Smuggled plea bares dark world of child prostitutes





“I have been locked up for more than three months now and I can’t stand it anymore,” wrote 16-year-old prostitute Hsiao Hui in a pleading letter smuggled out of a Taipei brothel by a sympathetic patron.

“They beat me and forced me to receive customers, and restricted my freedom. I used to be a pure girl, but because my father owed money I was brought here. Please show pity on me. Please rescue me.”

Hsiao Hui was fortunate. Although the brothel owner moved her from place to place after her story was widely reported in the media, Taipei police were able to trace her whereabouts and rescue the girl.

According to a survey conducted by the Taipei city department of social welfare, 200,000 other children in the sex industry are not so lucky. Police statistics indicate that they have rescued no more than 1,000 child prostitutes over the past three years.

Another survey shows that 67 percent of prostitutes started before they were 16 and 29 percent before the age of 13. Social workers say that children as young as 9 years old are involved.

The girls are confined like slaves, with no protection from abusive brother owners and customers. They live in tiny dark rooms with poor ventilation, where they may receive anywhere from 10 to 50 customers a day.

Their bodies are violated in other ways as well. Since many are physically immature and small, they are injected with hormones to induce maturity.

The children are given little protection against sexual diseases or AIDS. Eight out of 10 girls recently rescued and sent to the Women’s Rescue Foundation, an organization established to help prostitutes, had some form of sexual disease.

Many come from the island’s impoverished aborigine community, which has been left behind by the island’s economic miracle. Some 40 percent of these girls have been sold into prostitution by their families.

“If disaster comes to a family, if someone is sick or needs an operation, apparently the easiest way to get money is to sell the daughter,” says Liao Pi-Ying, director of the Rainbow Project, a Presbyterian organization that provides assistance to aborigine youth.

Often, the contact person is a prominent village figure, such as an elected official, a teacher, or even a policeman’s wife, all of whom have a civic status that can protect them should their activities be found out.

These middlemen receive up to 25 percent of the US$9,000 generally paid for a girl, a huge sum in a country with a yearly per capita income of US$8,000.

While many girls may contemplate running away, escape is almost impossible. The girls are under the watchful eye of “bodyguards” 24 hours a day, even when they go to the doctor’s office for a check-up.

For those lucky enough to escape or be arrested, there are only two rehabilitation centers on the island.

The girls spend six months in the rehabilitation houses, but once the confinement period is over there are only two places for them to go: back home, where they may not be welcome, or back to the brothel. It is estimated that 95 percent of the girls who have been in the centers return to prostitution.

“In many cases forced participation eventually becomes voluntary,” says Angie Galman, an American missionary who has been working with prostitutes for the past eight years.

Most young prostitutes are afraid to bring legal action against those who have enslaved them for fear of subjecting their parents to prosecution. In order to protect their parents the frightened girls often admit to being voluntarily involved and are then treated as juvenile delinquents.

Without formal accusations, suspects cannot be taken to court. Furthermore, when someone is convicted the sentence is often just a light fine or probation and so does not serve as a deterrent.

The owner of one brothel, who forced a 16-year-old girl to work for three months and serve 3,000 customers before letting her leave, received a 10 month jail sentence.

Social workers are frustrated by the lack of support from the government and from society in general. They say that throughout Chinese history girls from poor families have been forced into prostitution and that Chinese society accepts this as normal.

Many people just refuse to believe that child and teenage prostitution exists here.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney