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Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty

~by: Ellery Aruldoss~

It was in a packed seminar room in Singapore Management University (SMU) that ONE (SINGAPORE) held its forum on 'Child Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Poverty'. The atmosphere was one of excitement and anticipation as students, members of civil society groups, SMU faculty and the like filled the room to hear the opinions of the invited speakers. The line-up comprised four women who were social workers, activists and more importantly, experts on the subject matter and they included:

  • Braema Mathi: Former President of AWARE (the Association of Women for Action and Research), founder of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) and leader of human rights group, MARUAH.
  • Pia Charlotte Bruce: Executive Director of UN Women Singapore (formerly UNIFEM Singapore).
  • Rachel Chhoa-Howard: Researcher at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, with a focus of human rights and governance.
  • Bridget Tan: Founder and President of H.O.M.E: The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics.

Human-Trafficking a Complex Issue

Braema Mathi kicked off the evening by examining the definitions of human trafficking through the eyes of various organizations and governments around the world. She argued that there was a contention between the United Nations (UN) Human rights declaration where ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, and the laws of states. Mathi also revealed that even ideas such as coercion are complicated. “Is it coercion, is there persuasion, abduction?” questioned Mathi. Perhaps these victims could have been under pressure, promised more than they received or simply choosing this life over a life of hard labor. Mathi exposed a lack of a unified system for categorizing human trafficking on both a local and an international level.

Sharing from her experiences on the ground, Bridget Tan outlined the complicated situation the victims often found themselves in. She cited the example of an abused woman who sought refuge in her shelter and refused to report her ordeal to the authorities because she had no means to support herself in Singapore, should the investigations take months to carry out. Worse still, there was a possibility that the abused woman could be charged for overstaying as she was a foreigner. It was due to increasing situations as these, that victims do not become prosecution witnesses and social justice is not duly carried out.

What Can Be Done?

All speakers urged the signing the United Nations (UN) Palermo Protocols. The Palermo Protocols are three protocols adopted by the UN in 2000 which includes: the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air. Singapore has yet to ratify it but recent news showed Singapore considering the protocols.

Both Rachel Chhoa-Howard and Pia Charlotte Bruce advocated the “4 Ps” of Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnership to deal with human trafficking and child prostitution. Rachel Chhoa-Howard called for a “specific clauses outlined for children” with an independent monitoring organization set up to make sure the clauses are adhered to. She also urged the formation of an independent Human Rights Commission to investigate and uphold children’s rights.

Bridget Tan called for specific laws set in place to protect victims and ensure proper prosecution for the culprits. She stated that law enforcers, lawyers, judges and the like had to be trained to properly deal with such cases. Tan added that active mechanisms had to be set on both a regional and national level, with the government setting out the proper legal framework. In terms of partnership, Tan urged the government to share their information with civil society groups in order to form a seamless effort towards social work.

Pia Charlotte Bruce added that Singapore had taken measures to rectify the issues of human trafficking, saying that a “national action plan” was being drawn up and set to be released in 2013.

The Heart of the Matter

Bridget Tan, who was recently recognized by the US Department of State for her social efforts, argued that ultimately it boiled down to the heart. “Before even looking at the UN proposal, you look at the victim and say this is unjust and so much against human rights”, urged Tan. In her own view, it is not so much about the definition, as it is about the people involved. The tears, the suffering, the betrayal are all too real. Victims are exploited, trafficked and violated, and when they finally make their way home, all they have is the memory of a humiliating, traumatic experience. Rachel Chhoa-Howard also urged taking a “human rights perspective” towards commercial sexual exploitation. She called for a victim-centered approach that would not seek to interrogate or alienate, but would ultimately involve the victim. “If you don’t involve the victim, you can never get to the heart of the problem, said Howard.

Braema Mathi also shared how she was struck by the sheer inhumanity of child prostitution when she was in Thailand. She wanted to gather information from the young girls on the streets and was stunned by just how many there were. Mathi warned that Singapore had been “slow on the uptake” and had to work harder to counteract commercial sexual exploitation, especially when studies have shown that Singaporeans form a significant portion of ‘customers’ seeking such illicit services overseas.

One Vision

Michael Switow, co-founder of ONE (SINGAPORE) shared the vision of the organization saying that they “believe in a just world where no one is poor”. He called for people to take action, to “stand up, speak up” instead of simply acknowledging the situation. Bridget Tan perhaps best summed up the night calling for unity, in “one world, one Singapore!”

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picture credit: ONE Singapore