by Dylan Foley and Andrea D’Asaro
middle of a crackdown on prostitution as part of a campaign against “social evils,” and the owner’s husband recently ran off with one of the girls who worked for her.
“My girls are free to leave the house, not like other girls in the area,” boasted the madam, sitting in front of her two room shack, located on a dirt road within the city limits. The young women and girls who work for her range in age from 15 to 25 and earn 70,000 dong per customer—a bit more than $6 dollars. From this, the madam subtracts a hefty amount for rent and food.
Several times a week, the madam and the girls and young women who work for her are visited by Tarn Hong Truong, an outreach worker for Save the Children UK, and a former prostitute herself. Truong distributes free condoms and teaches the women working in the area about safe sex.
Truong is a small, seemingly fearless woman, trained in the harm reduction model of AIDS prevention, in which moral judgments are suspended. Outreach workers make contact with people engaged in risky behavior—such as unsafe commercial sex or sharing needles while injecting drugs—and teach them to protect themselves. The first goal is to stop the spread of AIDS.
I met Truong for the first time in the offices of Save the Children, located in a spacious house near the center of Saigon. She talked frankly about her past. When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975, Truong’s father, an official in the Saigon regime, was sent to prison for what would be an 11 year sentence. Truong’s career as a sex worker started at this point—she sold her virginity at the age of 21 and became a prostitute to support her mother and two younger siblings. A few years later, she became addicted to drugs.
In 1992, Truong was still a commercial sex worker when she was approached by volunteers from the Save the Children. “I was skeptical about them,” said Truong, but they convinced her to become an outreach worker. At this point, her father became sick and she sought help from her new boss, Van Thanh Pham. “I went to Mr. Van’s house at 11 P.M., and borrowed money for medicine. Mr. Van and his wife were so kind… I felt I should change my life.” Truong stopped being a sex worker and became a staff member for Save the Children.
“I’d say 70 percent of the women who work as commercial sex workers do it to support their families or themselves. It is because of the poverty,” she said.
Truong took me to two brothels. The first was the brothel with the unlucky madam; she is friends with the brothel owner. The outhouse was truly outside: a deck hanging over a stagnant pool. The two rooms were dark and without ventilation. One woman was 25 and had been a sex worker for a year. The second was 17 and had a melancholy and tired expression on her face. A girl came out wearing a Donald Duck Tshirt. She was probably 15 years old. Truong had an easy manner with the madam, her women and her girls, talking about local gossip. She and the madam talked about the girl who ran off with the madam’s husband; she’d had a baby and tried to sell the child for $270. The madam complained to Truong about business. The police crack down has shut several other brothels in the area. As a result, there are fewer customers than usual. The madam said that her girls had sex with one to 10 customers a night.
Truong, the translator and I got back on our scooters and went to the second brothel. Four young women sat in front of a shack under an awning, trying to stay cool in the oppressive humidity of the prerainy season. They were heavily made up; several were wearing lingerie. One of them was getting a pedicure from a local woman. All four women had recently come from the countryside, and had been in Saigon for two to six months. Despite the crackdown, a fifth woman emerged from the shack with a soldier in uniform.
At lunch in a vegetarian restaurant, Truong recounts the story of how she saved a 13 year old girl from being sold to a pimp. The girl made her living selling lottery tickets on the street. Two days in a row, her tickets were stolen, a loss of $20 for the lottery company and almost a month’s salary for the girl. She was afraid to go back to her grandmother and stayed on the street. A 17 year old hustler and parttime sex worker found out about the girl’s plight and befriended her. She was planning to take the girl to a nearby beachfront resort to sell her to a pimp. Truong also got word of the girl’s situation and took her out for dinner. “The girl was still very naive and wouldn’t even look at me,” said Truong. She gained the girl’s confidence and returned her to her grandmother, who was so overjoyed, Truong said, she collected the money to pay back the lottery company.
According to the official government figures, there are 3,700 cases of HIV in Vietnam. Estimates by the World Health Organization put the actual figures at 100,000. According to Van Thanh Pham of Save the Children UK, the cases of HIV and AIDS in Vietnam are projected to jump to 500,000 by 1998.
