I’d gotten so used to Nicholas Kristof’s January visits to prostitutes in Cambodia that it was something of a shock to find him this January in Calcutta’s red-light district instead.
As readers of his New York Times columns in the past few years will know, around this time–a smart choice, weatherwise–Kristof heads to Southeast Asia to write about the scourge of child prostitution. One can hardly fault him for that, even though Kristof’s bluff busybody prose is 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 brothels in Poipet. There was something very nineteenth-century about the whole thing, both in moral endeavor and journalistic boosterism. In January 2005 Kristof was back in Cambodia to report that while Srey Neth was doing well, Srey Mom was back in the brothel, probably because she needed the drugs. Even in 2004 some of us had our doubts, since Srey Mom wouldn’t leave the brothel until Kristof sprang not only for the $203 but also for extra cash for her cell phone and some jewelry she’d hocked.
I smell an HBO movie in the offing. Already in the Times online I can see pictures of the Cambodian girls and Kristof’s videos of himself engaged in good works.
I clicked on “prostitution” at the foot of a Kristof column and found myself looking at a cheery promo piece published in the Times 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 of all those schoolteachers who seduce their students. Then Kristof can schedule a buyout for them too, perhaps in January 2007, if Heidi gets her license from the State of Nevada by then. She told the Times reporter she’d already sold the rights to HBO.
This January Kristof’s been in India. On January 22 from Calcutta’s red-light district came his 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 he issued another column 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….”
India hoists the Western pundit’s inanity to matchless levels. As Vijay Prashad, a columnist for the Indian weekly Frontline, 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.”
India has endured more than a decade of virtually unimaginable rural torment consequent upon imposition of neoliberal “reforms” editorially endorsed and endlessly hailed by Times reporters. With the withdrawal of subsidies, and the collapse of farm credit and markets, there is a gigantic rural crisis affecting millions of families. As the Hindu newspaper’s great chronicler of these rural catastrophes, P. Sainath (with whom I traveled round 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). Every single NGO and social organisation 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 neighbouring 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 to twelve years ago.”
This border area, Sainath says, is also the victim of WTO-related policies that have killed its silk-making sector. At the very same time, other neoliberal policies destroyed hundreds of industrial units in Anantapur. The pressures resulting from such policies have systematically pushed women from desperate families into prostitution. “Women and young girls,” Sainath continues, “are without a doubt the worst victims of the agrarian crisis, particularly women with landless labor, or small farm and lower-caste backgrounds. The last ten 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. They’re all worried about the rise in debt-related or bonded prostitution.”
Recently Brinda Karat, member of Parliament and leader of the largest women’s organization in the country, the All India Democratic Women’s Association, 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.”
A very conservative Food and Agriculture Organization estimate indicates that India contributed nearly two-thirds of the new hungry added to the ranks of the already hungry between 1995-97 and 2000-02. Destitution engenders prostitution.
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.