ADELAIDE - Nine years ago, as a sociology student, my eyes were opened to the plight of "mail-order'' Filipino brides at the hands of their Australian "sponsors''. While the business of sex tourism continues, awareness about the organised "shopping'' for women and children has increased.
This is largely due the growing number of Australian/Filipino women and organisations campaigning to keep the issue of sex tourism and trafficking in women on the political agenda. In South Australia, welfare worker and Filipina activist Joan Dicka has been central to this.
Between June 19 and July 4 she and fellow activist Angela Nesci travelled to the Philippines with 14 other women as part of an exposure/study tour organised by the Centre for Philippine Concerns in Australia. The tour was designed to investigate the level of Australian involvement in the Philippine sex industry.
The tour discovered that the involvement of Australian men in the organised sex tour industry was much more widespread than expected: Australians own two-thirds of all bars and hotels in Angeles City, the site of the former US Clark Air Base shut down in 1991, and today the new boom area for prostitution.
Dicka told Green Left Weekly that the bars are "operated, owned and managed by Australians who, according to the women, treat them badly compared to the Americans.''
Nesci said that the Philippines government has to take some blame for the exploitation of women. "We found women as young as 15 working in the bars, and saw a lot of others who looked much younger. One of the striking features of the tour was seeing how much the government allowed this to happen. It obviously benefits them financially.''
Nesci was struck by the treatment women faced within the sex industry and the personal stories she heard from young women working as "entertainers''. "One girl was working as a prostitute simply because, as the only girl from a family of five, she had to help the boys through college. She was the eldest in the family.''
While most of the women they met in the Philippines were more than willing to share their experiences, Australian and New Zealand businessmen were reluctant to talk. Once the group was forcibly removed from its accommodation late at night by a hotel owner in Angeles City.
Despite Philippine laws which prohibit foreign ownership and management of bars, hotels and resorts, many foreigners have found ways around the regulations. Australian nationals use their Filipino wives, or live-in partners or business partners, as fronts for their operations and violate Philippine labour laws by not paying the legal wage.
The study tour's list of recommendations includes that the Australian government put more resources into investigating and convicting Australians in the Philippines under legislation covering paedophilia. The first case to be tried under Australia's 14-month old Child Sex Tourism Act took place in late September.
The study tour is also demanding that the government send aid to Philippine NGO's which are helping to prevent the exploitation of women and children in the sex industry. Women working in this difficult area in the Philippines, Dicka explained, have very limited resources and face constant repression. She also wants the Australian government to assist those who have been sexually exploited.
Serial sponsorship is one of the most disturbing features of the trade in Filipino women. Serial sponsors are men who "sponsor'' women from overseas and when the relationship fails, often due to violence, desertion or even murder, return to buy another wife.
Studies conducted by the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs have identified men who have sponsored up to seven women. Yet there is currently no legal obligation for the man to disclose his past sponsorship details, or to provide details of any criminal record.
Despite having been threatened and harassed for her attempts over the last decade to expose serial sponsorship, Dicka speaks with determination and confidence. "We have made many recommendations because we know there are men with mental problems who have sponsored wives. Unfortunately, nothing has really changed.''
Dicka has protested to the Australian Embassy about the fact that men who apply for sponsorship don't have to give any information about themselves. She doesn't believe that the privacy act should override the rights of the women in these circumstances. "They don't have to say if they have had a history of domestic violence. But the girls have to give a lot of information, including a health check and police clearance. The Australian government requires all this information about the women, and says it is up to Philippines government to ask for information about the Australians.''
Nesci and Dicka believe that the Australian government is playing down the amount of violence women experience at the hands of their sponsors. The statistics usually only show the small percentage of women who go through the shelter and welfare system - the tip of the iceberg. The work of women such as Dicka and Nesci in capital cities also debunks the myths that domestic violence only happens in isolated country towns.
"The shelter is the last resort for women, whatever country they are from. But even if [the government] takes the statistics from the shelters, Filipino women make up a big percentage compared to other ethnic communities. For more than five years Filipino women have ranked as the second highest ethnic group using shelters due to domestic violence.''
The study tour has also recommended that the Philippines government examine the social costs of tourism and, in particular, the ownership and operations of entertainment establishments rather than victimising women.
An International Women's Congress has been planned for Adelaide next year at which sex tourism will be a major theme. As Dicka put it, "We have started [the campaign], and now it is a matter of keeping it alive''.
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