Thursday, December 30, 2010

The little things

Previously I promised you all a little something uplifting. I know a lot of what I wrote about while in Thailand was as difficult to read as it was to experience, but while I explored the evil that resides in places we may not expect, the good was there too. I was supported and encouraged by those closest to me and also by those I least expected. Happy New Year. And remember...

"The dreams we appear in are not only our own." - Gil Scot-Heron

It had been a long week. Several days in a Laos-Thai border market from morning until past sunset. This are not your friendly tourist market, but one where you sit and watch, observing and remembering, but unable to react to the things you see. Members of the military delivering children across the border to work. People offering you permission and warnings about your presence in the same breath. Walking down sweltering streets quietly assessing the children you see. I got so I could guess the age and nationality of a child with very good accuracy, whether he or she was selling fresh fish or sex.

So on our day outside of the market, we planned half a day in karaoke bars on the other side of the Mun river to see what we could find. The first had a reputation for having the youngest and most beautiful Lao girls. I sat and observed as three interviewers chatted with girls, reading stories through voice tone and hand gestures. Then we crossed the street to another karaoke bar, and the mamasan invited us to sit down for a chat. After we explained our goals, and that we were hopeful our research would lead to increased access to support and resources for young people there, including karaoke workers, she was receptive. She suggest that future programming include lessons in Thai manners and customs so her ladies could better serve customers. I threw up a little in my mouth. She then brought out 3 employees well over 18 to be interviewed, denying any who were underage. As it was the end of the day (and I could barely contain my feelings toward the mamasan) I decided to walk back to our guesthouse since I couldn't help with interviews.

As I approached the bridge to cross the river, the father of the owner of my guesthouse approached, jogging. He and I had the quasi-friendship of people who do not speak the same language. Since we both like running, we would greet each other, make running motions and smile occasionally. So he saw me walking, said something in Thai and made running motions. I motioned to my shoes, saying I couldn't run but I was walking home (all in English). He smiled and ran off. I continued crossing the bridge, contemplating the new construction and the karaoke bars as they turned on their twinkling Christmas lights for the evening.

Then I saw the father of the guesthouse owner again, this time on a bicycle. He approached me and motioned that I should ride it, watching as I mounted and rode off. He had run back to the guesthouse, pulled out a bicycle and brought it back to me, perhaps thinking that I had meant my feet hurt when I gestured to my shoes earlier. Although I was less than half a mile away, I smiled, thanked him. Even though I ripped one of my two pairs of pants on the chain and managed to get grease on them too, it made my week. Someone did something, unmotivated by personal gain, to help me and make my day easier. It really is the little things.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where is the line between harm reduction and facilitation of commercial sexual exploitation?

I had this cheery post ready for you. It was funny, witty even, if I may say so myself. No dice though. In addition to (hopefully) entertaining you, this blog lets me empty my brain of things that echo in my mind, and if I don't give them a way out they stay there. I'll try to make the next one happy.

So I'm sitting in my hotel room in Bangkok right now (my last night in Thailand) doing data entry. Yes my life is thrilling. Be jealous. One of the sub-groups of children we interviewed are karaoke workers, as you've already heard. To be specific, these are girls (and one or two lady-boys (I swear that's the PC term here)) who work in karaoke bars, yes there is singing, yes there is drinking, but you have to pay the girls to talk to you. You pay them a lot more to leave with you. We pretty much only talk to girls who are underage, or sometimes if they started working while underage. So I'm sitting here on what should be a fabulous and celebratory last night of research and getting to go home, reading about 15, 16, and 17 years olds who have sex with old men for money. I don't care how you feel about prostitution or sex work or whatever you want to call it. Somewhere there is a line. Having sex with children isn't ok. Why? Because they're just that, children. They are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to make good decisions, they cannot fathom the repercussions of their actions (let's start with the social stigma and move on to HIV). The power dynamic involved is inconceivable, these children cannot broach it, especially if their customers happen to be law enforcement (cough cough different post once I'm not in Thailand). If you want to pay for sex, you settle that with your god and your own moral code, and whatever country you're in will force you to abide by theirs. But you don't get to have sex with kids.

But you can. I almost regret that I've posted where I've been because someone is going to see this and go find these karaoke bars. Not that they're a secret. So let's say you're a bit of a do-gooder. You know this is happening, there are 10, 15, 20 karaoke bars, all with 5 - 10 girls, at least half of whom are under 18 (I'm estimating, humor me). What do you do? Many members of the public health community argue for harm reduction strategies when approaching sex work. This means you reduce the possible danger to participants: sex ed, easy access to condoms, HIV and STI testing, recourse if they are abused during the course of a transaction. A classic example of harm reduction is needle exchanges so injection drug uses don't exchange diseases. This appalls some people, they say "prostitution is immoral! it abuses women! it wrecks families! it spreads disease!" Okay. I hear you. But it's just not going anywhere, you won't end it. Or rather it is, you get rid of it in place x, places y and z are ready and waiting to set up complementary operations.

