Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Women refugees good for tourism, denied rights

This weekend my mother ripped out an article from an issue of Marie Claire and gave it to me. I do not read magazines, as my personal form of protest against the exclusive and unrealistic beauty standards they tend to promote, so I had no idea what to expect from this article.

The article was about the “long neck women of Thailand.”

Some of the members of the Kayan ethnic group's women wear coils made of brass rings around their necks that weigh up to 25 pounds to depress their collar bones so their necks appear longer. The problem is that these women are actually Burmese refugees, and the Thai authorities will not allow them to take asylum overseas because the novelty of these women’s neck coils is good for tourism. They are being forced, as the Marie Claire article states, “to live in a virtual human zoo.”

Zember, a 23-year-old woman Kayan woman, removed her coil to protest her captivity.

The 500 or so Kayans (also known as Padaung) who live in Thailand fled the brutal military regime in neighboring Burma (also known as Myanmar) two decades ago, and they have been confined in three guarded villages on the northern Thai border ever since. An estimated 40,000 tourists per year, many of them Americans, pay about $8 each to gawk at the women’s giraffe-like appearance. In return, the long-neck women earn a paltry salary of 1500 baht ($45) a month selling souvenirs and postcards. Few tourists are aware of the scandalous situation, Zember explains, because the women’s wages are docked if they discuss their plight. So they “smile and say nothing.”

Zember and her family were accepted for resettlement by New Zealand in 2006 as part of a wide-scale program organized by the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Five other long-neck families are also due to relocate to New Zealand and Finland but lack the exit permits.

Because the Thai authorities will not issue exit permits, these families are trapped.

“As official refugees, the Kayans have a right either to resettlement abroad or to full Thai citizenship. They are being given neither,” says Kitty McKinsey, the (United Nations High Commission for Refugees’s) regional spokeswoman in Bangkok. She points out that over the past two years, Thailand has issued exit permits for more than 20,000 other Burmese refugees who lack the Kayans’ commercial value. “The Kayans should be treated the same as other refugees,” McKinsey says. (bolded words, added)

The women are punished (with docked wages) for doing anything modern because it interferes with their image that is being sold to tourists. Zember and her friend Ma Lo, both of whom removed their neck coils, no longer receive pay and cannot find other work because of their refugee status. The local government refuses to move on this issue because the province these villages are located in are poor and depend heavily on tourism for their livelihood. The three villages of the long-neck women do not have basic sanitation and medical care.

Women as commodities, stripped of their human rights and their rights as refugees, because of their commercial value. Apparently the UNHCR has tried a tourist boycott, but it did not work out. So, please, beware when you become a tourist. Who could it be hurting?

Works consulted for the non-quoted portions: TimesOnline, Peoples of the World Foundation


Jen said...

There is so little coverage about the rights of non-Western women that every tid-bit we get over here is so demonstrably horrible. My heart really goes out to those women.

Lindsay said...

Talk about objectifying the Other to exploit them...

La Pobre Habladora said...

Yeah, what Lindsay said.
This is a sad story, and one I'd never heard before. I wonder where the tourist are coming from, and if a targeted awareness campaign in those countries might help. What is being done to get these women a real way out of the country?

Renee said...

This story reifies the way womens bodies are consumed as part of a system of exchange that is irrational and exploitative. Their gender and citizenry combine to make them bodies for consumption by Westerners. Even having the ability to travel is privilege. Viewing others through a lens of difference perpetuates a hegemonic understanding of social construction thus ensuring their status as object rather than subject.

Amelia said...

Back to La Pobre Habladora's question, all I read about efforts to get these women out was the boycott of tourism which came to nothing. I guess the goal was to stop the tourism, and then magically all the women would be set free?

The fact that this is happening in a poor province that depends on these women is not going to be changed by boycotting them. I wonder why they are so very poor, and if it merely the tourists, or something about them that makes it so easy for them to commodify these women. I have read in several places that there is a correlation between poverty and violence against women, so maybe the UNHCR should be thinking about that.

The Great American said...

I think how these women are treated is absolutely sick.

I may be wrong, but I've heard that if these women remove the coils from their neck, their necks would break because they wouldn't be able to hold the weight of their head. I don't know for sure. Does anyone here?