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Nicholas Kristof's Brothel Problem

CounterPunch Diary

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

I’d got so used to Nicholas Kristof’s January visits to prostitutes in Cambodia that it was a something of a shock to find him this January in Calcutta’s red light district instead.

As readers of his New York Times columns across the past three years will know, Kristof heads into south east Asia around this time–a smart choice, weatherwise–to write about the scourge of child prostitution. One can hardly fault him for that, even though Kristof’s bluff, busy-body prose is particularly irksome as he takes his pet peeve out for an annual saunter, the way A.M. Rosenthal did for years with female circumcision in Africa.

So far as I know, Rosenthal never actually bought a young African woman to save her from circumcision. Maybe they aren’t for sale. In 2004, Kristof did buy two young Cambodian women–Srey Neth for $150 and Srey Mom for $203–to get them out of the brothels in Poipet, and took them back to their villages.

There was something very nineteenth-century abut the whole thing, both in moral endeavor and journalistic boosterism, though presumably there was a twentieth-first century footnote as to whether Kristof billed the Times for the purchase money and transport expenses or listed the girls as a charitable deduction on his own tax return, which could have led to sharp interrogation by some cynical IRS auditor.

In January of 2005, Kristof was back in Cambodia to report that while Srey Neth was doing well, learning to be a hair stylist, Srey Mom was back in the brothel, probably because she needed the drugs. Even in 2005 some of us had our doubts, since Srey Mom wouldn’t leave the brothel until Kristof sprang not only the $203 but also some extra cash for her cell phone and some jewelry she’d hocked. Mind you, most girls would put cell phones ahead of moral renaissance.

I smell an HBO movie in the offing. The New York Times certainly knows it’s on to a good thing. Having ponied up the extra dollars necessary to become an elite NYT e-subscriber with access to the op-ed columnists, I can now click on pictures of the Cambodian girls and Kristof’s videos of himself engaged in good works.

I did click on "prostitution", at the foot of a Kristof column, and found myself looking at a cheery promo piece published in the NYT in early January about a brothel for women customers that Heidi Fleiss is planning to build in Nevada. Maybe there’ll be rooms with teenage boys to slake the appetites all those school teachers who seduce their students, and then Kristof can schedule a buy-out for them too, perhaps in January of 2007, if Heidi gets her license from the state of Nevada by then. She told the Times reporter she’d already sold the HBO rights.

This January Kristof’s been in India. From Nagpur on January 15 he announced grandly that "The central moral challenge we will face in this century will be to address gender inequality in the developing world", before relating a rousing tale about how Usha Narayane had rallied women into resistance to a local thug and rapist, eventually cutting off his penis and chopping him up into tiny pieces.

Then he was off to file on January 22 from Calcutta’s red light district an interview with Geeta, kidnapped with all sorts of exciting trimmings for Times readers ("Then the aunt locked her in a soundproof room in a brothel with an Arab man who bought her virginity.")

On January 24, another Kristof column issued from Calcutta about how to battle sex trafficking, with suggestions for fiercer policing, campaigns against the sales of virgins, inspection of brothels for prisoners and so on, and a suggestion that Bush, on his impending visit to India lead "dignitaries and TV cameras through a red-light slum and down a fetid alley to the sewer-side offices of New Light. The entourage could then spotlight reformers like Ms. Basu"

True to form, India hoists the western pundit’s inanity to matchless levels. As Vijay Prashad, a columnist for the Indian weekly Frontline (and CounterPunch contributor) wrote to me from Chennai, after reading Kristof’s column, "Imagine writing a column on the methamphetamine crisis in rural America without any mention of the death of the family farm." And indeed it is virtually unimaginable that Kristof can write about prostitution in India today and of the lot of women without one single word about the larger socio-economic context.

India has endured more than a decade of virtually unimaginable rural torment amidst the imposition of the neo-liberal "reforms", endlessly hailed by New York Times reporters and editorially endorsed. With withdrawal of subsidies, collapse of farm credit and of markets there is a gigantic rural crisis, affecting millions of families.

As The Hindu newspaper’s chronicler of these rural catastrophes, P. Sainath, (with whom I traveled around India last year) wrote to me this week, "Take Anantapur district in Andhra Pradesh which saw the maximum numbers of farm suicides for any district in India (over 3,000 during the years of the NYT’s poster boy of the reforms, Chandrababu Naidu [at that time the state's chief minister], every single NGO and social organization dealing with women’s issues worried about how bad was the rise of prostitution as the agrarian crisis bit deeper and deeper.

"If you drove from Anantapur in Andhra to India’s ‘Silicon Valley’ in Bangalore in the neighboring state of Karnataka, as I often did and do, you could see dozens of women hanging about the highway waiting for pick ups, mostly truck drivers. This was simply not seen on those roads ten-twelve years ago."

