Thursday, September 5, 2002

Rina Jimenez-David

Sex abuse and sex trafficking in Malaysia

SOME years ago, I heard stories about Filipino women trafficked into Sabah and set up in brothels just outside the border of Brunei. A prosperous but conservative sultanate ruled under strict Islamic precepts where entertainment and recreation are enjoyed only by members of the royal family, Brunei has no nightclubs or brothels for the patronage of its wealthy but non-royal citizens. So the houses of ill repute lying just a short drive away across the border provide ordinary Bruneians "welcome" relief from their drab existence. At the same time, the arrangement allows the Sultanate to maintain Brunei's image as a squeaky-clean Islamic state.

The trafficking of Filipinas for purposes of prostitution in Malaysia has been going on for decades. In the book "Nightmare Journeys: Filipina Sojourns through the World of Trafficking,""Alicia" tells of traveling to Johor Bahru, a Malaysian town this time just outside the border with Singapore, to work as a dancer in a club. She was just 15 at the time.

Apparently, Johor Bahru is well known among male tourists and residents in "squeaky-clean" Singapore, which deems its pristine streets fit only for "wholesome" entertainment. For more carnal forms of recreation, the men need just drive across the causeway into "JB," where women-Filipinas and Thais mostly-offer their charms.

I can't believe Malaysian authorities were completely ignorant of the existence of the brothel camps in Sabah or of the huge entertainment complexes in Johor Bahru. In fact, "Alicia" told me that the reason she decided to leave after a year was that Malaysian immigration police began raiding the clubs in that city after one of her Pinay colleagues escaped and took up with a Malaysian policeman. In fact, it seems to me a cynical, though profitable, policy on the part of the Malaysian government to tolerate the proliferation of sex establishments along their borders to help their puritanical neighbors maintain the myth of social uprightness while allowing their restless residents to blow off some steam.

It might have eased Mahathir Mohammad's conscience, too, to know that the women victimized by the sex syndicates were foreigners and "infidels," so there was nothing to worry his good Muslim soul about.

BUT at the same time I can't believe Filipino authorities knew nothing of the trafficking of Filipinas to Malaysia and everywhere else in the world where there's a market for our women. At every step of the process-from recruitment, to having papers processed, going through immigration, dealing with embassies abroad, and then seeking justice against the traffickers-government officials have proven to be accessories, if not ringleaders, in the criminal activity.

Which is why all this fuss being raised about the sexual exploitation of women deportees by Malaysian police, an act in itself condemnable, seems belated, if not a tad bit hypocritical, when voiced by Filipino officials. The frightful truth is that local officials have long known about the sexual exploitation of women in our shores and abroad. Sex trafficking has been and remains a big business, and it has grown only because authorities have allowed it.

About the only good thing arising from the sex abuse scandal is that it has brought the trafficking of Filipinas into Malaysia out in the open. Bishop Ramon Arguelles has even come out to accuse "members of Congress and military officials" of involvement with white slavery rings operating in Sabah. Arguelles, who chairs the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (Ecmi), said the Christian women who were turned into "sex slaves" by Malaysian police while under detention were probably victims of the white slavery gangs.

In yesterday's news report, Arguelles was quoted as saying government agencies were aware of the trafficking that was going on "but were not working hard to stop the malpractice." Says the bishop: "Now we are reaping the whirlwind."

So how seriously, do you think, Mahathir and other Malaysian officials will take the recent protest of the Philippine government regarding the sexual abuse of Filipina deportees? No matter how strongly worded and how close it skirts the borders of diplomatic language, the protest loses moral force in the wake of government's indifference to the long-standing problem of trafficking of our women.

FOR almost a decade now, women's organizations involved in the issue of trafficking, most notably the Coalition against Trafficking of Women (CAT-W), have fought tenaciously for the passage of an Anti-Trafficking Law.

As it did in the last Congress, the proposed Anti-Trafficking measure has been passed by the House of Representatives, but is finding it hard going in the Senate. Though I'm not so naive to believe that the passage of a piece of legislation would bring an end to the extremely profitable (and extremely cruel) trade in our women, a law would at least be a formal statement of government policy against it, while redefining the status of the women in the sex industry from "criminals"to "victims."

The President, let's make it clear, is right to express, in the strongest terms possible, her and her government's anger and dismay at the sexual abuse of Filipino women over whom the Malaysian authorities had custodial responsibility. But for this outrage to be credible and be imbued with real moral certitude, she should take the lead in addressing the issue of sex trafficking of Filipinas, and not just to Malaysia. Certifying the Anti-Trafficking bill for Senate passage would be a good first step.

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Created: September 8, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
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