Dr. Lea Ackermann
Sex Tourism and Organized Trafficking in Women from Countries of the Third World: Extent and Underlying Causes

The fact that each year hundreds of thousands of Germans travel to countries of the so-called Third World is a sign of an unhealthy economic development: Germans and other holiday-makers from Western countries can afford holidays in countries of the Third and Fourth World, they have both the money and the leisure to do so. The people of the Third World have been subject to a development in recent years which has driven their countries and them as individuals into increasing misery. Falling commodity prices on world markets, the exodus of farmers from the countryside, one-sided subsidies for export-oriented sectors of the economy, neglect of the subsistence economy and rural areas, but also mass tourism have all contributed to this development. The poverty on the one side enables the rich on the other side to profit from the misery and to enjoy cheap vacations in these "holiday paradises".

Tourism in Third World countries has been expanding for years; the number of women and children who are becoming prostitutes for the tourists is also rising. The connection between mass tourism, sex tourism and the epidemic-like spread of AIDS has been proven. In order to back this up with figures, I shall quote from the study "Context and extent of trafficking in foreign women and girls" which appeared in a series published by the Federal Ministry of Women and Youth, vol. 8, Stuttgart 1992. I prepared this study with Dr. Dagmar Heine-Wiedenmann.

"Thailand had over five million tourists in 1990, 70 % of the visitors are men. Quantitative studies have shown that between 50% and 70% of male tourists come mainly for sexual contacts."

Since 1982, tourism has been Thailand's number 1 source of foreign exchange. With an annual rise of 20%, foreign currency income amounted to around 6 million DM in 1988. Nevertheless, it must not be overlooked that, according to a study carried out at the University of Bangkok, 56 % of the foreign currency income of 1987 was spent on imports, interest payments and profits and thus flowed out of the country again.

The tourist industry in Thailand dominates at the expense of agriculture which is neglected by economic policy. More and more people, particularly from the very poor rural North of the country, are pouring into the cities. The number of prostitutes in Thailand is estimated to be at least 1.5 million women. That figure has risen in direct proportion to the number of tourists. Like in most developing countries, prostitution is officially not allowed in Thailand.

In view of the enormous foreign exchange income and because many politicians and respected business people are involved in the sex industry, the whole issue of prostitution was treated with great reserve for a long time. Correspondingly, resistance from certain political groups and sections of the population to tackling the AIDS problem was high, particularly in recent years. Politicians who sided strongly with the AIDS campaigners were treated disparagingly for fear that the sex industry would be jeopardised. A good two years ago that began to change slightly. Thailand has a higher proportion of people infected with AIDS than any other Asian country.

The Philippines had over a million tourists in 1990; 27,000 were German and 67% of those were male. The country is impoverished and deeply in debt. Although here studies prove that only a small amount of the foreign currency brought in by tourists actually stays in the country, great efforts are being made to expand tourism. Even today the number of women working as prostitutes is estimated at over 500,000 and the number of children in prostitution is alarmingly high. Another devastating development is the export of the female labour force. To accomodate foreign countries nothing is done when work contracts with these emigrant women are broken or when they are forced into illegal situations or prostitution. Many concessions are made, which are actually against the law, simply because these women working abroad earn the most foreign exchange, followed by that acquired from tourism.

Another highly sought after holiday destination for German tourists is Kenya. In 1990, 695,000 foreign tourists came to the country, the Germans heading the list with 123,000. Here too, poverty forces women to earn money through prostitution. The number of people infected with AIDS here has risen constantly in recent years. The official figures for AIDS victims lag way behind reality. In 1990 World AIDS Day was held for the third time. The newspapers carried reports of 500,000 AIDS sufferers.