The Vietnamese government observes a contradictory policy on AIDS prevention. They allow smallscale innovative programs to curb the spread of AIDS prevention education for sex workers and hypodermic needle exchanges for intravenous drug users. But in a crackdown on “morals” they arrest prostitutes and drug users, taking them away from the AIDS outreach that might help them.
In the face of such contradictions, Truong continues her outreach to commercial sex workers. On this particular morning, she was at the Save the Children headquarters, scrounging for clean clothes for a client—a sexually abused mute woman. The woman was living in a local park after serving a one year jail sentence for prostitution; again she was doing sex work to survive. The other sex workers on the street intervened with the woman’s clients, forcing the men to pay her the right price.
Truong took the woman to the other room, showing her through sign language how to put on a condom. She then scheduled another appointment with the woman, this time to try to find her a place to live. The woman’s face wore the pleased, embarrassed expression of someone who is not used to kindness.
The last time I saw Truong, she was in a good mood. “A friend of mine, a wealthy, gay woman is going to give me some money, maybe two million dong, [about $180]” she said, grinning. “If I can, I want to set up a house for women who want to stop working as prostitutes.”
DYLAN FOLEY, a freelance writer presently living in New York, has written frequently on internationalissues.
African Girls at Risk by Andrea D’Asaro
At age 14, Victoria fled to the african city of Accra in Ghana to escape sexual abuse at home. Ex ploited by a male “minder” and sold to other men in exchange for food and protection, Victoria became preg nant. Deserted by her pimp, she took to sleeping on the streets along with 10,000 other destitute children there.
Victoria is one of the more than one million children under 18 who are exploited through prostitution through out the world, according to United Nations International Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF). If sexism and the abuse of male power creates the climate for prostitution, it is poverty, abuse at home and lack of opportunity that force girls like Victoria onto the streets, where many become easy targets for pimps. Street children often turn to “survival sex” to pay for food or earn money for their families. Approxi mately one hundred million street children around the world start their days early in the morning, earning a mea ger income selling candy, shining shoes, picking rags, or engaging in petty crimes. “If they don’t earn enough for the day, some know they can always turn a trick,” says Marilyn Rocky, director of ChildHope International in New York.
Sex dealers increasingly seek young girls in the mistaken belief they are less likely to be HIV positive. Male customers sometimes believe sex with a girl will cure the infection or boost their virility; in reality, children are most vulnerable to HIV infection because of easily torn genitals, as well as a lack of power or education to insist on safe sex. One UNICEF estimate from Zambia finds HIV/AIDS infection among girls in the 1519 age group seven times higher than that of boys. Girls often fail to take precautions against AIDS because of lack of education, according to Rocky of Child Hope. “They think they’ll be protected against AIDS if they take an aspirin after having sex, for example.” The cycle con tinues as AIDS orphans become prostitutes to earn a living.
“Counting who is a prostitute and who isn’t is nearly im possible,” says Rocky. “Those who occasionally get paid for sex should be counted differently than those forced into the whorehouses of Sri Lanka or the Philippines.” Cultural dif ferences also make the problem hard to define, says Rocky, whose agency trains educators to help street kids around the world. “In some countries, you’re an adult at 13.
“The growing number of underage girls and boys lured into commercial sex work initiated a global conference on the issue last August, 1996. Experts from 125 countries at tacked the problem at the World Congress Against Com mercial Sexual Exploitation in Stockholm. UNICEF execu tive director Carol Bellamy, who spoke at the Congress, said among the reasons the sex trade flourishes are gender discrimination, rapid urbanization, growing poverty and the break up of the traditional family. The Congress re solved to boost awareness of the problem, step up legal measures to stop the sex trade, emphasize prevention and education, especially for girls, and provide programs to help exploited children.
In Africa, as in other developing countries, poor parents frequently send sons but not daughters to school, seeing the male role as breadwinner more important. Girls, denied education, health care and job opportunities are more at risk for sexual exploitation. Girls in subSaharan Africa often “take up with a ‘sugar daddy’ in order to pay their school fees,” according to a report by Maria Nkunika, di rector of an antiAIDS project in Zambia.
