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2000 (Narrative date)

Of the estimated 600,000 to 800,000 individuals trafficked across international borders each year, some 80 percent are women and girls. Nu was one of the thousands of women trafficked annually out of Thailand for sexual exploitation. The major destinations include Japan, Malaysia, Bahrain, Australia, Singapore, and the US. Internal trafficking occurs within the country as well, usually from northern Thailand (where hill tribe women and girls are denied Thai citizenship). In Japan, where she was enslaved, women are trafficked from Thailand, the Philippines, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and on a smaller scale from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Burma, and Indonesia. Nu was repeatedly raped by a relative and escaped to Bangkok at the age of 15 to work as a prostitute. She was tricked into leaving for Japan with the promise of waitress work. She spent ten months enslaved in a “karaoke bar” in Shinjuku, a Tokyo district, and another four years working as a prostitute after her escape. Her narrative describes the involvement of other women in the process of enslavement: a hairdresser friend and the “mama-san” (brothel manager). The percentage of female traffickers is rising. Some have been trafficked themselves and then reappear as recruiters or pimps. Others are blackmailed by criminals. Female traffickers are often the most convincing at deceiving women and girls into accepting fake job offers and so beginning the journey into slavery.

I am waiting to give birth to my baby. I hope it is not a girl. She must not suffer like me. I was abandoned by my parents and left to be brought up by distant relatives. I studied up to the primary level and did all the housework. When I reached puberty the son of the family I lived with began making advances towards me. He raped me several times, and began sending me out occasionally with clients for short periods, warning me never to tell his parents. I was already ‘spoilt’ and decided to run away and entertain clients on my own, instead of living under his control. I came to Bangkok at the age of 15, rented a room and began seeing clients independently. But getting enough and good clients was difficult, and operating independently without any protection was risky.

A hairdresser friend suggested that I find a well-paying job outside the country that also took care of my food and accommodation. She said that there were plenty of Thai women who worked in Japan and returned rich. She said that if I didn’t know how to go about things, she would introduce me to an agent who would help me secure work in Japan. I was willing and an appointment was fixed.

The agent interviewed me on my background. I told him that I had no relatives, that operating independently in Bangkok hardly got me good clients and money, and that I was worried that I wasn’t smart and good looking enough to go to Japan. He assured me that this was no problem at all, but that he would have to physically examine me before a final decision was made. He asked me to undress behind a makeshift screen, examined my body for ‘damage,’ and internally probed me with his bare hands to detect ‘disease.’ When he was satisfied that I was okay, he said I would be sent to Japan.

I was told that I would be working as a waitress in a bar earning approximately $200 per month, and that I was not bound to go out with clients, but could if I chose to earn more. Agent’s fees and other expenses were to be paid after I received my first wage. From the time the agent began working on my travel documents to the time of my departure—which was a little over two weeks—I was kept in a small hotel room and provided with food. The agent said this was necessary in preparation for my departure. I learnt later that I travelled to Japan on a tourist visa and someone else’s passport affixed with my photograph.

The day before my departure, I was told that I would be escorted from Bangkok airport by a Thai family—a man, his wife, their son and daughter. I was to pretend that they were my parents and siblings, and I was instructed by the agent to address them as mom and dad, and not to talk too much to them. I was specifically instructed not to talk to the Thai and Japanese immigration officials or to any authorities. My’ father’ would take care of everything. I had to demonstrate to the agent how I would behave with my family, to assure him I had understood his instructions.

I was introduced to my ‘family’ at the airport. The man seemed to be a technician with Thai airways. I don’t know if those were really his wife and children, but they were all fair and well dressed, and seemed to know what to do. My father kept my passport with him. The agent gave me 30,000 yen [$250] for my expenses before we left. At Narita airport in Japan, my ‘father’ took care of the immigration procedures. After we collected our baggage, the woman went her own way with the boy and girl, and my ‘father’ led me away in the opposite direction, where we were met by a Japanese man with three young Thai women in his charge. My ‘father’ took the 30,000 yen from me, left me with the Japanese and disappeared.

We were brought by taxi to a karaoke bar in Shinjuku. The owner was a Japanese, married to a Thai mama-san. The bar owner said that he did not accept girls with big tattoos and body marks and asked us to go one at a time into a cubicle at the back of the bar. I was asked to undress and the owner began pressing and massaging various parts of my body. He examined me vaginally. This was a repeat of the same procedure as in Thailand, but here the owner even slept with me before hiring me. I really felt horrible—’like a piece of flesh,’ being inspected, bought and sold. I had to take a blood test for HIV/AIDS. I was the only one of the four women bought by the bar. The other girls were taken elsewhere. I later learnt that if women tested HIV positive or were found physically unpleasing, they were bought only by lower grade bars where earnings are less and conditions much worse.

