A mother and her child wait for Sunday mass to begin in a Catholic church in Tarawa. The heads of the two major churches in Kiribati have renewed criticism of local women boarding foreign fishing vessels. The church leaders said they are worried about the spread of prostitution.
A baby sleeping in a Betio slum. The problem of increasing prostitution is linked to a number of factors. An ever-increasing youth population, crowded housing conditions, lack of employment and educational opportunities has left young people vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, either for cash, transport, food or other material goods.
A traditional Kiribati dance.
"Linda" gets a ride back from a Taiwanese fishing boat after several days of serving as a sex worker on the ship. The problem of increasing prostitution is linked to a number of factors, forcing many children and young people vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, either for cash, transport, food or other material goods.
Linda, 21, a sexworker who says she spends days and nights on visiting purse seiners in the Tarawa harbour. Kiribati may be breaching international conventions on child protection since many of the sexworkers are only 14 and 15 years of age.
The deck of the Taiwanese purse-seiner bustles with activity. At
anchora few kilometres off Tarawa in Kiribati, tons of skipjack
tuna arelifted from a refrigerated hold up onto the sweltering
topdeck fortranshipment to a ship moored beside it. Whistles blow,
nets ofshimmering fish are raised and swung onto the mothership,
which willtake its cargo to canneries in Papua New Guinea and
Butlook closer and another small transhipment is also taking
place betweenthe two rolling boats. A young girl is gingerly easing
herself downthick ropes from the mothership onto the purse-seiner.
It is a delicatebalancing act 20 metres above water and for a
moment she looks like atrapeze artist, walking the tightrope. She
smiles at one of theTaiwanese crew as she drops like a cat onto the
deck and disappearsinto a nearby cabin. Here in Kiribati she is
known as a "korakorea"girl; a girl who spends time with
Not as romantic as it seems
Inthe Pacific, the practice of sweet young girls paddling out to
foreignboats to introduce their charms to restless seamen is
nothing new, itis almost a cliché of Pacific history. European
sailors were fond ofdropping anchor in places like Tahiti knowing
they would be "warmlywelcomed" after long and lonely months at sea.
Such women helped causemutiny on the Bounty, and much else to
inspire romantic notions inEurope that the Pacific islands were an
Eden of sorts.
Althoughthe practice continues today, there is little romance
and far moredangers involved for the girls - the spectre of AIDS
andsocial/psychological consequences of girls as young as 12
involvedgives the fishing industry a dark side that is rarely
contemplated whenconsumers open a tin of tuna.
In reality, there are growingsocial consequences as a result of
a rapacious fishing industry worthan estimated US$2.7 billion per
year. More than half the world's tuna,about 2 million tons per
year, now comes from the Pacific region.
Why the world is coming to the Pacific for fish
ThePacific ocean holds the world's last great fish supply -
since many ofthe world's oceans have been substantially overfished
in recentdecades. The EU, after enforcing a moratorium on cod
fishing in theAtlantic which put much of the European fleet on dry
dock, has recentlysigned a number of bi-lateral deals with Pacific
island states to fishin their waters.
Europe now sources much of its tuna from thePacific - in
Germany, for example, half the tuna consumed there comesfrom
Kiribati alone. The EU fleet now joins China, Taiwan, Japan,Russia,
America, The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and others whoare
ranging far into the Pacific, often unmonitored, to harvest
schoolsof fish (mainly tuna) on an industrial scale.
Asin most places, prostitution is hardly
a modern phenomenon. InKiribati, the term "korakorea" was first
coined to describe local girlswho went aboard Korean fishing
vessels, but is now more generally usedfor girls going onboard
fishing boats from any country as well as beingslang for "cheap
Many do it because of poverty at homeand the chance to earn
money, clothes and fish to take home. Some girlsget pressured by
their families to do it. Others claim they do it sothey can get
"drinking money for their friends" and because the foreignfishermen
treat them better than their local men do.
There isno law against prostitution in Kiribati, which was
highlighted recentlywhen 80 girls were rounded up and brought
before a local court beforebeing released. Yet there is growing
concern that Kiribati maybebreaching international conventions on
child protection since many ofthe girls are only 14 and 15 years of
age. UNICEF is preparing torelease a damning document relating to
underage prostitution in severalPacific countries, including
One girl involved in the trade, "Kathy", claims girls as young
as 12 are involved.
