Report from Pacific Scoop by Greg Asciutto
As politicians discussed prostitution legislation reform in South Auckland at the weekend, more details of underage prostitution in the region continued to emerge.
New Zealand First MP Asenati Lole-Taylor, whose comments brought the issue of underage sex workers to national attention, was one of the speakers on Saturday at an Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board meeting addressing prostitution in the district.
The meeting, which NZ First Party Leader Winston Peters was also attending, aimed to “get feedback from the local community,” according to Lole-Taylor. “Some have raised concerns about their safety and local businesses are intimidated by the behaviour that’s going on.”
Lole-Taylor will take inquiries on a bill she has drafted that would ban street prostitution throughout New Zealand. Eliminating the practice, she said, would reduce the threat of young girls facing sexual exploitation on the streets.
“If we don’t put some control around prostitution, then the issue of underage prostitution will start to develop and increase under the radar, without being detected,” she said.
The MP, who represents the South Auckland electorate of Manukau East, said she had personally spoken with girls aged 13, 14 and 15 who were working as prostitutes in the suburb of Otara.
“There’s quite a large number of Polynesians,” Lole-Taylor said of the girls, adding that they represented a wide range of ethnic backgrounds.
“They vary from being Māori — there’s a large number of Māori girls — but there are also Samoan, there are a few Tongan, a huge number of Cook Island Māori and there are a number of Chinese girls.”
A local security guard, who wished not to be named out of fear of a community backlash, said that an increase in the number of young girls congregating around the Otara Town Centre was often witnessed on Tuesday and Thursday nights, when benefit cheques were distributed.
“I just tell them to go home,” the guard said. “I tell them, don’t be stupid — that’s how you get hurt.”
According to Lole-Taylor, it is difficult to determine if the girls are acting independently or if they are being forced onto the streets on someone else’s will. “I can’t see why those girls would be so brave to stand out, at night, on their own, waiting for these people to come pick them up,” she said. “If they are brave enough to be out there, then obviously they must be feeling very secure that some of the people who are looking out for them are not far away.”
Alan Bell, national director of Ending Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking in New Zealand, said that while the “pimping” of underage girls did occur, it was important to recognise that any individual under the age of 18 working in the industry was a victim of sexual exploitation, regardless of management.
“Most of the young prostitutes down there come from dysfunctional families and broken homes,” he said. “In a sense, they are victims of circumstance — even if they don’t have someone directly managing them, we still classify them as a victim.”
Police have publicly stated they have no evidence suggesting underage prostitution is occurring in Otara, but according to Denise Ritchie, founder of Stop Demand, national laws and the clandestine nature of the industry make the subject hard to investigate.
“The police are facing their own difficulties,” said Ritchie. “If somebody is, say 16 or 17, and they catch them in a car with a man, even having sex, they have got to still prove that there was some commercial transaction.”
Though the age of consent in New Zealand is 16, the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalised prostitution in the country in 2003, dictates that an individual must be 18 before they receive compensation for sexual services.
“Unless the police can prove and see that a commercial transaction has taken place, the girl can just say it was consensual sex with some man they know,” said Ritchie. “It’s so resource-intensive.”
New Zealand is not the only Pacific country battling underage sexual labour.
The 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, composed by the United States Department of State, listed a number of Asia-Pacific nations whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a US law focused on the elimination of human trafficking and sexual exploitation across the globe.
The report cited Papua New Guinea as the worst offender in the region, categorising the nation as “Tier 3” country that is not making any significant effort to combat the issue.
“Children, especially young girls from tribal areas, are most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation,” the report read, adding that in urban areas, “children from poorer families are prostituted by their parents or sold to brothels.”
The report also listed Fiji as a “Tier 2” country, one in which officials do not meet the minimum TVPA requirements but are making efforts to do so.
According to Monica Waqanisau, a legal research official at the Fiji Women’s Crisis Center, reports of underage girls working as prostitutes are “definitely increasing” within the country, a problem she attributes to growing poverty, tourism and external pressure.
“The cases that we’ve come across have often been situations where the child is prostituted by adults, sometimes even by their own families,” she said.
In 2010, the last year in which a comprehensive study on the subject was conducted, Save the Children Fiji and the International Labour Organisation identified and interviewed 109 children within the country who were involved in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.
“From the research, it was found that most of the children in CSEC feel that the main reason they are involved in this is due to the lack of opportunity for education and employment,” said Zubnah Khan, the organisation’s communications officer.
“Acquiring easy money to keep up to date with the recent fashionable items, peer pressure and family problems are also contributing factors.”
According to specialists dedicated to the elimination of CSEC, regional governments could curb underage prostitution if more resources and legislation focused on the prosecution and identification of those who are exploiting young girls across the Pacific.
“The issue really is, you know, not that the underage people are being prostituted,” said Bell.
“It’s the guys who are willing to buy the services from them that is the problem.”
Ritchie said adopting an alternative approach that attacks the root of the problem will allow law enforcement, politicians and regional organisations to combat the issue with greater effectiveness.
“We’ve got to collaboratively, between the various agencies, work at ways to reduce and eventually stop demand,” she said. “If you stop demand, it won’t matter how many young girls are loitering in Otara or in Suva or anywhere else — if there’s no men to pick them up, then prostitution would just die out.”
Greg Asciutto is an exchange student from the University of Southern California on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.