Service members who solicit prostitutes could soon face dishonorable discharge and up to one year in prison, according to the announcement by top Pentagon officials on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported.
If the Pentagon succeeds in adding an anti-prostitution change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, efforts by the Bush administration to crack down on international sex trafficking could receive a boost.
Pentagon officials also promised to extend their focus to civilian defense contractors who are not subject to the military code, allowing termination of contracts with companies whose employees are caught patronizing prostitutes.
U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, told the Post that the problem of sex trafficking is particularly bad in areas such as South Korea and the Balkans, where “women and girls are being forced into prostitution for a clientele consisting largely of military service members, government contractors and international peacekeepers.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality has indicated that more than 330,000 women worked in some 80,000 sex industry establishments in South Korea in 2002, the last year figures were available.
No exact figure is known for how many victims of sex trafficking exist worldwide, but estimates hover around 800,000 women, men and children, according to Stars and Stripes, a newspaper distributed overseas for the U.S. military community.
Under the existing military codes, service members are generally punished for more minor offenses such as curfew violation and trespassing posted off-limits locations. Punishments usually have been administrative, not judicial, and therefore not released to the public.
On Wednesday, South Africa’s Deputy President Jacob Zuma, a member of President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet, visited the city of Umtata on the Eastern Cape and praised a group of about 40 young girls for agreeing to take virginity tests, according to several press reports.
His visit is part of a controversial campaign to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce the incidence of teen-age pregnancy through encouraging young girls to take these tests. Human rights groups have condemned the practice as a violation of human rights and a woman’s dignity.
Speaking to a crowd of local residents, government officials and reporters, Zuma called a young girl’s virginity her “family’s treasure,” and lamented what he called the erosion of traditional African family values. The current situation in South Africa, he said, is one “where more and more children are giving birth to other children while still dependent on their parents.”
Virginity testing, or ukuhlola, is an ancient practice that is still common in parts of Africa. The normal procedure is for teens to lie down on mats while a female examiner checks to see if their hymens are intact.
The South African government has been heavily criticized over the years for not doing enough to deal with the AIDS epidemic. Zuma, head of a moral regeneration movement in the country, believes in the ability of traditional practices to help stop the spread of the virus. More than 5 million–or about one in nine–South Africans are HIV-positive, according to the Geneva-based United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
Anthropologist Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala of the University of KwaZulu-Natal told South Africa’s Sunday Tribune that virginity testing may be based on good intentions–to stop teen-age pregnancy and HIV infection by promoting abstinence–but among other things it fails to hold men accountable for their role in those problems.
“What is the responsibility of men in this?” she said. “They are the other half of the equation. We should also target men if we want to stop AIDS.”
Amnesty International has come out strongly against the practice. The organization’s Web site says “forcibly subjecting” young women “to so-called ‘virginity tests’ is an egregious form of gender-based violence constituting torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
— Robin Hindery.