As soon as the others left, the mama-san told me that I had to pay off a debt of over one million yen [$8000]. My food, rent and other expenses would be added to this amount. We did not receive commissions on drinks, although we had to persuade clients to buy drinks. Clients paid the mama-san directly for taking the women out during the debt repayment period. The mama-san warned me not to try to run away as she would be very tough, and that all girls who tried escaping were brought back by the Yakuza and severely beaten or sold to other bars, accumulating double the debt. I was shocked and realized that the only way for me to pay off my debt was to go out with as many clients as possible. Tips from clients were the only liquid cash we earned. Sometimes a generous client helped women pay off their debts.

Our living quarters housed 30 girls between the ages of 14 and 30. Most were already in prostitution in Thailand before they came to Japan, but like me did not know they would have to go out with clients, pay off a huge debt, and live in total confinement. A few however had no idea at all they were being sold into prostitution and had a much harder time. We were packed into a small room with a bath-cum toilet above the mama-san’s house, far off from the bar. There was no radio or television and we were instructed to always talk softly or sleep when not at work. We were warned not to peep out of the window, as we would be arrested by the police who came on their daily rounds. It was very cold, but there was no heater or warm water. I was provided with a sheet, a blanket, a pillow, a pair of socks and had to sleep on the ground. We used to hold each other tight and sleep to keep warm. We generally worked through the night, slept in the morning and woke up in the early evening. We showered in batches to save time and water. We cooked and ate a routine meal of rice with raw, boiled, fried eggs or omelettes mixed with fish sauce and chillies and sometimes fried vegetables. I hated this food, but this was what we were given. It was also cheaper and that meant we could work our debts off faster. Other meals at the bar were ordered through the mama-san from an adjoining Thai restaurant, and added to our debts. We were never allowed direct communication with the restaurant workers or anyone else. Even our letters were censored.

By 6:30pm we were ready to be escorted to the bar. Most of us consumed drugs or gulped down alcohol before leaving for work. Our regular supply came from the mama-san and was added to our debts. I used a drug called domikum which made me feel happy, funny and carefree. It helped me lose all inhibitions and I never felt intense pain when on it. Most of us didn’t know Japanese and were forced to engage in body communication with clients. We had to sit very close to clients, touch and be touched by them, wear short dresses with spaghetti straps without any underwear, or walk around the bar stark naked to attract customers. I could only do this when high.

We could never refuse a client who wanted to go out with us, even if he was dirty, smelly or absolutely drunk. If a girl resisted being prostituted or accepting a specific client, she was badly beaten. Girls have been raped publicly in front of all of us by the Yakuza, especially called in to season them. This terrorizes other girls. Some girls were burnt with cigarette butts, and their nails hammered with bottles. If a girl was really unmanageable, she was sold by the owner to the Yakuza and we never saw or heard of her again, or she was sold to another bar with double the debt to repay. Also our mama-san would send us out with known sadistic clients when we disobeyed her, and girls came back very traumatized. Some behaved as if they were raving mad. In the one year that I stayed in the bar I never saw a girl being murdered but heard of incidents from friends. I decided it was better to obey the mama-san, and pay off my debt as fast as I could, than suffer this fate.

On an average, I entertained about three or four clients a night depending on the number of clients in the bar. Our clients were all Japanese between the ages of 20 and 70, but the majority were over 40. They liked young girls. Often the younger men swore love to us, but we knew it was only lust. They would soon drop us. Most of my young clients were very insensitive and rough. The older men tended to be gentler. Most of our clients thought that we had come to Japan because Thai women love sex. There were two girls out of the 30 in our bar who said they didn’t mind sex, provided it was not violent, but the rest of us drugged ourselves or drank to go through with it. We often got sadistic and kinky clients who were unknown to the bar owner—much more than I got in Bangkok. They would beat us before intercourse with sticks, belts or chains, till we bled. One of my clients wanted me to scream loud while beating me before sex, but he didn’t draw blood. Some impotent men used fake penises. There were some clients who inserted coke bottles into the girls’ vaginas; lit candles and dropped hot wax over our bodies and into the women’s vaginas; stared into a woman’s vagina and poured boiling water into it; gave the nipples electric shocks for a few seconds; or demanded oral or anal sex. If girls came back traumatized after going out with a sadistic client, and reacted hysterically or had nightmares, they would be beaten by the mama-san and told that they must have provoked the client to be violent. The mama-san never brought sadistic clients to book. If we cried on the job or resisted a client, we were beaten even more. That is why we routinely used drugs before sex, because then we didn’t feel the pain that much.

We had to work even when we were ill or menstruating. We used to insert sponges during menstruation, to prevent clients from knowing that we were menstruating. The mama-san instructed us to tell our clients to use condoms. Some men would, but most not. As I could not speak Japanese I could not ask them to use condoms, so I would excite them and slip it on without them knowing. If clients refused to use condoms, we had to give in. The mama-san never asked them to use one.

