On Oct. 17, as the world was celebrating International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, the Occupy Wall Street movement continued to spread and the Anti-Poverty Alliance held its 44-hour hunger strike in Taipei to protest the fact that employee wages account for only 44 percent of the country’s GDP. Everyone is taking to the streets to express disapproval of the ineptitude of governments, the avarice of banks and exploitative businesses. These systems have not only created, but also exacerbated the structural inequities of society and widened the gap between the poor and the rich.
Nobel Prize in Economics winner Joseph Stiglitz recently gave a speech at an Occupy Wall Street rally, during which he said: “There’s a system where we’ve socialized losses and privatized gains. That’s not capitalism! That’s not a market economy. That’s a distorted economy and if we continue with that, we won’t succeed in growing and we won’t succeed in creating a just society.”
Stiglitz has hit the nail on the head — the current economic system is structurally unjust.
Actually, Taiwanese society is full of structural injustices that stifle the disadvantaged and prevent them from climbing out of their economic abyss. People with high credit card debt and those working in the sex industry are both perfect examples — these are the people that are feeling the brunt of these evils.
People with huge credit card debt are not necessarily in this situation because of spending too much. In Taiwan, 85 percent of people with credit card debt are poor and use their credit cards just to get by, to deal with a sudden emergency or are in a transitional period in their lives, forcing them to enter the banks’ exploitative game of lending and borrowing. The result is that they are forced further down a hole from which they can never escape. People selling sex for money are also forced into their circumstances because they simply lack other options.
In the 23 years that the Garden of Hope Foundation has been caring for child and youth victims of sexual exploitation, our research on girls working in the sex industry has found that the sex trade is really a structural evil. Each individual life story we have encountered is full of hardship — from childhood well into adulthood — and these girls and women have continuously experienced structural violence and inequality.
These girls have most likely experienced mental and physical abuse at home, incest, poverty, complex family relations, exclusion from a normal education, have quit school, were not welcomed or did not get along with others at school, or lacked interest in school work and had no sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, their health is continuously put in danger because of sexual diseases, unplanned pregnancies, drug and alcohol abuse, suffering self-negation, self-abasement and self-abuse. Some even get to the point where they want to commit suicide. They experience financial hardships and feel trapped — stuck supporting their families, living on their own away from home, paying high interest rates on loans or being stuck in financial crises. Because they sell their bodies for money and are involved in the clandestine trade of sex work, a serious relationship with a significant other or marriage are unrealistic dreams.
In the end, the way this all pans out in the overall labor market is that those working as sex workers will never find better jobs or get higher paying jobs, because they have worked as sex workers. Instead, they are working outside the labor market and because they lack education, technical expertise, do not have the means to progress or the self-confidence to promote themselves, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to enter the legitimate labor market.
Moreover, the older they get, the fewer opportunities they will have to work in the industry. Eventually all they are left to do is become madams — working to exploit others instead of being exploited. Who is responsible for this vicious cycle?
The inadequacies of the nation’s institutions create society’s structural evils and are the real reason these girls and women are forced to sell their bodies for money. Some examples are: the inefficiencies of the social welfare and education systems; poor employment training and employment counseling; dysfunctional family environments; the global capitalist system; and the social disadvantages of being female. These factors all force these people to become the suppliers in the sex trade and ultimately the victims of these structural evils.
The government is not doing anything to address this structural violence; instead, it has decided to create red-light districts for prostitution, which just goes to show how inept this government really is. It should not assume that by placing an entire industry in a designated area it can solve the issue of sex workers being exploited, or be able to shrink the industry in any significant way. Condoning the sex trade will only worsen the structural evils of society.
The government should deal directly with issues of structural violence, reallocate funds in this inequitable system, devote more resources to helping the disadvantaged in the areas of education, economy and welfare, and establish policies that are more woman-friendly. These are the issues that should be on the front burner right now.
As the election is upon us, we can use our votes to boycott presidential or legislative candidates who condone the sex trade to keep the government from continuing to neglect these structural inequities.
This is an opportunity for voters who realize and understand the structural inequalities that exist in our society to take action, refusing to vote for a president or legislator that works to affirm or aid the sex trade.
Chi Hui-jung is executive director of the Garden of Hope Foundation.
Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat