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Why The Anti-Trafficking Vs. Sex Work Debate Is Doing Damage To Women's Rights

05/07/2016 8:38 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters
Theresa Kerketa, 45 year old, poses for a picture at her residence on the outskirts of New Delhi November 2, 2012. Kerketa was working as a maid was rescued by Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement), a charity which rescues victims of bonded labour. There are no reliable figures for how many people are trafficked for domestic servitude. The Indian government says 126,321 trafficked children were rescued from domestic work in 2011/12, a rise of almost 27 percent from the previous year. Activists say if you include women over 18 years, the figure could run into the hundreds of thousands. Picture taken November 2, 2012. To match Feature INDIA-TRAFFICKING/ REUTERS/Mansi Thapliyal (INDIA - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY)

In India, the debate between sex workers and anti-trafficking campaigners is getting louder with the recent unveiling of the draft Anti Trafficking Bill (2016) by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. Although the draft bill is sorely in need of a definition for trafficking before the polarized and angular debate can proceed, the discussion is well underway on current legal assumptions and definitions, meanings of morality and entrenched gender disparities.

The battleground seems to be the woman's identity, her sexuality, her voice and her agency.

The unrelenting debate is a terrifying moment in modern times, when notions of morality and decency clash for primacy over justiciable rights. The battleground seems to be the woman's identity, her sexuality, her voice and her agency. Abolitionists argue that sex work is not only demeaning for women in and of itself, but worse, it leads to trafficking of women and girls. Therefore, they say, the sex trade should be abolished. Sex workers' movements, on the other hand, are fighting for dignity in the eyes of the law and groups from across the country have sent their views to the Ministry.

It is worth pausing to explore whether the clash between the anti-trafficking camp and the sex workers' rights camp threatens to fracture the feminist movement in India down the middle. Based on a binary of rights, this debate posits that the rights of sex workers threaten the rights of women and girls who are victims of or are vulnerable to trafficking. It seems to be saying, therefore, that for the rights of the latter to be upheld, the rights of the former need to necessarily be sacrificed.

Broadly, there are four human rights which are pitted in this debate. Sex workers are fighting to preserve their right to life and liberty and the right to work. The anti-trafficking campaigners are fighting to preserve the rights of women and girls to live a life free of slavery and torture.

Trafficking of women and girls is a matter of deep concern for any civilized society, which must at all costs agitate against it. Trafficking, seen in its entirety and not just from the narrow prism of sex, is migration gone wrong. Migration is an age-old process of exploring ways of improving the human condition and is an established method of increasing social and economic mobility. The question to be asked is whether existing or new legal frameworks can ensure safe migration for women and girls to find work and employment of their choice while eliminating their vulnerability to exploitation of various kinds, sexual exploitation included.

Women who choose the sex industry as their arena of work and livelihood, find that their rights are negated within and outside legal frameworks.

Sex workers who have chosen to be part of the sex industry have found themselves being denied basic citizenship rights. Given the established hetero-normative understanding of sexuality, all sexual choices of women which defy those which are circumscribed by marriage are deemed by society as "immoral" and hence unfit to be called a "choice". Hence, women who choose the sex industry as their arena of work and livelihood, find that their rights are negated within and outside legal frameworks. They almost cease to exist as human beings, leave alone as citizens.

I first started working with understanding the issues of sex workers in 1996, and later went on to lead a national programme on the prevention of trafficking and HIV in India.

Based on my observations, with specific reference to India, here are the two reasons why this head-on clash of rights is fundamentally flawed.

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A LACK OF CLEAR DEFINITIONS

First, the debate is based on incomplete and hence flawed definitions. Neither does the debate describe trafficking in all its dimensions nor sex work in all its dimensions. The debate assumes that women and girls are only trafficked into sex work. In doing so it ignores the fact that women and girls are trafficked into several other high absorption labour sectors - domestic work, construction, small scale industry. Hence, theoretically, even if sex work were to be abolished and it indeed disappeared as an "option", trafficking would be far from over, and women and girls would continue to be victims of it.

On the other hand, the debate assumes, as does the law known as the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, that all women in sex work are trafficked and are in the trade against their wishes. According to the law they are in need of state protection to take them out of the trade and be rescued (and indeed rehabilitated). This definition ignores the fact that sex workers could have come into the trade of their own volition as adults

Even if sex work were to be abolished and it indeed disappeared as an "option", trafficking would be far from over...

Hence, this incomplete definition of sex work, seen in conjunction with the preceding point about the incomplete definition of trafficking, leads to a debate whose resolution, however farfetched, will neither eradicate trafficking of women and girls in all its forms nor address the issues of sex workers in any satisfactory and sustainable way. As soon as we use the complete descriptions for trafficking and sex work, it becomes self-evident that both phenomena can be addressed in a meaningful and sustainable way only if the rights of both constituencies are upheld.

QUESTIONABLE CAUSALITIES

Second, this debate establishes a causality that is incomplete and hence flawed. In this debate, anti-trafficking activists argue that merely by virtue of there being a sex industry, women and girls are trafficked -- thereby arguing that the existence of the sex trade is responsible for trafficking.

If we were to ask a group of women and girls who are survivors of trafficking, as I have during the course of my work, the reason they typically cite is the betrayal of trust by someone who promised to give them work. Hence the underlying reasons, more broadly, lie in extreme poverty, neglect of the girl child, abuse in the family, incapability to repay debts, a bad drought or disaster, and so on.

Merely abolishing the sex trade or criminalizing sex workers will do absolutely nothing to address, minimize or eradicate these underlying reasons for the trafficking of women and girls. In fact, any move to abolish sex work or deem it illegal will only drive it underground and hence undermine the rights of women in sex work without achieving, in any measure, the goal of upholding the rights of those vulnerable to or victims of trafficking.

Merely abolishing the sex trade or criminalizing sex workers will do absolutely nothing to address, minimize or eradicate the underlying reasons for trafficking...

WHAT ARE THE WAYS FORWARD?

To eliminate trafficking among women and girls we need to work towards ensuring that safe migration as a right to development and right to life, finds a definitive voice in existing or new legal frameworks. To make sex work both safe and dignified, the right to work needs to be invoked and existing and new legal frameworks need to use the labour rights framework for doing so. Such a framework can include establishing good practices of sex workers themselves, ensuring that minor girls are not trafficked into the trade, a method which is rights based and sustainable.

A debate that is based on flawed definitions and simplistic causal linkages as described above can only lead to a diminution of all constituencies involved. Worse still a debate, predicated on women's empowerment, which creates adversaries of two groups of women is a travesty which can produce no worthy gains for those involved. An inclusive protestation against processes and structures which limit women's choices to achieve their full potential is a solution waiting to be explored.

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