We used to have a pill a day supplied by the mama-san to avoid pregnancy. Of the 30 girls in the bar, while I was there, two got pregnant. They consumed some medicine and one of them aborted. The other got the girls to stamp her stomach till she aborted. Generally abortions were self-induced and facilitated by the girls in the bar. Letting the mama-san know that we were pregnant would get her angry, and seeking her help or going to a doctor would add to our debts. The abortificaient was secretly supplied by Thai restaurant workers, and the women were reported to consume five or six bottles before they aborted. The women complained of fatigue, abdominal pain and bleeding after that.

We didn’t know much about STDS/AIDS, except the names of these ailments. Those of us who visited STD clinics had seen pictures of STD affected body parts. We were only taken to the doctor when we were unable to stand. The owner was afraid that his illegal operations and our illegal status would come to light if we were exposed to outsiders. Those who were taken to doctors had stiff fees added to their debts.

Many of the girls complained either of a burning sensation or pain while urinating. We were told by the Thai restaurant owners that this was syphilis and were supplied with orange tablets at a price. We did not know what the drug was, but it made us feel better. Other health problems were stomachaches, fevers, injuries, nervousness, hysteria, emotional disturbances, mental breakdowns, including suicides. Some girls got drunk and urinated and vomited all over, and the mama-san increased their debts as a penalty. Others who took drugs got aggressive. We were under constant pressure and we often fought, screamed and punched one another. There was also a lot of peer bonding as we had only one another to depend on.

One of the girls who was depressed and drunk once slashed her wrists with a broken bottle, but fortunately did not cut herself deeply. She was going crazy in controlled conditions, got few clients, and felt she would have to work in the bar forever to pay off her debts. She would often get hysterical. We would try and calm her with medication, get her food and use the little Japanese we knew to get her clients. A girl in the next building jumped out of the window and died instantly. The mama-san and the girls left the premises and we don’t know what happened after that.

Sometimes the police would come in to check if there were visa-overstayers. The owner was mostly warned in advance by informants. Overstayers would be concealed, or heaped into a bus and hidden in a hotel close by in the mountains till the police left. At other times the bar would be closed for a day or two. There was also a time when only those with valid visas were produced before the police, and the police bribed.

Of the 30 women in the bar, four tried to escape, two successfully with the help of clients. The other two were caught and returned to the bar by the police only to be mercilessly beaten up by the owner. The mama-san told us that the girls who escaped would be tracked down and killed. Every single one of us dreamed about escaping. Several of us made plans but were too afraid to act on them.

When debts were paid off, the mama-san returned our passports, and we were free to either leave or stay for a month or two and earn something. Most women in our bar wanted to return to Thailand immediately, but had to stay back and earn some money to buy their return tickets and save a little before returning. Thai dealers in restaurants fixed our papers and return tickets for a fee. We were too afraid to go to the Thai embassy because we were told that the embassy officials would cut our hair and throw us into jail, as we were illegal residents. Many girls who dared to leave the bar to work independently after repaying their debts, were arrested by the police, fined, imprisoned, forced to provide sexual favors to the police and deported. It’s funny because we are punished for no fault of our own, but the bar owners, the corrupt police and even clients who abuse us badly are never punished.

I finished repaying my debt in ten months. I had some money from tips, but not at all enough to buy my return ticket. I worked for two months more in the bar. With the Japanese I picked up in a year, I then began to solicit clients in front of one of the motels close by. I had a boyfriend whom I lived with. I realized he was not serious about me and was not going to marry me. I had no education, no job, no accommodation, was an illegal resident, and could not return to Thailand immediately without earning something reasonable. So I stayed on with my boyfriend and went out with clients to save some money.

One day I happened to walk into a Thai restaurant and found a pamphlet that said, “If you need a Thai friend to talk to, contact this number.” I rang the number and found myself talking to a Japanese nun. I told her my story and requested her to help me get back to Thailand. She made the necessary arrangements and sent me to an NGO in Thailand. I returned with a saving of 30,000 baht [$685] after five years of struggle.

No one in the world can get over sleeping with one man after another who does not love you. These men want to come to us but don’t love us or don’t want to marry us. They only use us. The bar owners, recruiters or clients are never blamed for what they do to us. I don’t trust the police or the embassy. In Japan I hated to be so controlled. I feel ashamed about being in prostitution, but I can’t change my past. I haven’t told my present boyfriend about Japan. I feel embarrassed when people look at me. I think they do so because they know I was a prostitute. I talk loud and rudely. I must take drugs even now, after being so long in prostitution. It makes me feel strong. Society does not accept us. Only women in prostitution won’t look down on me, and can understand me.

Narrative as told to Jean D’Cunha for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), 2000, in a shelter in Bangkok, Thailand.