Yunnan women flock to Thai sex industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 August, 2004, 12:00am

Poverty drives members of ethnic minority groups to head across the border

Women from at least half the households in some Yunnan counties have worked in the sex industry in Thailand, according to a United Nations report.

Liu Meng , from the Chinese Women's University in Beijing, is a UN Inter-Agency Project consultant and a contributor to the report. Along with three other mainland researchers, she interviewed 440 residents in Yunnan's Lancang county.

The isolated county is on the west side of the Mekong River and home to more than a dozen different ethnic communities. It has an annual per-capita income of 580 yuan, half the national average.

A significant proportion of the women were found to be earning a living in the Thai sex industry. Professor Liu said it was difficult to determine the exact number, but more than half the families in the region had a member who had worked as a prostitute in Thailand.

'It is easy to judge from the fact that families with women who have been to or are in Thailand live in cement houses while other families live in crude shacks,' she said.

The UN report said women from ethnic minority prefectures in Yunnan started heading to Thailand in the 1980s and the trend accelerated after 1995.

Professor Liu said the women became sex workers because they were poor and had limited economic opportunities at home.

'A lot of local residents still do not have enough to eat and are willing to pay snakeheads to help them cross the border,' she said. The women were not forced to make the trip and there was no social stigma against working as a prostitute.

'The public admire and canonise the women who have been to Thailand. They think it's a very good, quick way to earn money,' she said. 'Some people are not shy or embarrassed when they talk about a female relative working there as a massage girl. Some parents cite examples to their children of women with experience in Thailand. It is a real social tragedy.'

The report said the women heading to Thailand belonged to the Dai and Wa minorities and their similar physical appearance and language to the Thais made the trip easier for them.

In many communities there was also a tradition of women rather than men supporting the family. Men had traditionally depended on women's labour and the school dropout rate for boys was higher than for girls.

Ms Liu interviewed a 41-year-old mother and a 19-year-old daughter who both went to Thailand several years ago.

'The family built a house after the two women brought back their earnings,' she said.

The other members of the family, the father and brother, did not work and stayed at home every day.

'The daughter learned to speak Putonghua and even a little English after working there,' Ms Liu said. 'She said she would not like to return to her home town and would rather stay in Thailand. But she did not have any plans for the future.'

Ms Liu said the daughter's feelings were not uncommon.

'When the women return, they are not able to get used to the local living conditions and social environment,' she said. 'Some of the unmarried women have problems finding a husband because they are wealthier and have a broader perspective.'

Ms Liu said the local governments seemed to turn a blind eye to the issue, with officials citing the economic benefits of the migrant sex workers.

'They are not aware that the prosperity of the region, which is the responsibility of government, is at the cost of women's health, lives and youth,' she said.

Fang Yuzhu , from the rights department of the All-China Women's Federation, was also involved in the survey. She said it was extremely difficult to convince women not to become prostitutes.

'The women who return have the material evidence to justify going there,' Ms Fang said.