Prostitution and Pacific fishing

Feature story - 13 October, 2006
Fishing and prostitution might be the two oldest professions. But the exploitation of both is creating new vulnerabilities for Pacific islands as the whole world increasingly comes to fish in its waters. Ben Bohane reports from Kiribati.

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 Taiwan.

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 fishermen.


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.

Korakorea girls

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 fish".

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 Kiribati.


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 motivations.

"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".

Modern times

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 returning home".

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 fishermen.

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 sanguine:

"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 Fiji.

"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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