KASAMA Vol. 10 No. 3 / July-August-September 1996 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

"This industry sells women, abducts women, kills women"

The following excerpts are transcribed from a tape of the Asia Focus program on the Philippines sex trade, an ABC Radio Australia International Service broadcast on December 20, 1995. The host, LARRY MARSHALL, talked with KATHLEEN MALTZAHN a Uniting Church worker who had been working for three years with prostituted women in Manila.

Graphic: by Rene Aranda in Migrante Jul/Dec 1992

WE HAD A VAN, literally. We chose that because the women are very mobile. And we found that they are also very alienated in lots of ways, so going to a permanent centre was something most women didn't do. So, we decided to take our programs to them. We just had a van, comics in Tagalog, tea and coffee and we would sit with them and have education sessions. Maybe do a little newsletter with them, talk about issues such as vagrancy, police harassment and other issues that they were experiencing.

Often people expect that prostituted women are mainly young girls coming from the provinces and in the past, especially with the US bases, that was true. But more and more the women are coming from everywhere. A lot are from Manila, only some are from the provinces. And I think that is one of the things that says poverty levels are not dropping. I don't think you would have such a large number of people in Manila itself involved in prostitution if things were getting better.

For the vast majority of women who work in little bars or even medium-sized bars or on the streets, it's basically a hand-to-mouth existence, and sometimes not even that. And I think once they get in there, the level of brutality they experience and the level of risk they face in terms of their health, means that it is pretty much a losing proposition. But, one that is very hard to get out of once you are actually there.

The vast majority of customers would be Filipinos, though if you broke it down into pesos or dollars, probably the big earners would be through foreign customers. And there's certainly a booming sex industry, for example with Japanese, Australian, and German tourists. And also out of the country - a lot of the women are exported to places like Japan - and that's a whole other story.

I think prostitution has become a part of male culture in the Philippines. It's not uncommon for a young boy who's 16 to be initiated into sex by taking him to prostitutes. It's part of that way of seeing one group of women as 'all right' and one group of women as 'not'. So these are fairly normal men who perhaps are decent to their wives and children, etc. but see prostitutes as a group of women who can, who should, fulfil their sexual or any other needs.

On the streets themselves it is actually quite frightening in some ways for the women. Bars have their own dangers but they have some measure of protection, only limited, but some measure of protection. On the street, the women have no protection. And they get harassed by the police to a very large extent.

Graphic: by Sandra Torrijos in Isis Clipart vol.1 no.1

They certainly have to pay them money! Especially at Christmas, when police need to buy their kids presents or when it's time for their kids to go to school, they'll be really extracting bribes. They also demand free sex and often they rape the women - I mean, if there is a distinction between the two. They are forced to give favours to the police all the time.

Drugs are a problem, though not in the way they're often understood to be. People think women enter prostitution because they're drug addicts. And actually, without exception, it tends to be the other way around. I haven't yet met any women in the Philippines who've said they were drug addicts, or whatever, and then went into prostitution. Yet most will admit that when they're in prostitution they are addicted. They say it's a way of coping with things you don't want to do, but you have to do. And it's often something that the industry of prostitution arranges. So, it's not uncommon for women who are entering prostitution, especially in the bars as dancers or something, to be given either alcohol or drugs that they're not accustomed to so that they can dance, strip, have sex with people.

Abortion is a huge problem. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines and there is a very strong lobby to keep it illegal. But despite that, a huge number of people have abortions and, actually, the majority are married women. But, for the women in prostitution who aren't married there is still a high incidence of very unsafe abortions. And a lot of the women don't know how their body works at all. So there's no point saying, "do this, do that, use contraception in a certain way", because they don't understand how they get pregnant in the first place.

It's a number of issues: It's lack of education; it's women leaving school very young; it's a side of Catholicism where sexuality is seen as nasty and dirty and not something women should have anything to do with. It's also to do with resources, fairly limited resources in some ways, and when family planning, as it's called, is offered to women it is often not in a way that's accessible and understandable - and not with much choice. It is either forced on women or not given.

Obviously there's a lot of stigmatisation. In terms of language when you want to abuse someone in the Philippines you say, 'You're a child of prostitute - putang ina.' There's a part of the culture that says that prostitutes are dirty, they're bad, etc., etc. At the same time there is also a level of understanding where people will say, 'it's because they're poor'.

