Chinese parents show pictures of their elder daughters, who have been trafficked into prostitution.
I was sent to Asia by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as part of an initiative called the Mekong Sub-regional Project to Combat Trafficking in Children and Women. My task was to photograph the problems women and children endure on a daily basis. The assignment covered Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and China. I have been photographing this same issue since 1999, and on other assignments I’ve traveled to Bangladesh and Indonesia.
1.36 million people in Asia and the Pacific region are exploited in labor as a result of trafficking, a recent ILO study estimated. That is 55 percent of the global figure of people who are taken advantage of in this way. It is thought that 40 to 50 percent of the trafficking victims are children, many of whom end up in the sex industry. Family members often play a major role in introducing children to the commercial-sex sector. They live in such abject poverty that they think this is the only way they can survive. Young girls and boys are in very high demand in this industry and are worth most to pimps and brothel owners.
Before visiting these countries, I imagined it would be difficult and at times almost impossible to get any pictures of the women and children working in the sex trade, but I was surprised by the attitude the pimps and brothel owners had. Most let me photograph what I wanted in exchange for a few cans of soft drinks for the girls or a beer for the man. Sometimes, however, I was forced to act like a customer and pay money to enter a room in a brothel and photograph the girls without permission from the pimp. I don’t think he cared as long as he had the cash. It was not something I felt good about but that was the only way to get the picture.
Most girls were happy to be photographed. I think in some way they thought it might help them. I sincerely hope it does. Photographing the girl in China with the razor-blade scars and cigarette burns was the worst part of my trip. She was drugged up to the eyeballs and she had a feeling of total desperation about her. Leaving her in that room I felt sick, but at the same time I felt some good that I had got the image to show the world.
Without publication of information and pictures, this form of slavery will continue to go unnoticed in the rest of the world. A lot more has to be done to stop the suffering of millions of women and children around the world. I hope, in some tiny way, that my pictures have helped these slaves of poverty.
A Cambodian pimp jokes with his workers outside his brothel. The girls are forced into the sex trade to pay off their parents’ debts.
In Thailand, an HIV-positive boy holds a photo of his mother, who works as a prostitute in Bangkok.
Vietnamese and Cambodian girls wait for customers near the Thai-Cambodian border.
A mother holds an ID card, the only thing she has left of her child, who was trafficked into the sex trade.
This girl lives with her mother and father, who, being Cambodian farmers, are the poorest of the poor. Her father was tricked by local traffickers, who promised they could find his eldest daughter work in the city as a waitress or a cleaner in a hotel. They gave the father enough money to buy a cow to work his land as a down payment until his daughter earned a wage. They never heard anything for three years until another Cambodian girl, who was rescued from a brothel in Malaysia, reported seeing his daughter at the same brothel. The father said he will never let the same fate befall his youngest daughter.
A Vietnamese girl, who is said to be a virgin by her pimp. She was trafficked to Cambodia to pay off her family’s debt.
Sold to a local brothel by their parents, who were in debt, these Indonesian girls (one 15 and the other 16) will work until their parents have paid off what they owe.