When people hear the word, “trafficking,” they often think of young women held in bondage, forced into prostitution against their will. This is certainly a circumstance that takes place around the globe—one that is real, and very serious. But often, sex workers, many of whom are migrants seeking a better life in a country far from home, know what they are getting into when they enter the trade. The real problem they face is that their work is criminalized.
Anti-trafficking NGOs, many of whom are funded by private donors and the U.S. State Department, are working to eradicate trafficking. But the problem is that many do this by trying to eradicate prostitution—resulting in policies that are harmful, rather than helpful, to women.
In recent months, important revelations have come out about the problematic policies of the anti-trafficking movement. First, an article by Occupy.com showcased sex workers rights advocates who are calling for the decriminalization of prostitution—a striking, and crucial move in the fight for women’s rights. Then, the Cambodia Daily broke a story about the Somaly Mam Foundation, a well-known Cambodian-based anti-trafficking NGO that has been fabricating stories of sex trafficking to appeal to their donor base. These stories are shocking, but to those who understand the contested terrain of the anti-trafficking movement, they aren’t surprising. The issues of decriminalizing sex work, and the question of what role NGOs should play in “rescuing” victims of human trafficking have been central topics in the discourse. Only now, these debates are heating up because the voices of the supposed “victims” are finally coming out.
The issue of whether sex work can ever be considered a “choice” has polarized anti-trafficking advocates for decades. On one side of these debates are “abolitionists,” who see prostitution and sex trafficking as one and the same, and as violations of women’s human rights. This movement has its roots in the “White Slave Panic” days of Victorian England, when migration and the desire on the part of British women to travel to the United States was seen as a threat to women’s purity and virtue. Indeed, the current movement to abolish prostitution is driven by a similar underlying concern about women’s sexual purity—concerns that eerily echo the values of the conservative right. In addition, the panic over prostitution is closely tied with anxieties over migration, since many anti-immigration policies view migrants—particularly female ones—as threats to social order and the sovereignty of the state.
In response, “pro rights” feminists have been adamant in their stance that sex work is a legitimate form of labor, arguing that decriminalization and regulation of prostitution is the best way to prevent the exploitative conditions that women often counter within the trade. They believe that criminalizing sex work makes it dangerous. Prostitutes face health risks, poor working condition, police corruption and a host of anti-immigration policies that penalize them for doing work that, many believe, should be properly compensated. That’s why, as the Occupy.com article explains, sex workers rights advocates across Asia are calling for decriminalization, rather than abolition, of prostitution.
According to the Occupy.com article, “A 2012 report released jointly by the UN Development Program, the UN Population Fund and UNAIDS pressed for the decriminalization of sex work in many countries so that HIV prevention and treatment programs reach sex workers more effectively.”
Groups in Nepal, Thailand, India, Burma and elsewhere are coming together to support this important move, while also working to help actual victims of human trafficking recover from circumstances of abuse.
But the move toward decriminalization continues to face resistance from the U.S. government, whose abolitionist agenda seeks to eradicate all prostitution. As a way of implementing this ideological stance against prostitution, the State Department funds an array of anti-trafficking NGOs in the developing world.
But these NGOs aren’t always as benevolent as they seem. As the Cambodia Daily’s article revealed, Somaly Mam’s organization, AFESIP, had fabricated stories about sex trafficking victims in order to secure donor support from the West. The article revealed that back in 1998, when the organization was just getting started, Ms. Mam recorded a documentary in which victims of sex trafficking described their experiences of being forced into the trade. A recent interview with Ms. Ratha, of these women, revealed these stories to be false.
Mam’s foundation, which has stars such as Susan Sarandon and other Hollywood elites on its board, now faces exposure as an organization that puts the needs of the founders and administrative staff before those of women.
These revelations should serve as red flags to the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons.
In addition to funding abolitionist NGOs, the U.S. government has implemented overtly problematic anti-trafficking policies throughout Southeast Asia. One such policy is the Anti-Prostitution Pledge, which was enacted under the Bush Administration. This policy tied foreign aid to the project of abolishing prostitution by making it a condition that NGOs accepting federal funds had to take a “pledge” not to assist prostitutes who “willingly” returned to the trade. This policy, which had devastating effects on women caught precariously between needing to remain in sex work to survive yet also wanting support from NGOs, was finally repealed last year by the Supreme Court as a first amendment violation. Despite this, many U.S.- funded NGOs continue to implement the policy.
Another problematic policy is that of Smart Raids, in which U.S.-State Department funded NGOs, in collaboration with the police raid brothels, massage parlors and Karaoke bars—any establishments where they suspect “underage” prostitutes might be working—work in order to “weed out” potential victims of trafficking. Women working in the sex industry who are under the age of 18 are automatically considered victims. In Thailand, sex workers from ethnic minority communities in Burma are often rounded up in these raids and detained in Thailand’s Immigration Detention Center, often a period of weeks or months. This policy has drastically devastating effects on women who are no longer able to send money home to their families and communities.
Coupled with this is the fact that prostitution in Thailand, like many places in the world, is criminalized. This means that any woman who the NGOs don’t recognize as a “trafficking victims” is automatically seen as a “criminal” in the eyes of the law.
Such policies have made a mess of women’s lives in the developing world. The good news, however, is that the truth about their effects is finally coming out. A follow up article in the Cambodia Daily provided the financials of Mam’s foundation—with revenues in the millions, salaries in the hundreds of thousands, and comparatively little going to actual trafficking victims. Exposing the stats of NGOs like these who spend more on gala dinners than they do on actual people is critical.
Similarly, stories such as Occupy.com’s help readers pause to think more critically about the assumptions we make about women, labor and sex.
By shedding light on problematic anti-trafficking policies, these articles take a stance on an important and timely battle over the truth. Ultimately, it is the voices of the women on the ground who policy makers must listen to in order for real change to take place.