But what about harm reduction strategies, like promoting safer sex and HIV testing, when the "sex workers" are actually defined as victims? The people making money from their activities are participating in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Are you condoning it by offering them safe options for what they're doing (whether or not they believe they are choose to do it)? Oh you'd "rescue" them would you? How kind. What if I told you they didn't want to leave? What if I told you they feel proud of the money they send home. What if I told you that some of their parents not only know what they're doing, but encourage it because it's the only way they'll ever own land or a house or send one of their other children beyond the 3rd grade. What then?

Do you protect them to the extent you can? Give them "better options" with vocational training in sewing and beautician school, even though they make as much in 1-2 nights as most young people do in a month? Or do you see it as a pure violation of rights which you cannot support, even tacitly? I don't have an answer. Do you?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Judge not lest ye be judged

(I've been trying to think of a better title for this post, aware of the irony/inappropriateness of using judeo/christian proverbs and/or bible verses to describe happenings in a Buddhist country. But so it goes.)

I wish I could show you a map of where I am. So the main road of the town are a big T, on a peninsula. The bottom of the T is where the Khong and Mun rivers collide. The right side of the T takes you north-ish, through markets and out of town. The left side of the T takes you past restaurants, the fresh market, karaoke bars, over the Mun bridge, more karaoke bars and on to Phiboon Mansahan and Chong Mek (South-ish). Much of the commerce of the town takes place somewhere on this T, before the the Mun bridge.

I've been asking myself why the people here, who have been kind to me, are generally kind to each other, and the majority of whom are practicing Buddhists, allow so many (15 or so) karaoke bars to exist so close to their homes. (Also, when I say karaoke bars, these are brothels, not your neighborhood family karaoke spots.) So why don't the people of this town mind that there are karaoke bars, barely on the edge of their town? They see the girls from the bars in town buying food or at the beauty salon. Although the people in town and girls from karaoke rarely speak, the girls are obviously under 18. Why doesn't it bother anyone!?

But then I thought to myself, well what about me? I walk through Chinatown in San Francisco, past massage parlors, and do nothing. I study trafficking, I work in anti-trafficking sometimes. I know what happens in some of those bars or massage parlors. I know it happens in places all over my community. But I do nothing. On one hand it's not as close as it is here, on the other hand... I have no excuse. But what can I do? Maybe people here wonder the same thing... I asked someone about this and they described it as not wanting to make trouble. This is the way things are, there are karaoke bars, young Lao girls work in them, disrupting the balance would be a bad thing.

There is a sign at a local school that says "Do evil. Receive evil. Do good. Receive good." But what about when we do nothing? Where does that fall along the line of morals and ethics?

Monday, December 6, 2010

18 Candles

Sitting in a restaurant as she blew out the candles, I realized I was witnessing a relatively momentous occasion. She turned 18 today. Where I'm from 18 means voting, lottery tickets, cigarettes, the military, and a few other relatively inconsequential milestones. But here I was, witnessing the moment where (according to the international community), this girl had become a woman who was now responsible for her actions. She had gone from a child exploited for commercial sex to a sex worker in one day.

The buying and selling of sex is illegal in Thailand, but it is far from hidden. Given, I am in a region of the country that is known for its sex workers (often young girls from Lao PDR) and I've been told the number of karaoke bars in the small towns in the region is particularly high. I'm not yet sure of the proportion of sex workers here who are underage vs. those who are over 18, it may be around 50/50. 

But as this girl reached 18 and was now liable not only for for her actions, but judged capable of making her own decisions, it occurred to me that her range of choices were relatively few. People who work in karaoke here are very isolated, with few friends or even acquaintances outside of their job, their broker, or mamasan. This means that once you start working in karaoke, it would be hard to switch jobs while living in the same place, partially because of your reputation, and partly because your income would change so dramatically.

So what were this girl's choices really? She has been working in karaoke here for years. It is unlikely she completed school beyond elementary. She makes about 30 times more money than the girls her age who were waitresses at this restaurant. If the trends follow, she is probably here earning money to help her family in Lao, and if you ask her what she wants or where she wants to go, she'll probably say she wants money so she can leave and go home to her family.

And so I watched, sang, clapped and took pictures. She looked happy. I felt sad for her, not out of pity or judgement about how she earns money, but because she had missed the last years of her childhood, pretending to be an adult. Now she was an adult, and it was too late to go back.