I have just returned from the first two sessions of the SEA Court of Women on HIV, Human Trafficking and Migration: From Vulnerability to Free, Just and Safe Movement.  The event began with the ringing of a long wooden bell, a traditional act that calls people to gather here in Bali; this was followed by Sekar Jepun, a traditional Balinese dance whose name translates to “Flower of the World.”

The Court was called into session with the gentle reminder to the conference delegates, “Silence will help us listen to the testimonies of the women here.  Silence is our expression of care…  We ask for complete silence so that we can listen to the women speak on behalf of the many unspoken.”

It is said that Southeast Asia contributes to one-third of the total global figures for human trafficking. This region serves as a source, transit and destination area for itself and other parts of the globe.  According to recent reports on HIV and AIDS, Southeast Asia has the potential to become another epicenter for the AIDS epidemic.  Young women in this region are 2-3 times more likely to contract HIV than men at their same age.

Women and girls in Southeast Asia are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and exposure to HIV because they are expected to be ignorant about sexuality – they are raised not to talk about sex.  They are expected to be faithful in marriage, and their male counterparts are not.  And female sex workers are thought to be immoral, but men have the right to use them without being branded as immoral.

In listening to the testimonies of the 22 women from 6 Southeast Asian countries, I was struck by the significance of the circumstances of our birth.  These women were born to poor families in developing countries, and they were migrating in the hopes of finding better lives for themselves and their loved ones.  As a result, they have become victims of human trafficking, the sex trade and HIV.

Khin San Htwe told the story about how she was trafficked from her home in Burma to work in a bar in China. She was raped by the owner and forced into prostitution, taking more than 15 men each night.  She is now living with HIV.

Ariyatin was trafficked to Saudi Arabia, where the three sons of her employer raped her when they found her unconscious in the shower, sick from sleep deprivation and improper nutrition; she had the 9-month old boy that was born of those rapes with her today.

Julieta is from the Philippines, where my parents and brother were born.  Her birthday is 9 July 1979, exactly 6 days after my birthday. Growing up in her region of the Philippines, she had heard so many success stories about people leaving the country to work and returning home to rescue their families from poverty; she had always dreamed of working abroad to earn better wages and make a better life.

She took a job at a bar in Singapore, where she lived in a small apartment with 17 other Filipinas.  They were all told that they would be “entertainers” for the men who visited the bar – Julieta thought that this meant that they would talk to the men to relax them after their busy days at work.  She did not realize that it would require her to wear sexy outfits, be sexually harassed and touched by the customers and that she would only earn commission based on the number of cocktails she drank each night.  The quota for all of the “entertainers” was 25 drinks per night. She was told that she was in debt for the price of her airplane ticket, her work papers and accommodations.  She received no salary for one month and was told that her debt was still an amount that equaled 320 cocktails.  She was rescued by a kind customer and has returned to her home in the Philippines, where she lives with her son.

It has been found that the number one factor for the spread of HIV in Southeast Asia is men’s unprotected use of sex workers. Because of their vulnerability to trafficking and sexual exploitation, women and girls in this region are therefore much more vulnerable to HIV.  Trafficking, the spread of HIV and the fact that women are much more likely to be infected than men are just a few of the negatives results of globalism.  Our ideas of the expansion of global quality of life must include gender equality, the empowerment of women and the education behind employment choice, marital choice and negotiation of safer sex.

Women must continue to fight for these rights, and we must pass on the stories of the women who are born into less fortunate circumstances than our own.  Encourage those around you to examine the way they treat women, as well as the way that women treat each other.  Examine the social values around sexuality, as they directly influence the climate and demand of the sex trade particularly in developing countries.  As women, we control our own sexuality.  We must encourage those around us to find a more truthful way of seeing the world.