The Understanding Of Child Prostitution In Thailand


The chosen ethnographic study originates from Thailand and it analyses on the understanding of child prostitution from different views and perspectives. The findings of the paper show key issues associated with the changes of child-rearing practices over a generation. The issues comprise of duties and obligations of children in Thailand, decrease in quality of parenting, different viewpoints on child prostitution, the role it played in their family and moral economics and how does sex work still exist as part of a working industry in Thailand.

Child prostitution has been widely spread in a small part of Thailand, which was unmentioned, since the previous generations in the 1960s, after Vietnam War. The use of Thailand as a rest and recreation destination for American servicemen in the Vietnam War as well as rising rural poverty led to urban migration and the growth of the sex industry in the cities. Since then, the infrastructure of the sex industry was left and a population see sex work as a valuable commodity. Even though the perspective of making money had changed over the years, the motivations for doing sex work is still there. Legal interventions to prosecute parents who committed offences against children were made prior to the issues faced, however it failed due to lack of understanding in child prostitution based on the children and families’ viewpoints. The author did a similar study in 2014 on morality of child-rearing in a slum community in Thailand and the findings were similar in which prostitution was seen as a source of income and it is the simplest job to get out of their lowly income situation. The studies show that the image of child was destroyed due to the belief in the reciprocal nature of parent-child relationships and how childhood is morally ruined from a young age due to economically disadvantaged status.

Childhood deprivation, duties and obligations as a child versus forced child labour, parents’ attitude towards prostitution in relation to economic disadvantage and policymakers’ interventions are some of the subjects identified from the study mentioned earlier. The focus of this paper is to discuss how quality of parenting are conceptualized in this context, construction of childhood and child labour not only in Thailand but also in other related studies done in other countries other than United Kingdom. The influencing factors such as the economic, cultural, social and political circumstances pertaining to each of these discourses and how these factors contribute to construction(s) of childhood and young people will be explored.

Quality parenting and construction of childhood In Montgomery (2015), it is apparent that the quality of parenting has declined due to social, cultural and economic factors and influences affecting the construction of childhood in Thailand. Often, children were left unprotected and parents became coercive as the economy declines which exacerbates the situation. The loss of quality in parenting could be seen through the actions of the parents in which they ignored the fact that prostitution is harmful to children and think more towards family survival strategies instead. Even though they knew that prostitution is vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancies, children are still encouraged to do it due to its non-arduous nature yet highly paid salary. Furthermore, studies show that some parents even went ahead to take advances from brothel owners and actively collude in the sexual exploitation of their daughters. According to Melrose et al. (1999), educational policies which consists of low educational system also may cause the strain which leaves the children in rural areas with limited choices but to engage in child prostitution due to poor law enforcement. Thus, parents find it unnecessary to send their children to school as it teaches the children a skill that could be learnt from home, for example, agriculture. It is evident that parents play a vital role in a child’s growth and development as they have the most control over their child’s decision. Therefore, their perception on the value of school will determine the attendance of the child in school or being sent to work.

Many parents from the rural communities overlooked on the importance of schooling as they are personally uneducated. This portrays that parental education also plays a huge role in deciding their child’s schooling and employment. Economic InfluenceIn the latter part of the 20th century, Lim (1998) discovered that Thailand is experiencing a rapid growth of rural-based poverty due to export-led policies for industrial growth. According to Tourism Authority of Thailand, the term ‘poverty’ is commonly related to lack of education, unemployment, poor attainments and bleak economic outlook. There was an increase in materialism and consumerism caused by the globalization of the economy, media and the influx of consumer goods which leaves the poor families to be in a vulnerable state and drives them to the desperate measure of selling their daughters into sex slavery. Moreover, the free movement of people, goods and services across international borders has also made it convenient for the traders to perform child trafficking, resulting in an increase of commercial sexual exploitation.

Cultural Influence

Apart from the economical factor that leads to child trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, it is important to understand the ingrained cultural values that Thai people believed in throughout the centuries. Muecke (1992) stated that prostitution in Thailand is strongly associated with Thai value, bunkhun, whereby it is permissible through the notion of karma and merit-making that girls showed their gratitude and gain merit by working as a prostitute to support the family in the growing sex industry. In view of the financial duty, McCamish (2002) highlighted that it is not necessarily a daughter’s job to fulfil, but it is a child’s duty towards their parents in general because children are seen as chattels to their parents for giving birth and raising them up hence, it is the duty and obligations of a filial child to look after their aging parents and obey them.

Besides, Thai history, culture, and custom provide the means for men to sexually exploit females. They believe that men have the authority to control and utilize female sexuality for their own personal gain, be it financially or sexually (Robinson, 1997). Similarly, there is an Indian culture in Bombay, which influences and instills the knowledge of being a prostitute to young females and demands that prostitution is her only purpose in life. They believed in devadasi system, a religious practice which requires the young females to serve sex goddess Yelamma to become upper-caste community members. As a result, parents will send their daughters to a brothel to continue her life as a prostitute once the young females have reached the age of puberty. This suggests that parental quality can occur globally and in various degrees and factors, even though the issue shown in the chosen ethnographic study occurs in local context.

Social Influence

While carrying out such filial duty, Sarajjakool (2003) highlighted that prostitution has developed into an accessible quick revenue for the younger generations as it was recognized to have a ‘better’ lifestyle. The children also believed that there could be life after prostitution as this industry is able to provide them with ‘good money’. Given the substandard environment that the children live within, it is undeniable that they could be easily influenced by the surroundings and grow like the people in it. Child prostitution is seen as a norm in Thailand’s society thus, it is not considered as a shameful act; instead, ‘shame’ has been closely interlinked with the extent to which they fulfilled the duties they have towards their parents. Their perception on shame illustrates how shameful would it be to not fulfil their duties towards their parents than of prostituting their bodies. Politics Influence Political instability is recognized to be one of the reasons why there is an increase in human trafficking, thus, leading to the rise of child prostitution. Thailand expanded their tourist development in sexual exploitation with the help of World Bank economists, as they believed that supplementing its export activities will attract wealthy foreigners and boost their country’s economy. Therefore, it became more challenging to keep track of the activities and manage the situation as the sex industry expands, due to government’s lax attitude towards child prostitution. It is hard to alter Child Sex Tourism because the nature of practice is based on such global terms, which not only involve prosecuting foreign visitors but inhibiting what would be helpful supplements to Thailand’s GDP as the tourism industry remains one of its most prevalent sources of revenue.

Lack of enforcement in legislation

In Montgomery (2015), prosecution of parents who encouraged sexual exploitation was unsuccessful because, arguably, the underlying cause for a prolonged advancement of the sex tourism is not due to lack of legislation but the lack of enforcement of labour restrictions that perpetuates child labour. For instance, there appears to be inconsistencies in legislation such as working age requirement in which the required age for entering a formal education comes later than minimum working age. This will only enable the children to enter employment easily before they could even finish their lowest schooling level. It is also apparent that the law within Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act is vaguely written as punishments and acts are not clearly defined thus, making it difficult to realize the actual implementation of the law. The poor law enforcement within the legislation explains the constant presence of the sex industry thus, deconstructing the childhood in which was shaped by different social, economic, cultural and political contexts.

On a contrary, prostitution in highly developed countries, such as Sweden, is viewed as inhumanity against children and women hence, purchasing of sexual services is a crime in the country. The stringent Swedish policies and legislation towards criminalizing the buyers of sexual services causes a huge declination in street prostitution after few years implementing it. Although child prostitution is seen as immoral and unethical in a global context, criminalizing it in Thailand would only hinder the local’s economic needs and worsen the life of the locals living in rural poverty thus, the need to understand local realities behind every child prostitute or rather, being in child labour.

