Trafficking in female misery

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

Crusader Hillis talks to anti-sex slavery campaigner and author Kathleen Maltzhan.

Kathleen Maltzahn wants to see an end to the trafficking of women for prostitution.

The busy City of Yarra Councillor has spent much of her working life over the past two decades, here and in the Philippines, supporting trafficked women, exposing their dealers, and lobbying for changes in government policy, law enforcement and immigration.

Her work has informed a remarkable new book, Trafficked. Paced like a true crime thriller, it deftly tackles the issues of trafficked Asian women in Australia. It describes her two long stays in the Philippines, where she witnessed first hand the cruelty and inhumane conditions that women were forced to live with as prostitutes on the streets, in poor bars and for the American military. Stories of rape, brutality and enforced incarceration in filthy cells in brothels were commonplace.

“Many of the women we worked with were approached by recruiters to go to other countries,” she says. “Then a young woman who we had worked with was trafficked while we knew her. That really brought it close to home; and proved that it was real, not just a story made up about the sex industry.”

A particularly gruelling part of the book deals with sex slavery in a precinct near the US Clark Air Force base known as The Area. Local police worked with the brothel owners to ensure that women were not allowed to leave the area, and a major raid organised by the national police failed to find any women. Owners were tipped off and the women were quickly bussed out of The Area.

“Between the two trips, and then later again, it was all those links between big concepts – globalisation, trafficking for marriage, prostitution and sex tourism – that helped to form my focus. The Filipino community was learning how to deal with bad situations, including domestic violence.

“Back in Australia, it became clear that many Filipino women – often trafficked for marriage – were suffering domestic violence and control by their Australian husbands. I had to ask, what is the mindset for Australian men to do that?”

Maltzahn’s book paints a tragic situation for many Asian women living in Australia. Subjected to stereotyping and often devalued, she says that the views of many Australian men can be simply expressed.

“One man we spoke to put it like this ‘Asian women are made for this (sex work)’. Many men see Asian women as both subservient and nymphomaniacs – as both traditional and willing to do what other women won’t do. They are a blank slate that you can project all your fantasies on. Where does this dehumanisation come from?”

The book suggests that this dehumanisation, both in marriage and prostitution, starts with idealising: Asian women are good wives, made to please you, but when disappointment sets in, the punishment begins.

Maltzahn documents several local trafficking cases – as recently as 2003 there was widespread belief that trafficking didn’t exist here. A high profile case about a Brunswick Street brothel recently upheld a conviction in the High Court against its owner for human slavery. The case is important and offers hope that more convictions will succeed. Maltzahn also documents how many of the victims of trafficking are further punished by unfair immigration practices that have often forcibly repatriated women back to dangerous situations. Stories of women disappearing or being murdered dot the manuscript with alarming regularity. Across the world, Maltzahn tells me, “It is the bottom of the trafficking train – often women – that ends up being charged and sent to jail.”

Maltzahn believes that men have a responsibility to seek consent from prostitutes in brothels before they engage in sex, and assistance by male customers remains one of the most common ways that women eventually escape sex slavery.

Meanwhile, Maltzahn is honing her political ambitions, intending to run on the Greens ticket for the City of Melbourne elections in November against Councillors John So and Gary Singer. Like Singer, Melbourne’s current Deputy Mayor, Maltzahn is also gay.

She describes her campaign ideas simply: “Melbourne could be a whole lot more than it is. It could be a smart, green city, an example for the country, and the rest of the world. Instead we have a lot of spin and circuses, and we can no longer afford that with the urgency around climate change.”

While she says beating John So’s ticket will be hard, Maltzahn is excited by the prospect: “If the Greens win it would be really exciting. Partly it would mean that we have that mandate from the community to address climate change and community equity, in a capital city that has the resources to make a difference.”

Kathleen Maltzahn’s Trafficked
UNSW Press, Briefings; 2008; 125pp; $19.95


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