The Magazine

Humanitarian Sexploitation

The world's sex slaves need liberation, not condoms.

Feb 24, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 23 • By DONNA M. HUGHES
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Yet for five years, under instruction from her supervisor, the doctor worked with the pimps "to prevent HIV/AIDS and other venereal diseases in the exploited minor girls." When she reported the horrific activities, she was told prostitution was not a migrant health concern. She said, "I fought a lot with the U.S. government and they told me that I shouldn't do anything, that I had signed a federal agreement of confidentiality." She said, "If I wanted to help these girls I had to develop a relationship with the pimps. . . . I had to convert myself into someone who doesn't judge, who doesn't express opinions."

Being nonjudgmental about sexual slavery means ignoring some of the most violent crimes and human rights violations being committed against women and children. In Cambodia, in Svay Pak, a squalid brothel village internationally known to sex tourists and pedophiles, Médecins Sans Frontières in collaboration with the Population Council conducted projects with "trafficked debt-bonded sex workers . . . and with girls engaged in commercial sex." The NGOs provided these enslaved women and girls with free medical treatment and centered their efforts on teaching them how to negotiate condom use with foreign men. In late January of this year, following determined criticism by U.S. activists, the Cambodian government demonstrated an alternative solution that many NGOs and European governments thought unachievable: The government closed the brothels, freed the women and girls, and provided services to those in need.

The time has come for the U.S. government, through tough-minded grant administration policies and focused diplomacy, to assert the necessary political will to end the worldwide enslavement of vulnerable women and children, and to confront the corruption that enables it. This can be achieved through vigorous enforcement of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a broadly endorsed reform sponsored by Republicans Sam Brownback and Chris Smith and the late Democrat Paul Wellstone. The measure would withhold nonhumanitarian aid from countries that fail to prosecute traffickers or protect their victims.

In the end, as the Bush administration gives increasing signs of recognizing, more women and children's lives will be saved and more women and children liberated from sexual slavery by closing brothels and arresting pimps and traffickers than by passing out condoms.

Donna M. Hughes holds the Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island.