Command and control: the economies of militarised prostitution

IssueMarch - May 2001
Feature by Sian Jones

When I was finally sold here in Brcko I was sold for DM 4,000. I heard that when you are sold once you are going to be sold many times again and you will never be able to earn the money to pay the original price. I thought that I would never be able to return home and never be able to pay the money to get me home.1

Since at least the 19th century, the military has sought to regulate the lives of prostitutes and other women working around military bases, and in so doing recreated prostitution as a militarised industry, often under the direct control of the military and always with its collusion. This is perhaps most apparent in the context of armies of occupation the subject of this short survey.

Economic realities

Women have a multitude of relationships to militarised ecomonies. They can command regiments, enlist or be conscripted as soldiers, work in the arms industry, clean military bases; but the majority of women who participate in military economies are those who voluntarily, or as victims of trafficking, engage with the military as prostitutes. The extent of militarised prostitution is such that, for example, at the end of the American war in Vietnam around 300,000 South Vietnamese women were working as prostitutes.

A military presence has a massively disproportionate impact on the local economy, and in particular on the economic opportunities open to poor women. The economics are simple: in countries devastated by war or in countries of the south such as the Philippines, where 70% of the population live below the poverty line prostitution offers women an opportunity to earn a living: women's bodies become a commodity. At the height of the US presence in the Philippines, for example, more than 60,000 women and children were employed in bars, night clubs and massage parlours around the Subic Bay and Clark Naval bases alone. Estimates of the total numbers of Filipina women and girls engaged in prostitution and other sex-based industries range between 300,000 and 600,000.

But militarised prostitution is not merely a simple transaction between a woman and her client. It can and does involve bars and brothel owners, local and international police, mayors and public health officials, organised crime and national and foreign government departments. All have an interest in the provision of sexual services to the military. Figures produced by the US in 1981 claimed that presence of their bases contributed around $170 million into the Philippine economy in that year alone2. The R&R (Rest and Relaxation) Agreements agreed by the US and, respectively, the Japanese, Philippine and South Korean governments both sanctioned and created militarised prostitution; less explicitly, SOFA (Status of Forces Agreements) can do much the same. At no point are women themselves involved in the process of creating this industry, nor are their protests hearda bout the conditions they work in, the enforced vaginal examinations they are subject to, or the violence perpetrated on them by their military clients.

Keeping the peace

As Madeline Rees has observed, the presence of 30,000 peace keepers in Bosnia where war had left a devastated infrastructure, massive unemployment and a barely functioning economy provided both organised crime and entrepreneurial individuals an ideal opportunity to enter the free market economy3.

Combined with the former Yugoslavia's transition into a free market economy and assisted by their location at the edge of eastern Europe where the economic hardship that accompanies the former communist blocs painful transition to a market economy has lead to growing involvement of eastern European women in prostitution both Bosnia and Kosova (with over 45,000 peacekeepers) have proved to be a lucrative market for those who traffick and trade in women.

Elsewhere, as in Angola, Cambodia, Mozambique and Rwanda as Kane has documented the presence of a population displaced, dislocated and impoverished by war, combined with the presence of UN peacekeepers, has also produced a massive growth in both adult and child prostitution.4 The peacekeeping military also brings its own breed of camp followers not the women who traditionally accompanied armies, servicing their needs from sex to laundry, but the battalions of aid workers from international NGOs who follow in the wake of war.

The involvement and, in some cases, the complicity of international actors has been observed by amongst others Medica Zenica, a women's NGO in Bosnia, and (more recently) by the International Office of Migration, an international NGO working in Kosova. The latter have directly attributed the creation of a booming market for the trafficking of women forced into prostitution to the influx of foreign soldiers, aid workers and bureaucrats into Kosova5.

Militarised tourism

And after the war is over or after the army of occupation has gone, what happens to the women? Demilitarisation can have very different effects on the local ecomomies and on the women on whom part of that economy depended. In the Philippines, despite campaigns by local women, in the years following the withdrawal of US forces, there were no government programmes to enable women who had worked as prostitutes to find economic alternatives. As a result, many women moved to South Korea, Japan or Guam, where the US military maintained a presence.

In Vietnam, though, after US withdrawal in 1975, the massive decline in prostitution was accompanied by government programmes intended to re-educate women and provide them with economic alternatives. Yet by the 1990s, as the Vietnamese government sought to make an economic recovery, organised prostitution was back, this time as a tourist industry; the groundwork laid by militarised prostitution, it became part of another economic package seeking to attract foreign investment. In Korea too, militarised prostitution developed into a sex-tourism industry, in what Enloe describes as the less talked about side of the 1960-77 Korean economic miracle.6

Thanks to the courage and persistence of many Korean and Japanese Comfort Women the extent to which the Japanese government and military were officially complicit in forced sexual enslavement of an estimated 200,000 women during the Second World War has been revealed. Perhaps less well known, is the complicity of the same government with the US government in mobilising women as prostitutes to service the US forces who occupied Japan following 1945.

Military complicity in the organisation may not be as explicitly expressed in post cold-war military policy, but for economically vulnerable women like the Moldovian women sold in Brcko for DM4000the effects of militarised prostitution remain unchanged.


  1. Moldavian woman trafficked to Bosnia, Women for Sale. The Complicity of the International Community, interviewed by John McGie, Red Pepper, August 2000.
  2. Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers, pp. 68-79, University of California Press, 2000
  3. Madeleine Rees (UNHCR Sarajevo), Markets, Migration and Forced Prostitution, Humanitarian Practice Newsletter no 14, June 1999.
  4. J Kane, Sold for Sex, Arena, Aldershot, 1998.
  5. IOM statement, February 2000, see also, Even aid workers make use of sex slaves, Olivia Ward, Toronto Star, 7 May 2000
  6. Enloe, p91, Maneuvers.


Topics: Economics, Women