The Dominican Republic has become the absolute "hit" with package tour operators. This Caribbean island has only been on offer to German tourists for a few years but by 1990 German tourists already totalled 100,000. 130,000 Germans are expected in 1991, "sensational bargains" will guarantee that. Other Caribbean islands are also registering growth rates of between 30% and 100%. The Dominican Republic has 30,000 unemployed and between 20% and 40% under-employed people. Yet 500,000 workers have been "exported," primarily to the U.S.A. The new immigration restrictions imposed by the U.S.A. will limit this source of foreign exchange so that the Caribbean island is now placing all its hopes in tourism. Female unemployment in the cities is twice as high as male unemployment. Jobs as domestic staff are so badly paid that it is impossible to live on them. Thus the high number of women who are forced to turn to prostitution is not surprising. The women commute between the Caribbean islands or are hired by touts in the capital city and taken abroad. There was a tragic accident in 1987: 28 of 60 prostitutes, who were crammed into containers to be shipped from St. Martin to St. Thomas, suffocated.

According to official estimates, at least 6,000 Dominican women work in Haiti and in European cities. The state does nothing to prevent trafficking in women. The foreign exchange income from the money the exiled Dominicans send home is already higher than the proceeds from sugar exports.

The Brazilian embassy says that 100,000 German tourists visit Brazil each year. Brazilian women are also traded on the international marriage market in Germany. In order to get round the obstacle of "smuggling people in" (Article 90 of the Aliens Act) many marriage brokers offer a trip to Germany as part of the deal.

Prostitution is against the law in Thailand, the Philippines and Kenya. In Mombasa, for example, the police conduct raids at least once a month. The women are taken into custody and/or "made to cough up money" for "loitering with intent to prostitution". The maximum penalties are a fine of up to 200 DM or up to six months in prison. The sex tourists get off scot-free, they are neither arrested nor "made to cough up." Many concessions are made to them to avoid putting them off in any way. After all they bring in the desired foreign currency. One concession the government has made is to set up a clinic where prostitutes can be examined for venereal diseases. They have to go there every two weeks and if they are healthy they receive a green card. They have to show this card to the hotel porters. An African woman is not otherwise allowed into a hotel without a male escort, particularly not into "good" hotels. This is an example of discrimination against African women in the African country of Kenya. Tourists bring in foreign currency which seems to guarantee them a free rein to do what they like. The tourist, and particularly the sex tourist, comes from one of the rich Western countries, to a Third World country, where the vast majority of the people live in abject poverty and misery. Even if the tourist has had to save hard or borrow the money for his holiday, he will try to show off his supposed wealth in Africa or Asia. He can show his own worth to the poor people there and increase his self-confidence. He believes that there must be something superior about being German if so many Germans can make such a trip. No doubt many tourists return from their holidays with this arrogant and unrealistic view. This attitude does not contribute to greater understanding between peoples but to the xenophobia which is horrifying more and more Germans.

Tourists are the ambassadors of the rich world. They are seen as representatives of their world and observed as such: they are not all clever and well-educated, but nevertheless they have money. And so the inhabitants of these poorer countries think that the tourists earn their money easily back home. For they work long, hard hours and yet have little money. They barely earn enough to survive. They walk to save the bus fare. They often live in slums without water or electric light. A fantasy world is created for the tourists which the natives can only dream of but which they help to finance.

There are many mechanisms of exploitation which are responsible for the misery of the people in the so-called Third World: the guests of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation will be very familiar with most of them. It is material poverty and patriarchal structures which drive women into destitution. In this situation a husband from the rich West or a job in Europe or America seems like the way to escape misery and poverty.

Very often the women do not realize until later just how high a price they have paid. Trafficking in women takes the form of sex tourism, international marriage brokering and illegal job recruitment. The women are treated as if they were goods. The tourism industry, for example, does business both openly and clandestinely with women. The hotels are specially geared to it. Sometimes married couples are warned: "This very lively hotel is not suitable for married couples." The travel consultant "Thailand/Burma" encourages the undecided: "As a man travelling alone no-one may begrudge you the pleasure of finding a Thai girlfriend during your stay in the country. Don't let yourself be driven crazy by the nagging of some women's groups who are eager to see the Thai women as being exploited ...".