It's been interesting in the last few months when the women's movement has done a lot of lobbying on the issue, people have now started to move from both those positions, and started to say, "Maybe we don't need to look at the women as much, maybe we should look at this industry - who sells women, who abducts women, who kills women, who says that men should always have access to women's bodies." So I think there's been a move towards looking at the whole issue of the women's human rights, and looking at the structures that prostitute them, rather than asking what sort of women they are - looking at the role of the men as well as the women.

The prospects [to leave prostitution] for a lot of women are fairly bleak partly because of the battering that they get physically, both in terms of picking up sexually transmitted diseases and also because a lot of women are routinely beaten by their customers. And emotionally and psychologically they get fairly battered. So a lot of them don't see many options for leaving and they tend to blame themselves. They say, 'I'm stubborn, I'm hard headed, it's my fault I can't leave'. Whereas, we would tend to say they've been sexually and physically abused, and that has an effect on women. And before expecting people to be able to get out of it, you need to process that. There's a lot of women on the streets who are old - I mean in terms of prostitution, late 30s, 40s - and they may become pimps. They may just end up on the side of the road hoping that the other women will look after them.

Graphic: by Sandra Torrijos in Isis Clipart vol.1 no.1

I think the response of the Ramos government, like every other government since and including Marcos, has been to encourage it because it is a big dollar earner through sex tourism. And, as I said, it has become part of the culture. It's an invisible issue in many ways and although Mayor Lim made an issue of it in cleaning up Manila, that was just sort of pushing it out a little bit. It certainly wasn't trying to eradicate prostitution. It wasn't trying to work with the women to improve their lives. It was simply to make a fairly nasty situation look a bit nicer without doing away with essential services, in the eyes of a lot of people.

There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Filipino women in Japan called 'entertainers', some trained as dancers, some not. The majority are involved in prostitution. A number have been brutally killed, many are imprisoned, unable to get out. And there are well-documented stories of a lot of women going mad, etc. There is a fairly nasty situation in Japan.

And, when the women send money home, the government scrapes a fair bit off the top - as they do with all their overseas contract workers.

But more recently, Ramos has been forced, in a sense, to take a position - interestingly through an Australian-Philippine initiative. There were about 15 Australian women who visited the Philippines recently for an exposure tour, a fact-finding mission into sex tourism involving Australian men. When they went to Angeles, the former site of a US base where many Australians have set up shop, they were met by a hotel owner, a New Zealander, saying that they would have to leave his premises where they had booked in, that they were trouble makers, etc. etc. It created a huge furore in the Philippines because here you had foreign nationals telling a group of largely Filipino women, including Australian women, to leave, that looking into sex tours was trouble making.

And in many ways the local government was shamed into trying to do something. The response was to round up all the women, cart them away in their bikinis, all half naked, and charge them. Photographers were there, who captured that, put it on the front page of several of the national newspapers. And suddenly, for the first time, there were people coming from everywhere saying, "What is this? Why are we victimising women? What is this government doing about prostitution? Why is it letting our children and our women be sold to the highest bidder?"

Ramos very quickly decided that he needed to set up a task force on foreign sex syndicates - which no one has heard anything about since. But, it also coincided with his visit to Australia, so he was sort of forced to say a few things about that.

There have been attempts in the last few years to really look at international trafficking and, of course, national trafficking - because you can't have one without the other - and to look at [how] the links go all over the place, from Nepal to India, from Russia to the Philippines. There are now Russian women in the Philippines in prostitution, Thai women all over Europe. Apparently now, half the women in prostitution in Amsterdam are foreigners. So the whole trade in women from Third World countries is increasing, and as that happens, the groups are trying to respond. But one of the difficult things is that the sex industry, the prostitution industry, is incredibly wealthy. Your voice can be lost when you are fighting the big prostitution dollars, the big pornography dollars.

The law that's now in place that can prosecute Australian nationals in Australia for sex crimes against 16 year olds and below, is very important. Some members from the Centre for Philippine Concerns in Australia were in Canberra several weeks ago and were told that it would be possible to have stickers on every Australian passport for people going to the Philippines saying that there is this law and if you do abuse children, if you are a paedophile, you can be prosecuted. I think that's very important. In Australia, it's linked up with the whole struggle of Filipino women to look into related issues such as "mail-order-brides" and "serial sponsorship". All these efforts are linked up to saying that women should not be commodities available for purchase at the whim of men.

Kathleen Maltzahn is an Australian who has lived in Manila for some years. She is a co-worker of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and is now doing postgraduate studies at the University of Melbourne. Kathleen is a member of Women's Action Supporting Filipinas and SPAN.