This border area, Sainath says, is also the victim of WTO-related policies, which have killed its silk and sericulture sector. At the very same time, other neo-liberal policies destroyed hundreds of industrial units in Anantapur. The shutdowns went on through the 1990s. Many other units either folded or saw major retrenchment. A huge rise in child labor accompanied the process. And a big drop in wages further hit purchasing power. Where workers (as in A.P. Lightings) wanted the chance to run their own units, they were told it was impossible. No credit would be given.

Meanwhile, close to 70 per cent of oil mills dealing with groundnut also shut down. And while employment growth in rural Andhra Pradesh fell to 0.29 per cent during this period–lower than in the rest of the country–Anantapur fared even worse.

The pressures resulting from such policies have systematically pushed women from desperate families into prostitution. "Women and young girls are without a doubt the worst victims of the agrarian crisis," Sainath emphasizes. " Particularly women with landless labor , or small farm and lower caste backgrounds. The last 10 years have been a nightmare for so many of them. Wherever I go in rural India, every activist I ever speak to almost inevitably brings up the subject of trafficking himself or herself. They’re all worried about the rise in debt-related or bonded prostitution."

Recently Brinda Karat of the CPI-M, Member of Parliament and leader of the largest women’s oganization in the country, the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) publicly declared that "There is a huge increase in prostitution and trafficking of women and children around the country. Violence against women has also increased."

It’s not as if the position of women and girls was was wonderful earlier. To the contrary. The situation of women in India is very often nightmarish. But, as Sainath says, "they are unquestionably a lot worse off than they were. With hunger rising in the rural poor, women are by far the worst off. The woman in a traditional Indian family always eats last. After she’s fed her husband, the children and the aged parents, if any. (In the case of children, the boy is nourished better than the girl, and first.) So when the cake shrinks, as it has in the last 12-15 years, the women eat less and less and less. However, their physical stress and activity have increased in that same period."

A very conservative estimate from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that India contributed nearly three-fourths of the new hungry added on to the ranks of the already hungry between 1995-97 and 2000-02. Other estimates paint a far bleaker picture. Out of this frightful destitution come thousands and thousands of women and girls forced to prostitute themselves as a last defense against starvation for themselves and their families.

Against this grim and steadily darkening backdrop, it is indeed possible to identify heroic souls in Calcutta and Mumbai and elsewhere trying to ameliorate the lives of prostitutes, or at least give their children a chance. There are also very large and dedicated organizations such as AIDWA, mentioned above, though Kristof probably wouldn’t want to usher Bush through its portals since its leader, Brinda Karat last year became the first woman member of the Politburo of the CPI-M. the largest communist party in India.

Heroic souls, and also practical ones As I related in a CounterPunch Diary last year, Sainath’s friend Sudarshan invited me to APNE-AAP, a foundation he runs, in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light district along the Falkland Road. The Foundation has some rooms in an old school, and these are now filled with cheerful kids. The idea is precisely to give children of prostitutes a chance to get out of the life, get some education, get a chance. It’s the dearest dream of the prostitutes, many of whom haven’t much hope of living past 35, taken off by AIDS or TB. The woman working at the drop-in house get the prostitutes ration cards, take them to hospital, run savings accounts –over 200 when I was there–for them where they can squirrel away ten rupees (25 cents) or so a day for their kids. Without such help the prostitutes get turned away by hospitals and kindred bureaucracies. Already there are 150 kids who’ve graduated, and 65 currently in attendance. Only one graduate has gone into her mother’s line of business. I liked the atmosphere, mercifully free of social worker sanctimony. Manju Vyas, the woman running the place, a Hindu from Kashmir, was humorous and enormously impressive.

We walked over to a huge old brothel built by the British a hundred years ago for their garrison. Back then the prostitutes were Tibetan or Japanese. These days they’re from Nepal or Bangladesh. The middlemen procuring the girls from their parents get 20,000 rupees (about $500) or more from the madams. The rooms in the brothel are about 10 foot by 10 foot, with two tiers of beds and families of four or five cooking and chatting. When a customer shows up and forks over his 50 rupees, they presumably stand outside. The girls greeted us in friendly style and some of them covertly slid over their ten rupees to the APNE-AAP women, out of sight of husband, or pimp, or madam . It costs residents 50 rupees a day to rent a bed. Five rupees buy you a bucket of water. Electricity costs 150 rupees a month.

Sure, Kristof could promote a photo-op of Bush chatting with the kids, as he chirps about "what can be done to help sex trafficking victims like Geeta", and that "It’s time to emancipate them". Western viewers might get a warm glow, spared a wide-angle shot of all those tens of thousands of women newly forced into prostitution by the neo-liberal system whose leading advocate and enforcer is the United States.

If Kristof wants to confront the prime promoter of prostitution in India and many other countries besides, he doesn’t have to leave the east coast of the United States. He can take his video camera into the World Bank and confront its current president, Paul Wolfowitz. Of course it’s not as dramatic as buying Cambodian girls, or as colorful as retailing Geeta’s ravishing by the Arab.

Note: A much shorter version of this column ran in The Nation, which went to press on Wednesday.