In many countries, agents will visit rural villages promising domestic jobs for girls who often can’t find other work, says Meg Gardinier, Executive Director of In ternational Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB) in North Ameri ca. “Those who find domestic work are often sexually abused by a husband or older brother; others are forced into brothels. Men abuse women and children because they can.
“Manhood initiations also encourage prostitution, says Rocky. “Fathers buy their sons young women as they emerge into manhood. In order for the boy to become a man, the girl must become a prostitute,” says Rocky, who travels the world evaluating ChildHope programs.
Combat forces refugees into hostile areas where women and children are forced to exchange sex for food, money and even relief supplies. In Liberia, ravaged by war since 1989, children as young as 10 are exploited by soldiers at military bases, according to a Save the Children report. “In warring nations like Rwanda, families are moving to the cities to earn a living and to find protection,” according to Rocky of ChildHope.
A number of programs are fighting back. The Undugu Society in Nairobi, Kenya, is cited by international agencies as a model program. Girls learn technical skills such as me chanics, sewing, carpentry, metal work, computer technolo gy and hair styling. The shelter finds that girls who take part in their sexeducation and jobskills program often de cide to leave the street and take up a trade.
A social worker from the Mamobi Refuge, a home for girls, found Victoria sleeping on a refuse heap in Accra, sick and eight months pregnant. Victoria moved into the Refuge home, set up with help from UNICEF, with 11 preg nant girls and young mothers. The Refuge has provided 140 girls with skills training, AIDS and family planning, counseling, pre and postnatal care, and check ups for the babies. “Without us, girls give birth on the street, alone and in pain,” says the Reverend Patrick Shanahan, who helps direct the Refuge. “Some don’t even realize they’re preg nant until they give birth.”
After a month at the Refuge, Victoria had a healthy boy at a UNICEF funded clinic next door. Victoria stayed at the Refuge for two more months and then returned to her vil lage to live with relatives. However, as an unskilled, uned ucated teen mother, she may easily fall victim to sexual ex ploitation again. Programs for girls like Victoria often fail to return these girls to society due to the stigma girls carry from living on the street and selling their bodies,” says Gardinier of ICCB.
“People feel street children can’t be trusted in the work place. They see girls as damaged goods.” Such girls often end up on the streets again because of this stigma, said Gardinier—and because of the big money they can earn. In Dakar, Senegal, for example, street girls report they can earn up to $90 a day as prostitutes, but only $17 a day beg ging. What’s most needed is a third choice.
A Half Million Teen Prostitutes by Andrea D’Asaro
A 1994 UNICEF REPORT DESCRIBES THE START OF AN evening’s work of a Brazilian teen prostitute: “It’s after 9 P.M. near the docks in the port city of Recife, Brazil. A girl of about 15 emerges from the shadows, half walking, half dancing toward a group of foreign sailors….Her eyes are red and glazed from the glue she in hales; her forearms are scarred from selfinflicted wounds. As she approaches, the sailors eye each other and begin to follow her…”
In Latin America, as in other parts of the world, 70 to 90 percent of prostitutes come from abusive backgrounds, says Sara Freidman, a writer and consultant for UNICEF. Sexual abuse in the family often leads to child prostitution. “In every country, abuse tne home often leads to the child being on the street,” says Freidman.
Changes in family life lead to sexual abuse in the home and on the street, agrees Gar dinier of ICCB. “Mothers without husbands will link up with a boyfriend who abuses their daughters. Girls may flee to the streets where boys can shine shoes, but girls are more likely to be exploited.”
Such is the case in Brazil, where an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 teens work as prostitutes, according to UNICEF. Brazil has the secondlargest child prostitution problem after Thailand and the world’s thirdlargest number of AIDS cases. Public health officials describe AIDS as a “time bomb”among street children in Brazil. Alternatives to the sex trade are not easy to come by, says Rocky. “As a prostitute, girls can make $100 a night. As a seamstress, they make as little as two cents an hour.”
