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Mapping the Trafficking of Women across Colonial Southeast Asia, 1600s–1930s

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image of Journal of Global Slavery

While slavery in the seventeenth century included a substantial traffic in Asian women, it was only in the late nineteenth century that the rise in trafficking in women in Asia came to the attention of international humanitarians who sought to combat this new form of post-abolition slavery. The increasing emphasis on women as slaves, held for the purposes of sexual exploitation, was to a large extent brought to public attention as the result of the enactment of the British Contagious Diseases Ordinance of 1870, which required that women working in prostitution be registered and counted. It was European colonialism in Southeast Asia and its reliance on the labor of Asian male migrant workers that had encouraged the increase in trafficking of women into Southeast Asia. Despite this, however, most European colonial officials sought to portray themselves as abolitionists and regarded trafficking as an Asian problem. This rhetoric of Asian slavery and European abolition was mobilized to provide moral justification for colonial expansion. By the early twentieth century international observers, under the auspices of the League of Nations, again sought to raise public awareness of the traffic in women, highlighting the cases of Chinese and Japanese women travelling into Southeast Asia. Once again, however, colonial governments sought to underplay any suggestions that they might be complicit in encouraging such traffic.

Affiliations: 1: University of Wollongong


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