Many a sex tourist brings a woman home with him as if she were a holiday souvenir. Very often these women come to our contact centre for trafficked women "Solwodi - Solidarity with Women in Distress." For instance, a man from Cologne brought a woman he had met on the beach back with him from his holiday in Cameroon. She had been selling homemade cakes and seemed to be a good worker who would cause him no trouble. He lived alone in Germany and had to look after his sick, dependent father. He married the woman from Cameroon and brought her back to Germany. She was supposed to keep house for him, look after his father and be a loving wife. In Germany he was ashamed of his black wife. At most she was allowed out on the street with him in the evening. He couldn't talk to her. The language course she wanted to enrol in for was too expensive, he said. He gave her no money. He did all the shopping himself. His father needed constant care and so he locked the woman in the flat with the father. For four years she went along with this and then she ran away. He didn't mind at all and lodged a complaint to the aliens registration authority who took her residence permit away.

An unemployed house painter from Bonn came up with a similar idea. He had just come out of prison, took out a loan and flew to the Dominican Republic. There he married a very young woman and brought her back to Germany to his one-room basement flat. His plan was simple: the woman would work for him in Germany as a prostitute and he could start a new comfortable life. The woman fled and wandered the streets of Bonn lost and confused. An attentive passer-by spoke to her. She was brought to Solwodi by women from the Catholic Women's social unit.

The list of shattered hopes and degrading experiences which women have suffered could be continued ad infinitum. These two examples shall suffice here to represent many others. International marriage brokering is a modern form of trafficking in women, even if the Koblenz County Court seemed to decide to the contrary in a judgement of 1990 which pronounced: "Marriage brokering does not constitute trafficking in human beings." The case concerned arranging marriages for Philippine women. But the judgement can only be properly understood if one realizes that the term trafficking in human beings is a set legal term, under which it is a criminal act punishable under law to forcibly induce someone to prostitution. Marriage deals with women from Asia, South America or the Eastern Bloc do not come under trafficking in human beings as such but nevertheless often involve a form of trafficking in women which is not legal. This activity contravenes Article 92 of the Aliens Act if the foreign woman enters the country as a tourist and has not acquired a visa for marriage purposes, in other words a residence permit for more than three months. In these cases the marriage broker is illegally smuggling foreign women into the country and taking payment for passing them on to men seeking wives. This offence is punishable with up to three years imprisonment or a fine.

There is a world of difference between national marriage agencies and international brokering. The foreign women are offered to the men here and not vice-versa; it is entirely one-sided. The man chooses a woman and pays for her. The act of paying seems to be an important part of the process: it makes the man the "owner" of the woman. The women remain to a great extent passive in this transaction. In most cases they have not even seen a picture of their future partner, they have virtually no choice in the matter. Often they are passed on to the interested customer immediately on arrival in Germany. An "exchange guarantee" enables the customer to "give back" the woman if, for whatever reason, she does not suit him, or if after being "tried out" she doesn't meet his requirements. Conversely the reservations of the women about the men are only acknowledged by the marriage brokers after resolute negotiating and boycotts by the women. In addition, the foreign women are often helpless and have communication difficulties; similarly, they are often given no or only scant information about the law and their own scope for decision. A further factor is the isolation and dependency, first on the marriage broker to whom they owe their travel expenses and who therefore keeps their passports and return tickets, and then later on their husbands. They feel obliged to be friendly and accommodating and to some extent accept the men as their fate. The women are under enormous pressure since they enter the country as tourists (now with a stamp in their passports) and therefore have to find a partner within the three months validity of their residence permits.

The law consolidates this dependency since marriage does not give the women the right to a residence permit in their own right. Under the new Aliens Act of 1991, a foreign woman must have lived at least four years with her German spouse in order to be granted residence status in her own right if they divorce. In extreme cases three years suffice. By issuing a limited residence permit the aliens registration authorities have contact with the applicant for residency and can establish whether the marriage still exists. They would otherwise learn only by chance of a separation. If the marriage is terminated due to the death of the German spouse or by separation or divorce, after this three- or four-year period, the residence permit of the foreign woman is extended by a year; there is nothing to prevent her from receiving social security benefits.