"Iknow about one 12 year old girl who was taken out to a fishing
boat byher aunty and she has disappeared. Her family are very
worried sinceshe has been missing now for 4 months".
Kathy is a pretty 21year old girl who lives with her father, an
unemployed formergovernment worker, in a crowded settlement near
the Betio port on southTarawa. She claims there are many local
girls involved in the trade andthey all have different
"It all depends becausesome they really need money to support
their families with food, sothey feel some pressure. Other girls
need money to buy drinks forthemselves and friends when they want
to go out to the bars".
Kathysays that even though their have been crackdowns by local
authoritiesthe girls are not scared of getting caught by police
because "theirfamily are supporting them".
Taking advantage of history and attitudes
Thisis what makes prostitution in
Kiribati and other Pacific islands acomplex issue. For many Pacific
cultures it is not a big deal; sex,custom and fishing are all
intertwined, subject to tabus. Manyislanders do not view such
exchanges as "prostitution". Fishing and sexhave long been linked
to traditions that were, in itself, notnecessarily a bad thing,
because everything was shared withincommunities and remote islands
needed "new blood" to prevent inbreedingand keep the tribe strong
to defend from raiding enemies. Ritualexchanges of things like fish
and women kept the peace amongneighbours.
In Kiribati, as a recent UNICEF document points out,
prostitution is not new.
"In1826 prostitutes were referred to as Nikiranroro, meaning
those who hadlost their virginity or had eloped. Whalers were much
criticised andblamed for having increased prostitution in the
islands...and thatvenereal disease was said to have been more
widespread after whalingcontacts".
AsPresident of the Kiribati National
Council of Women (AMAK), Mere agreesthe korakorea issue is a
complex one, but believes that young girlsshould be in school and
better guided by their parents or guardians.
"Itis an issue here because it is against our culture and
tradition. Inthe olden days, at age 14 or 15, girls were kept in
the home doing workthat assured your future life as a woman and
they were very restrictedin their night time outings. But now
Kiribati is in the swell ofglobalisation and the issue of
korakorea...well, that's how thingshappen now."
Modernity, a cash economy and the loss of traditionhas created
new vulnerabilities for coastal communities of the Pacific.Legal
and illegal fishing by foreign vessels have introduced a range
ofsocial problems apart from the environmental impact of depleted
fishstocks. Mere believes there is a "dangerous cycle" linking
alcoholabuse, violence, sexual abuse and disease that is afflicting
manyPacific nations including her own.
Communities that once sharedeverything now find a new rich/poor
divide is splitting them and AIDSis an ever present danger.
According to the HIV AIDS clinic at TarawaGeneral Hospital,
Kiribati (population 92,000) has 43 confirmed AIDScases of which 26
have already died.
"I'd say almost all thecases of AIDS here are related to the
fishing industry" claims one ofthe nurses testing blood samples.
"It is coming from both foreignfishermen and our own sailors
More enforcement tools needed
DavidYee Ting, Kiribati's Permanent
Secretary for Fisheries, claims that thegovernment is getting on
top of the situation, saying, "Our new PoliceCommissioner has been
enforcing the laws to stop girls - and those whohelp them - go out
to the boats."
He confirms that the situationgot so bad that for a period in
2003, Kiribati actually banned allKorean fishing boats from
entering Kiribati ports after reports in theKorean Herald that
30-50 girls, mostly underage, were servicing theKorean
Asked whether he thought Kiribati was alsogetting ripped off on
its core asset, fisheries, Ting says "That's abit harsh, but yes,
we could be getting a better return. We only haveone patrol boat
and we don't have many trained fisheries officers whocan be
stationed on boats to monitor catches."
"But as Pacificstates come together through regional bodies like
the FFA (ForumFisheries Authority, based in Solomon Islands) and
the WCPFC (Westernand Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, based
in Marshall Islands), Ibelieve we will have more collective power
to get a better deal on ourfish resources".
Ting is upbeat about the recent deal signedbetween the EU and
Kiribati, believing the EU will help develop thelocal industry with
more local employment and training. Other observersare not so
"I don't think we should have vessels from5,000 miles away
fishing here. Why are they fishing here? Because theyhave stuffed
their own region and now they are coming down here to doit" is the
blunt assessment of Captain David Lucas, manager of SolanderPacific
"We've got purse-seiners from the European Unionfishing in
Kiribati. Why should they be down here? What have they doneto their
own? Who's next?"
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