There has been a sudden interest in human trafficking - from international funding to policy interventions to public media, and even Bollywood, everyone seems to have woken up to this 'worst thing affecting humanity' after HIV/AIDS.
In June 2007, the US Department of State released the 'Trafficking in Persons Report', which placed India on the Tier 2 watch list for the fourth year in a row for failing to effectively combat trafficking. India was actually a borderline case. Had Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had his way, India could have very well been a Tier 3 country, meaning worst offender, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice intervened and agreed to undertake a special evaluation in six months' time.
That deadline expires this December. Consequently, there has been hectic campaigning via the public media to present India's unfailing commitment to combating trafficking. However, these 'well meaning' efforts have only resulted in a raw deal for sex workers.
Two recent anti-trafficking campaigns by MTV and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) perpetuate the image of the sex worker as the agency-less trafficked woman. 'Sold', a film which is part of the MTV End Exploitation and Trafficking (EXIT) campaign, does not look at prostitution as the only logical end of trafficking, but a major portion is devoted to prostitution and has several simulated images of a girl trafficked into prostitution, being raped. The larger narrative - done by model-turned-actor Lara Dutta - passes value judgments about how demand for paid sex among the youth in India is a major cause for sex trafficking. It further suggests that we will be able to combat trafficking only when we stop paying for sex, which in effect is an abolitionist stand on sex work.
A list of anti-trafficking organizations in India has been provided on EXIT's portal, but the work of sex workers' collectives - Self Regulatory Boards (SRBs) of the Durbar Mahila Samanyaya Committee (DMSC), Kolkata, and the Mohalla Committees of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), Sangli, which are internationally recognized models for anti-trafficking work - is not mentioned. Is it so difficult to imagine that sex workers can also articulate the right to sex work as strongly as their right against trafficking and exploitation?
The UNODC campaign - UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN- GIFT) - has also made a public service film, 'One Life, No Price'. While the script is similar to 'Sold', this film has Bollywood stars, such as Amitabh Bachchan, urging people to join the fight against trafficking. The cases represented are based on real incidents.
Though 'One Life...', too, does not singularly focus on sex trafficking, the stories of four girls, who were sold into a brothel, duped into joining a massage parlor and forced to work as a bar dancers, have been given maximum screen space. The recreation of the brothel is especially alarming - sex workers are shown chewing pan (betel leaf) and accosting clients, while the trafficked girl is being tortured by an evil looking 'madam'. This representation constructs brothels as 'hell holes' where women have no agency, denying the reality.
While brothels are definitely not the best places, recognizing the ways in which women negotiate their stay and work there is necessary if we are to devise policies for 'rescuing' them. Interestingly, the director of this film, Sunita Krishnan, who runs Prajwala, an anti-trafficking organization in Hyderabad, was quoted saying that since all women are forced into prostitution, they must also be forced out of it.
Disturbed by the UNODC campaign - which also stated that India is among the top human trafficking destinations in South Asia, with over 35,000 young girls and women from Bangladesh and Nepal being brought here every year - both DMSC and VAMP have responded strongly. In an open letter, the DMSC alleged that these statistics were merely anecdotal, and that the anti-trafficking strategy of UNODC does not make sex workers stakeholders in the campaign.
"Being engaged in anti-trafficking programmes in West Bengal for the last 12 years we know the inner workings/strategies of the traffickers. Without sex workers' participation, trafficking cannot be stopped - SRBs are a conclusive example of this. We run 30 SRBs across the state. We can immediately ascertain whether a newcomer has come willingly or has been trafficked. If she is trafficked, we send her back home... the local stakeholders and the police have developed a strong network and under our vigilance a trafficker, however well-connected, cannot escape," DMSC's letter states. The DMSC also wonders how appeals by film stars will deter traffickers.
Meena Seshu of VAMP says, "They will have to accept that the community can actually identify and address violations it faces - with or without outside help. History has recorded that generations of outsiders and outside interventions have tried but failed miserably. Be it the SRB or the VAMP Mohalla Committees, we need to recognize and be encouraging of their smallest successes."
One of the major sources that fuel this tension between sex workers and anti- trafficking work is the US government's policy on HIV/AIDS and trafficking. Governments in India and the Global South have been required to take cognizance of the 2003 United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act (Global AIDS Act) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The US Global AIDS Act bars the use of federal funds to "promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution".
A report by the Centre for Health and Gender Equity in the US points out: "Organizations receiving US global HIV/AIDS funding also must adopt specific organization-wide positions that explicitly oppose prostitution and trafficking. Such funding restrictions force organizations working in public health from Southern countries that heavily rely on US funding to comply with an ideological litmus test that often runs counter to both public health practice and human rights standards." In 2005, when it returned a $12,000 grant from USAID (the US frontline funding agency), because it did not wish to be bound by such conditions, VAMP was falsely accused of engaging in child trafficking.
Anti-trafficking policy and campaigns have always tended to wrongly collate trafficking and sex work based on the assumption that trafficked women are always forced into sex work. But it overlooks many other occupations that the trafficked women may take up; it denies women the agency they can exercise to migrate on their own; and it does not address the violence and abuse they might face in the process of being trafficked. Moreover, anti-trafficking measures seldom privilege the experiences of sex workers - who collectively also combat trafficking - to devise policies.
Sex workers are also wrongly identified as the primary vectors for the spread of HIV/AIDS. The idea is to stop HIV/AIDS from leaving the 'bodies' of sex workers, and, through married male clients, reaching the wives and the family. While there are mandatory health check-ups of sex workers to safeguard families, there are hardly any measures to create enabling and safe working conditions for sex workers.
It's a pity that in an attempt to combat trafficking, we have ended up marketing it for its perverse popularity and, in effect, are trading the rights of sex workers, instead of making them equal stakeholders.