in India. In poor Moldava women are entrapped with promises of house-cleaning or waitressing jobs in Western Europe. In Thailand the youngest daughters are traditionally seen as responsible for their parents' old-age security, even though uneducated young women in poor areas have no other relevant career track than prostitution. The story in Nigeria is similar, combined with the fact that most trafficked women there come from certain minority tribes.

Some women know what might be happening to them. Others are taken by complete surprise. But once they are in the hands of a trafficker all hope is lost, because the traffickers use gang rape, withdrawal of food and water, drugs and alcohol and physical violence to make them compliant. Note also that in most cases the women end up in an area where they know nobody, where they don't speak the language and where they probably shouldn't legally be. This makes it almost impossible to seek help. Even if a slave manages to run away and seek help, she usually gets sent back home where her lost virginity makes her unmarriageable, where jobs for women don't exist in any case and where she's set up for retrafficking.

Neither are the authorities usually well equipped to fight trafficking. Many of the source areas really don't care about women's rights and such or if they do care about them there's no money for enforcement. Add to that bribery almost everywhere and you can see why the organizations who fight to abolish slavery really need our money and our voices.

I tried to imagine how being a sexual slave would feel, and how the incentives given to her mean that she'd be most likely to survive if she adopted a certain kind of a Stockholm Syndrome. Note that in most cases the women are told that they owe the pimp or brothel keeper money (a lot of money), and that they will be free once they have worked away that debt. This gives the women an incentive to work hard (not telling you what that means here), because they want to be ultimately free. Some do reach that point of freedom. It means that they get to keep almost half of what they earn or that they can set up as prostitutes on their own. Others get resold to another brothel where they are told that they now owe the new owner a lot of money. Then there's all the alcohol and drugs, available from day one, to entrap you in a new way, and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases which are rife among the prostitutes in India, for example.

It's a horrible life. Kara mentions that one estimate puts the life expectancy of a sexual slave at around thirty-five years.

How can all this be affected? Where can we begin? Kara points out that making prostitution more expensive for the final customers can help, and that could be achieved by stricter law enforcement and by making the seeking of a prostitute a crime. The trafficking itself could be made less profitable by stricter law enforcement and stiffer penalties for those who get caught. But I wanted to see more about improving the lives of women in the source areas, about better education for girls and a greater valuation of their humanity. So sad that all that is probably harder than a direct attack on sexual trafficking.