The case of Lina is a typical example of international marriage brokerage. We heard about her through a phone call from a doctor's office. "We have a Philippine woman here who is in a very bad state. Her husband recounts openly that he acquired her for 5,000 DM and now she is supposed to prove that she was worth the money. He therefore "puts her to work wherever possible" particularly sexually. The woman is a physical and nervous wreck, on the edge of a breakdown. Can you not do anything to help?" We often get cries for help like this one at Solwodi. We helped Lina to run away and took her in. Lina was gripped with fear, the only thing she wanted was to go home, back to the Philippines. But even there she did not feel safe from the man, who had threatened her that she would not get away from him alive. She had nothing with her except a small handbag, she had tied her passport around her belly. She could hardly walk because the evening before her husband had burnt her 15 times on the thighs with a cigarette to force her to have sexual intercourse with him. We took Lina to a doctor who was as horrified as we were. Lina and a girlfriend had been approached in the Philippines with the offer of going to Germany to marry a single, hard-working, well-off German man. The two women perhaps would not have had the courage alone, but together they decided to take the risk. They were both in dire economic straits and therefore wanted to go abroad to look for well-paid work or a husband. The marriage institute in Germany, the female tout said, could easily help them, other Filipinas had had nothing but excellent experience. Lina and her friend arrived in Frankfurt. At the airport the marriage broker was waiting to take her to her future husband. He took her return ticket before they left the airport. It was not until she was alone with the man in his flat that she realised what a helpless situation she was in. The marriage broker fobbed her off saying she shouldn't make such a fuss. The man threatened her with the police if she did not do what he wanted. She had no money, did not know where she was, could hardly speak any English and no-one understood her. Her friend was sent to Luxemburg. The man there was nice and she liked him, but he was not yet divorced.

These are not isolated cases. A woman came to our counselling centre; she was the ninth woman to be sent by a marriage broker to the same customer "for inspection." In Germany there are an estimated 60 marriage agencies with a total of 200 addresses, branch offices or licensees who specialize in finding "foreign, exotic women." In recent years it was mainly Filipinas who were "on offer" - as loyal, family-loving and strictly Catholic wives. It was more seldom that these agencies found Thai women and certainly did not specialize in them. This is due to a certain demand and to different stereotype images which have been formed. Filipinas have come to be seen as quasi-Europeans due to the Spanish colonial connection. Thai women, on the other hand, were presented for the sex business as "exotic, erotic, orchid-like creatures." This strict division seems to becoming less rigid in men's consciousness. This development is also a reaction of the dealers to the visa requirements and stricter controls. But statistics on German-Thai marriages kept by the Federal Statistics Office confirm this trend. Marriages with Asian women, Brazilian and Polish women are increasingly being arranged. There are also occasionally adverts for Mexican, Indonesian, Hungarian and less frequently Ghanaian women. The visa requirement for Asian countries seems to have led the marriage brokers to broaden their "range."

Apparently between 1982 and 1987, 12,000 Asian women were passed on to men by marriage brokers. The official marriage statistics kept by the Federal Statistics Office has records for the same period of only 8,558 marriages between Thai or Philippine women and German men. The actual figure is without doubt higher than this since many marriages take place abroad for the sake of ease. On the basis of certificates of non-impediment issued for German citizens, the German Embassy in Manila estimates that there were 100 marriages per month in 1989 and 1990. The German embassy in Bangkok puts the number of German-Thai marriages at 240 a year.

In the study quoted we proposed 66 measures designed to more effectively combat the problem of trafficking in women. Our recommendations on sex tourism and marriage brokering are listed below (study, pp. 331 ff).

Annabelle Gambe

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-bibliothek | 12.1. 1998

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