There is no doubt that prostitution and the sex industry in Thailand are extensive and well established. However, the Thai industry is not unique nor does it function solely within its own borders, but rather relies on an international sex trade that crosses national borders and violates human rights along racial, socioeconomic, gender, and age lines. The trafficking of women and children is driven by profits from the sex trade and leads to violations of the right to freedom from violence, and to pursue free and healthy lives. Remedies require an international and multilateral approach in order to rectify the problem, which will likely take many years of efforts and cross-border cooperation.
The rights of children are often the most controversial when it comes to human rights violations, particularly in regards to child prostitution that is one component of the international sex trade. In the late 1990s numerous reports from both government and non-government bodies commented on the growing problem of child prostitution and pornography in Thailand, customers being both domestic and foreign tourists from places such as Western Europe, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. Article 34 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child makes specific reference to the state party’s duty to protect children from the “exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices.” In 1996 the Prostitution and Suppression Act was created in Thailand to address such human rights abuses and imposed heavy fines and prison sentences for traffickers, customers, and parents who allow their children to enter prostitution. However, the problem persists, with children from poor and migrant families remaining among the most vulnerable and parents sometimes forcing their own children into prostitution.
Poverty and socioeconomic status is another key element in examples of human rights violations that are occurring in the international sex industry. Laws may exist in hotspot countries that adhere to international covenants on human rights, but when the basic rights of food, shelter, and access to an education are also lacking, the effectiveness of a law to stop prostitution diminishes. In cases where the sex industry becomes intertwined with a booming tourist industry, as it has in Thailand, those in a desperate situation may feel compelled or may even be forced or manipulated into an occupation that carries with it many risks, such as violence, incarceration, and serious health risks. Until the governments in Thailand and other nations where prostitution occur begin to address their people’s right to an “adequate standard of living”, the opportunity to exploit those from a lower socioeconomic background will continue and rights violations in the international sex industry will remain.
Playing into this exploitation is cultural and racial discrimination where migrants and victims of trafficking are exploited in the sex industry, and sex tourism is driven by customers from wealthy nations who are attracted to “exotic and erotic” stereotypes. Women and children trafficked from the Shan States of Burma where civil conflict makes them particularly vulnerable, is just one example of how certain cultural groups are vulnerable to rights violations in the sex industry. In developing nations like those in Southeast Asia and even Western European countries, those involved in the sex industry possess the ability to control those seeking political or economic “refuge or security.” There seems to be a tendency of customers of prostitution to favor women or children outside of their own cultural groups which leads to further discrimination along racial lines in cases of human rights violations. There is also evidence of this even within the United States, where minority populations are over-represented in the sex industry.
Linked to these racial and cultural issues is gender discrimination of females, and in particular foreign females, comprising a disproportionate number of victims of human rights violation in the sex industry. In many countries and civilizations throughout history, women have been considered inferior to men and it has been difficult for them to overcome deeply ingrained gender discrimination that has sprung from these historical situations. International conventions have been created to address such discrimination and declarations have also been released to address the specific issue of violence against women. As a result of this historical violation of human rights, women have become especially vulnerable to human rights abuses, particularly in the sex industry and are overwhelmingly the majority of victims in this category. In Thailand, some sex workers have organized themselves into labor and civil rights groups to address violations and provide education and protection for sex workers. The Empower Foundation is one such group who recognizes the need for some women to work in the sex industry and is taking proactive steps to make sure that while ever this group exists, there is someone looking out for their basic rights.
Human rights violations that arise because of the international sex industry have been researched, discussed, and acknowledged for many years, particularly in vulnerable regions such as Thailand and Southeast Asia. Numerous reports and declarations have been issued to try to combat violations in the sex industry against women, children, and poor victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Suggested remedies such as tighter sanctions against countries involved in trafficking and the restriction of asylum admissions have served to increase trafficking as people attempt to flee their desperate situation, only to end up as victims of humans rights abuse in sex industries. In addition, the link between trafficking and prostitution and sexual abuse must be more clearly established in international declarations in order to avoid confusion or misinterpretation when offending nations move forth in establishing legislation or domestic policy. Regional cooperation in hotspots is a key component of success, and while there are already such initiatives in motion, it is evident that more cooperation is needed and that it must move beyond regional initiatives to international cooperation, as traffickers and exploiters take advantage of an increasingly globalized world. Capitalist globalization has also led to the industrialization of the sex industry, creating a situation of supply and demand that drives the industry and leads to further cases of sexual exploitation and human rights violations. Underlying the many factors influencing victims to enter this industry is the violation of the basic right to an adequate standard of living. As long as this underserved and desperate population remains in both underdeveloped and developed nations, there will always be vulnerable victims willing to overlook the legality of prostitution or human rights abuses if it means providing basic sustenance for them and their families.
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