Outreach programs find they must start by rebuilding girls’ self esteem, says Anna Vasconcelos, director of Pas sage House, a job and education program in Recife, Brazil. “No one in society likes them, so how can they start to like themselves?” she has written. “The same society which has no money to pay these girls a salary has money to pay then for their bodies. —A.D.
The U.S. in Denial by Andrea D’Asaro
I N THE U.S., “PEOPLE DENY CHILD PROS titution is a problem; they don’t want to believe it’s happening,” says Susan Breault, assistant director of the Paul & Lisa Program for exploited youth, based in Essex, Connecticut. Though UNICEF estimates that 300,000 juveniles in the U.S. are involved in prostitution, Breault and other advocates say the number is “closer to one million.”
As in other countries, American teens often fall into prostitution after fleeing from abusive families. At age 9, Varee Suthireung started running away from her San Antonio, Texas, home to escape beatings and sexual abuse by her stepfa ther, a serviceman. Her mother, a Thai laundry woman, didn’t protect her daughter in a household where alcohol reigned. Suthireung’s parents finally gave up custody of their daughter at age 13, but she ran away from her placements—foster homes, juvenile detention centers and state schools—and survived on the streets through prostitution.
“After the first time it was so easy. I’d trade sex for hamburgers and fries. Guys were more than willing,” said Suthireung in a 1993 interview. By the time she was 15, Suthireung was selling her body to support a drug habit. The following year, after a night of drugs, drinking, and being passed from one man to another, she tried to kill herself by driving a motorcycle into a brick wall. Miraculously, she survived and moved in with a drug dealer and pimp until, strung out on heroin, she could no longer sell her body. “They couldn’t dress me up anymore. One day, the key didn’t fit the lock.”
When Suthireung became pregnant for the second time and diagnosed with HIV, she finally kicked drugs and prostitution for a new life. She moved to Philadelphia and became an activist for We The People, a Philadelphia AIDS ad vocacy organization. She staffed the hot line, and gave talks about her life as a prostitute to students and social workers. As she grew weak from AIDS, she found adoptive homes for her two children; she wrote them a letter telling her story before she died a year ago.
In the U.S., as in many countries, child prostitution is illegal, but police departments often lack financial and social re sources to crack down on prostitution rings, says Teresa Klingensmith of the Center for Missing and Exploited Chil dren in Arlington, Virginia. “You need enough staff to handle the load and then must refer children, who are often run aways, to foster care or shelters.”
In New York City, the Paul & Lisa program works with two officers from the Vice Unit, says Breault. “They let us know when a juvenile is trying to get off the streets and when pimps are moving juveniles to a new location.” Prosecution of pimps is tough because prostitutes, usually girls, are unwilling to testify—a necessary step for juvenile prosecutions, says Breault. “If a girl turns a pimp over, she could be killed, beaten or punished severely.”
Efforts to protect girls from sexual abuse and exploitation are being compli cated through the proliferation of tech nology, particularly the unfettered nature of the Internet, which allows pedophiles to “market to a broad audience,” says Teresa Klingensmith, legislative counsel for the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “People can send and down load thousands of pages of child porn or carry it around on a disk.”
In the U.S. it’s illegal to possess, receive, or mail child pornography. With millions of users accessing the free wheeling Internet around the world, however, it’s nearly impossible to control what users send and receive.
The U.S. Congress in an attempt to regulate such Internet exchanges, last year heard testimony from 14year old Donelle Gruff, who was stalked by a man she met through a bulletin board chat room. Exploited children are fre quently photographed by pedophiles during sexual encounters, then their pic tures are sold through the Internet. The lack of legislation and the difficul ty in monitoring the Internet challenge both investigators and lawyers. Ron O’ Grady, International Coordinator for End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) questions who is a criminal when pornography is transmitted elec tronically. “Is the criminal the one who places the material on the Net, or is it the server who transmits the message; or is it the one who downloads the material onto their computer? The person sending the material may send it from a country where it is legal to do so, but it may go to a country where it is illegal, so who deter mines the standard for the crime?” —A.D.
ANDREA D’ASARO ,writes on women’s issues from her home in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.