Understanding child labour

Bellamy (1997) concluded that child labour remains prevalent because children are identified as “more efficient workers” in which they are easier to exploit, and they are paid lesser than adults. Child labour is recognized to displace adult labour which exacerbates unemployment and lowering wages however, it is appreciated to be relieving their economic needs. For an instance, production costs will increase if child labourers were to be eliminated from the labour force and be replaced by adults who received adult-level wages henceforth, causing a risk to the poor population. This is relatable to the chosen ethnographic study in which children are exposed to child labour due to the nature of their poverty-stricken community and because of certain factors such as their economic needs and familial factors. Based on International Labour Organization (ILO) (2014), child labour does not only happen in Thailand, it also occurs in the global context in which was recognized to affect approximately 168 million children worldwide. Often times, children have to choose between education and work because the latter means food and a roof over their heads. Although education and safety are important aspects of a child’s life, it is also crucial to know that without the work that is provided, these children could end up scavenging for garbage or begging in the streets. Having said that, sending the children for formal education is also not sensible at this point of time because the child’s daily wage still serves as a major contribution to family income. It is imperative to weigh children’s point of view on child labour as it could be both negative and positive at the same time. Given their standards of living in Thailand where Montgomery (2015) did his case study, it leaves some of the children with no choice but to work to support their families but, undoubtedly, these children felt better to make money so that they contribute to the family income rather than going to school and starving. However, this differs from those who were forced to be in child slavery jobs where they work in a dangerous working condition with little pay, and not given a chance to enter formal schooling. In these circumstances, children felt uncertain and unprotected as they are not getting an education that can further them in life. Both perspectives provide insight into the lives of children working as labours. Nevertheless, even though their culture makes it more likely that they will become prostitutes, it does not mean that it is solely because of culture that they do it. Construction of childhood and child’s rightsIn Montgomery (2015), the author portrays children who prostitutes in Thailand as making choices and acting ethically within the constraints of their own culture. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Chid (UNCRC) is comprehensively offering children protection from any forms of misconduct however, many of the children refused to admit that they are being exploited even though it is apparent that they are vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

The prevalence of child labour leads to the deconstruction of childhood and violates the rights of the children to have formal education and play. According to UN convention on the rights of the child (UNCRC), it is evident that children has the right to be protected from hazardous work that may harm their health. The tasks given to them have to be age appropriate and comply with national labour laws. In addition, the jobs that the children carry out should not jeopardize their other rights which includes educations or the right to relaxation and play. It is also stated that children should be protected from any forms of exploitation which would further harm their welfare and development. However, the Convention failed to recognize that not all rights can be realized equally for all children around the globe because ensuring a child’s right to be free from sexual exploitation in this context would mean violating their rights to live with their families and in their communities. The construction of childhood for the young girls in this context is shaped through their daily experiences as child prostitutes in which people tend to overlook the complexities and local realities. It is crucial to acknowledge that children have the right to live with their families and to be protected from sexual exploitation, while simultaneously recognizing the cultural, social, economic and political factors that allow child prostitution to sustain because child prostitution is not imperatively destructive as it appears to be in a global context. Undoubtedly, children established a sense of satisfaction for being able to support their families and fulfil their kinship obligations, even though their agency was minimal and they remained socially and economically marginal.


In essence, it is crucial to listen to child’s voices in these circumstances even though there is an international legal precedent of the Convention because a child has all the rights to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings involving their entire being, be it indirect or indirectly, following the procedural rules of national law. Afterall, it is not that the child prostitutes refused to be free of sexual exploitation as promised in the UN Convention, but because it is relatively an ideal but culturally odd to them hence, making it a complex issue in a globalised world. Several studies and researches have been done and concluded that understanding child prostitution from a child’s perspective is more realistic than to have an international view of the phenomenon. Therefore, it is ideal to study and mediate between cultural relativism of the country and universalism which emphasized on the priorities of an individual communities and the effect that the rights discourse has at the local level, while being aware of globalization. It is best to explore what is best for the children given the unique cultural and economic circumstances of their lives, than to normalize the standard of requirements of all children.

15 Jun 2020
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