The Asian Financial Crisis and Prostitution: A Question of Pragmatics and Ideology

by Jean Enriquez, Bonn, Germany, November 1998

Women at the Bottom of an Economic Debacle

Not a few economic experts and activists in the Philippines have argued that what we are experiencing now is more than a financial crisis. This is a crisis for a development model based on the globalized and free market system. This is a crisis the cause of which goes beyond the speculative attacks and withdrawal of foreign investments. Precisely, the fact that the economic model has been highly vulnerable to the above yet hollow in the real economy—agricultural productivity or domestic production in general—that the crisis should have been anticipated. Growth has always been hinged primarily on foreign capital and foreign currency inflows while internally weak, due to the fact that policies of past governments were in compliance with IMF conditionalities.

A debate is brewing in the Philippines as to whether we should continue to orient economic policy towards the return of foreign investors by keeping interest rates high or to pay more attention to restoring economic growth via domestic resources. The latter springs from a radical option of imposing limits on the movement of capital across borders. This, of course, is an option that the IMF would not want to hear about. Nor expanding government expenditures to save jobs. And the new Estrada administration, while generally unconsolidated at the moment, seems bent in toeing the IMF line.

While remaining to be a question of pragmatics, it has also become an ideological issue. There are sacrifices to be made at the moment, but towards a long-term view of building a strong, internally driven economy based on rural productivity and a complementing industrialization program.

For us feminists, the gross impact of the economic problem in Asia similarly stems from the fact that the neo-liberal paradigm has never seen the differential status and valuation of work of women and men in both the market and non-market economy. The dominant economic model is blind to the inequality of decision-making powers and patterns of expending within the household. It is oblivious to the reality that women historically has been serving as safety nets of structural adjustment measures designed to promote globalization. We would be made to work in the farms instead of paying other workers. We would be forced to enter into casual or home-based work without any job security or benefits. Or we would be pushed to work abroad not only to augment the household income but also to ensure the steady flow of dollars, the foreign exchange requirements of the country. And as it always has been, we women provide health care and education even as the government, consistent with the IMF line, continues to contract the social services budget.

Because of the model’s false assumptions, the onerous impacts to women of the crisis were unforeseen. Contrary to common notion, migration of women to other Asian countries and elsewhere, is not hampered by the crisis. KAKAMMPI reported that there is a 78% increase in deployment to Hong Kong and that deployment to the Middle East is maintained. While many were repatriated, still a significant number of Filipinos, mostly women, are forced to risk themselves by either leaving as undocumented workers or taking up low-paying jobs as domestic helpers. More and more of these professional women are found in the Marianas Islands.

Traffickers and illegal recruiters then take this opportunity, having found fertile grounds in the crisis situation, to entice or trick women into going abroad as entertainers or as wives. Until today, 94% of Filipino OCW’s in Japan are women, mostly in the entertainment industry. Since July 1997, the Australian Embassy in the Philippines has granted 690 spouse or fiancée visas to Filipinas. And not a few are granted for fiancées coming here in Germany. Trafficking has taken even more sophisticated forms such as recruitment, selling and buying of Filipinas through the internet.

In our preventive education campaign throughout the country, we found out that girls in their teens are being transported via pumpboats from Zamboanga to Malaysia. Western Mindanao was rated lowest against gender development indices by the 1997 Philippine Human Development Report.

During the crisis period, the number of streetwalkers increased by more than 50% along Quezon Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Quezon City. Some of them moved from less lucrative areas and a few are new in the trade. According to BUKAL, new faces were also seen in Cubao, a commercial center frequented by the working class.

This phenomenon leads me to an important point. Economic crisis or not, the demand for sexual services is constant. While the poverty situation drives the women to the point of desperation, which is a factor in the rise in prostitution, the crisis do not cause men to desist from buying women. The demand by the male population, across classes, determines the existence and maintenance of the system of prostitution.

Exacerbated by Poverty, Prostitution Derives from Patriarchy

With the signing of the Visiting Forces Agreement at hand, this male demand is certain to increase. The VFA seeks to open 22 Philippine ports to US Navy for “R and R” and military exercises. The Philippine government seems to have forgotten how lives of thousands of sexually exploited women were dislocated during the past US military presence in the Philippines.

I should mention here that since the closure of the bases in Central Philippines, in 1992, prostitution increased elsewhere — in Cebu and Davao. This cities rose from sleepy towns to being RICs (regional industrialized centers) within the past government’s fast-tracked NIChood projects. Having their own international airports, foreign tourists and investors fly direct to Cebu and Davao for business as well as “entertainment.” Now, it is estimated that there are 400,000 women and 75,000 children exploited in the prostitution industry in the Philippines. Herein, one can see how “economic boom” can similarly aggravate the sexual exploitation of women. The constant variable, again, is the presence of buyers of women who, this time, are foreign men that has the purchasing power aside from perceived racial dominance.

Early discussions on prostitution raised issues of public order, health and morality. While still persisting, the limitations of such discussions were immediately recognized to be placing the blame on women. Researches and discourses have since advanced to structural analyses of prostitution. Such however confined the context that pushes women into the industry to the economic — thus poverty.

Surely, this argument is supported by findings that the profile of trafficked and prostituted women would describe them as mostly coming from the rural areas, from low income families, and with less educational attainment. Further, in the Philippines, the various forms that prostitution has taken portray the desperation of the women. There persists the practice of exchange of farmers’ daughters for unpaid debts and akyat-barko (climbing docked ships). Their faces would vary from massage parlor attendants, streetwalkers, dancers, GROs, to casa or brothel hostesses.

A critique of development programs of governments and supporting financial institutions should follow this, to illustrate the causal relation of economic crunch to women’s sexual exploitation. In the short term, recommendations could range from making training available to women, formal and non-formal education, credit schemes and provision of alternative livelihood or employment.

A pitfall, however, in a purely economic perspective on prostitution is missing the constant variable among societies where prostitution exists – male sexual demand, male appropriation of the woman and her body. And to even flounder into the pit, especially if the crisis is perceived to stay for quite a while, is to recommend that prostitution be considered work within an ‘economic sector.’ Thus, to propose the legitimization of the industry to presumably regulate it, and ‘bring it within the taxation net of the economy.’

The blunder is rooted precisely in an analysis that would not look beyond the crisis or said ‘economic bases’ of prostitution. The argument is bereft of sociological study. It has been mentioned earlier that female subordination, more specifically, the objectification of their bodies by men, is the context that has historically preceded sexual exploitation of women. Societies could be progressive or underdeveloped, but patriarchy would be the least common denominator in countries where prostitution persists. Moreover, the legitimization of prostitution as work and consequently, of the sex industry in some countries, has taught us that such only aggravates the underground activities of trafficking and exploits all the more immigrant women. In the Netherlands, foreign women constitute the majority of women in prostitution. For the entire class of women, this has become a resounding statement that the women should remain perennially accessible to men for sex.

Governments and international agencies have similarly proposed the recognition of prostitution as a labor sector. Such immediately diffuses the problem of prostitution as violence to women, and brings one to accept the framework that prostitution is indeed ‘work’ for women. The ILO study claims that streetwalkers may set their own terms, choose their hours of work, select their clients, and view payments to pimps as costs involved in their jobs, rather than as real exploitation. In the Philippines, a streetwalker could get P500 a night, P100 of which will go to the pimp, P240 to lodging, and the rest to drugs. She buys shabu (“poor man’s cocaine”) in order to endure multiple invasions of her body, to deaden the assaults to her dignity, even to numb the rumblings of her stomach. (One wonders how she feeds her children.) With meager earnings and all sorts of violations experienced by the women in prostitution, 88% of them have expressed that they want to get out of the industry. Is this the “gainful employment” which the ILO Report purports to be a function of the economic sector, that is prostitution?

Prostitution is an economic sector built on wounded bodies and souls of women. It is an economic sector only for the big capitalists on sex. Prostitution has grown to be a multi-billion dollar industry, that has included businesses “creating or stimulating demand,” such as print, video and internet pornography, “adult” bookstores, massage parlors, and other establishments.

Sex businesses have also become economically important to governments. In Japan, income from the entertainment industry equals 1% of their GNP or its defense budget. In Australia, prostitution brings in A$20-M annually. An enormous exploitative system is thus, strengthened where capitalism intersects with gender violence.

To Miss the Point Is to Engage the Giant with a Teaspoon

The recognition of prostitution as an economic sector legitimizes this very transaction of inequality between men and women. The recognition of prostitution as work legitimizes the violence inflicted upon women by the clients, pimps, establishment owners, traffickers.

In the face of the crisis, these are the sectors that profit from the system, aside from the ideology that keeps women in their place – that of sexual providers.
In the same manner that the Asian financial crisis merits radical, long-term solutions as well as practical reforms, so does the prostitution industry need to be tackled or attacked at its roots while calling for interim remedies. And even these reform measures should not only be economic in nature but should address the very manifestations of gender violence: legal protection of the women from violence; decriminalization of the women; criminalization of pimps, buyers, traffickers; health services; shelter.

Still and all, to stop at reforms is to fight the giant’s sword with a teaspoon. And that is to feign a confrontation. Because the real battle drawn is between those shaping societies free from sexual exploitation and those perpetrating unequal and violent relations between men and women.

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