By Lisa Shoman:Along the beautiful Valley road of Stann Creek, on a sweeping curve just across the road from Marie Sharp’s Fine Foods is the White Swan.
The White Swan is ostensibly a bar. What is really is, is a “Bar” complete with the requisite “bar girls”. It does not only trade in ice cold “chelas”. It trades in flesh. That is actually its biggest attraction. Flesh. It looks really, other than the obligatory sign outside the establishment with its name, like an ordinary ferro-concrete two story house, with a large yard and cemented driveway. Unremarkable until you notice the little concrete sheds in that yard. And you ask yourself, what are those for? They are not utility sheds. Wait. Maybe they are. Thing is with the White Swan, is that it’s not hidden. It is smack on the roadside, in plain sight and most adults and not a few kids in the area know exactly what the “Bar” is, and what it sells.
In Belize, prostitution is ostensibly “legal”. Yes. You heard that right. There is no law prohibiting any person from selling sexual services. However, obtaining the services of a commercial sex worker by paying for such service is illegal.
Furthermore, owning or operating a brothel, or living off the proceeds of prostitution, are crimes punishable by law. Purchasing the sexual services of a minor under the age of consent is an added offense. This ‘think piece’ is not about the morality of prostitution. Rather, it is about the business – or the industry, if you prefer, of the “world’s oldest profession.” Because make no mistake, as a preliminary teaser post on my FB wall attests, the commercial sex trade is an industry – and a very lucrative industry at that.
One of my friends put it most succinctly on my June 22, 2017 FB “bar girl” rant as follows : “I met a young lady who was once trafficked for sex, and escaped, who told me “Human bodies are more valuable than drugs to sell. Drugs, you sell once but you can sell a person over and over and over again.” The White Swan is only one example only of the hundreds of “ficha bars” and brothels operating for decades, rather openly in Belize with complete impunity.
The US State Department, via its Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons which was established in October 2001 as a result of the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (the TVPA) has annually for at least the past 15 years has issued a global report on Trafficking in Persons. This is known as the TIP Report.
The annual US State Department TIP Report ranks governments based “on their perceived efforts to acknowledge and combat human trafficking” within the TVPA guidelines. Belize is among those governments. For many years we have been at Tier 2 – that is, we make some effort, but we could do better.
For some years we have been at Tier 2 Watchlist – meaning that we were in danger of being booted off Tier 2 and downgraded to Tier 3. Last year, in 2016, no doubt frustrated by our craven lip service to addressing trafficking in persons, the unthinkable happened. We were demoted into the lowest possible tier on the scale – Tier 3 – “Countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”. And this year in 2017, we have the honor of remaining firmly on Tier 3, the only nation in the America along with Haiti and Suriname to be ranked thusly. Some skeptics loudly rail that we should not care. Who are these hypocritical Americans to judge us like that anyway? The fact is that they judge themselves too, in a published report, separately from the rest of the world. And they do not spare themselves.
The 2016 Report commences as follows: “The United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, transgender individuals, and children—both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals—subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Trafficking occurs in both legal and illicit industries, including in commercial sex, hospitality, sales crews, agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, restaurants, health and elder care, salon services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, and domestic service.
Individuals who entered the United States with and without legal status have been identified as trafficking victims.” Not only that, but the US State Department report identifies the United States, along with Mexico and the Philippines as one of the “top three countries of origin of federally identified victims in fiscal year (FY) 2015”.
The US State Department is not the only agency which monitors and measures Human Trafficking, but it is one of the best known. Human Rights Watch, UN Women, UNODC and the OIM are but a few of the agencies that do.
By ANY measure, Belize is failing its global obligations to monitor and prevent human trafficking. This was a perennial concern of mine as Ambassador to the United States for the seven years I served in DC; and I made consistent and deliberate efforts to dialogue with the State Department about their observations and to lobby for assistance for Belize.
Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I only succeeded in annoying my Minister and the GOB. But never did I imagine that Belize would end up on Tier 3 – or that the TIP report would openly state (and Channel 7 news reported) 5 times that “Trafficking-related complicity by government officials, including those at high levels.” And, because of all that, for the second year in a row Belize is listed in the lowest tier, that’s Tier 3.
The TIP report for Belize states, quote, “The Government of Belize does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.” And yet, instead of facing our failure, we want to rail up and act ‘wrong and strong’. Back to the White Swan. Understand that too many establishments like it, rely on human trafficking to provide the establishment with “staff” and “entertainers”.
The mythology of women who are sex workers because they like it, or because it’s “lucrative” is a fairytale that customers need to tell themselves in order to indulge in the sex industry. As another close friend reminded me on my “previews” post today, “You think they have a choice? No one chooses that way of life. I have friends who have chosen to work in the sex industry but most definitely not working out of a seedy bar, servicing drunk men in concrete sheds. The women doing this may not all have been physically coerced, but that doesn’t mean it’s a choice. It means that they have no other choices. No one chooses a degrading, disgusting job. They do it because they have no options. That’s down to poverty and deprivation of education and opportunity. If you think they ‘enjoy’ it, you are more than delusional.”
Those who are in the most dire situation are the women, girls and boys who are trafficked as sex slaves. They work in the “sex industry” by rules set by their “employers”, coerced, isolated, and under inhumane conditions, required to submit to a situation that robs them of human rights, human dignity and their freedom.
This TIP report on Belize states that”…government did not investigate or prosecute any public officials for alleged complicity in human trafficking-related offenses, despite reports of a significant level of official complicity.” When was the last time any brothel owner in the Jewel (save and except for 2-3 female “bar” owners/managers) was arrested for any crime of keeping a brothel, let alone for facilitating and exploiting trafficking in humans?
Most damningly, the TIP report states that “off-duty police officers often provide security for sex trade establishments, “which may have inhibited victims from coming forward and officers from investigating allegations of trafficking in the sex trade- particularly if made against their employers.”
The entire debate as to whether the sex trade in Belize should be legalized and regulated is another issue; but recognize that the ambiguous situation permits for slavery to occur right in our neighborhoods and communities in the Jewel. We, an ex-slave-owning society, permit, and even condone this. This is the harsh reality.
For me this is neither a moral nor a religious issue. It is first and foremost a human rights issue. We should care about what kind of society we live in, no matter the source of the criticism leveled against us. When next you pass the White Swan, or Picame, or the Pride of Mopan Bar, or Papa Gallo’s, or any establishment like these, ask yourself if you can just ignore the fact that there are potentially slaves working there.
Can you ignore that? Can you live with that? The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.
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