BANGKOK—Lao women seeking to escape poverty and poor education are increasingly ending up as sex workers in Laos and neighboring Thailand, mainly to support their families and themselves, experts say.
Though many consider it “bad work,” they believe prostitution amounts to the best economic opportunity they have, according to a survey of sex workers conducted last year in the country’s capital, Vientiane.
Many are children when they start, trafficked or tricked into the sex trade.
“Every one of them said they don’t want to do it,” Thatsaphone Sombandith, a Lao researcher who conducted the survey, said in an interview. “They say it’s necessary because of poverty, because they have nothing to live on.”
With an estimated per capita income of U.S.$460 in 2005, Laos is one of the poorest countries in East Asia. Classified by the United Nations as a Least Developed Country in 2004, 71 percent of its population live on less than U.S.$2 a day, and 23 percent on less than U.S.$1 a day.
Lao women, many of whom work in bars called “little shops,” come from different provinces to work in Vientiane, Thatsaphone said. “They come from Luang Namtha, from Luang Prabang, from Sayaboury…from Khammouane.”
Many become infected with sexually transmitted diseases, Thatsaphone added. “Depending on the place, on the area of the shop, they get infected,” Thatsaphone said. “Almost the entire shop is infected.”
If Lao women could be helped to learn a trade, perhaps as beauticians or weavers, and move on to higher education, this would reduce the number who engage in sex work, Thatsaphone said.
Low levels of education have been identified as one of the greatest barriers to sustainable development in Laos. While education to 18 is free, there aren't enough classrooms and educational supplies to make this a reality.
As a result, only 77 percent of Lao men are literate, while only 60 percent of women can read and write.
Soudalai Onavong, a Lao provincial health official, said that in Laos’s Khammouane province, sex workers “most often are found near the large construction projects” such as the Nam Theun II hydroelectric dam or the cement works at Nakai.
In Savannakhet province, according to the head of the provincial health department, Lao women—along with women from Vietnam and Thailand—provide sexual services along Route 9, Laos’s so-called “East-West economic corridor.”
She called the situation “very disheartening.”
UNICEF spokesman Geoffrey Keele said Lao girls aged 14 to 18 are particularly at risk.
“Most of them come from semi-rural backgrounds, semi-urban backgrounds and frequently are either lured into the sex trade or are frequently tricked into it by promises of other jobs,” Keele said.
In a 2000 United Nations study in Laos, said Keele, “a majority of children who were working in the sex trade were found at various kinds of entertainment establishments: beer halls, truck stops on different transit routes within Laos, places like that, and they were not only used for sex but as bartenders and waitresses.”
“Part of their job was to provide beer, get the men drunk, and then offer sexual services,” Keele said.
Frank Reimann, Laos country director for CARE International, said it is "extremely difficult" to gauge the scope of the sex industry in Laos, although recent government clampdowns on the entertainment industry have affected the overall picture.
"This has pushed the sex workers into other modes of operation such as through the mobile phone system, meeting at guest houses rather than clubs," Reimann said by e-mail.
"Also the past few years has seen an increase in young women from college being recruited into the sex industry. The scope of the problem appears to have both increased and diversified."
An estimated 200,000 to 225,000 women and children are trafficked from Southeast Asia annually. A 2003 survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that hundreds of Lao children may have fallen victims to child traffickers in the three years preceding publication of the survey.
More than half of Lao children ages 15 to 17 who left to work in Thailand from three southern Laotian provinces had not been heard from since leaving home; a similar number of younger children (ages 10 to 14) had not contacted their families either.
The ILO survey found that Lao girls were particularly vulnerable to cross-border traffickers and often end up in exploitative conditions, including prostitution, forced labor, and domestic servitude.
Keele said that UNICEF works “very closely” with the government of Laos to develop child-protection networks in cooperation with police forces, social workers, and counselors.
Also speaking to RFA, acting director Paula Goode of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said Laos had made “modest progress” last year in meeting minimum standards for combatting sexual trafficking across its borders into Thailand.
Last year, said Goode, Laos was ranked at Tier 3, a ranking assigned to the worst-performing countries by her office in its annual report to the U.S. Congress.
“Through the summer, in regard to an action plan that we gave the Laos government, they made some modest progress toward raising their ranking. And so they were upgraded in September to Tier 2, Watch List,” Goode said.
But she added: “There needs to be more law enforcement. There need to be more arrests, more prosecutions of traffickers.”
Original reporting by Manichanh Phimphachanh for RFA’s Lao service. Service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English for the Web with additional reporting by Richard Finney. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han and Luisetta Mudie.