New Internationalist

‘I never want to be rescued again’

Issue 404

Melissa Ditmore argues that some anti-trafficking responses are making conditions more dangerous for voluntary sex workers.

Ill-conceived measures to prevent trafficking are doing harm to sex workers. A common casualty is women’s mobility. For example, Romanian women travelling to Greece have had ‘prostitute’ stamped in their passports, making it impossible for them to travel legally. When legal migration becomes more difficult, services spring up to help would-be migrants to travel, either legally or illegally. Forced to depend on such services, determined migrants are at increased risk of abuse. Migrants, including sex workers, who experience abuse have little recourse to the law if their movement from place to place is itself illegal.

Raiding brothels is another law enforcement measure favoured by governments today. Raids are on the increase because US funding policy requires that aid recipients take an organizational stance ‘against prostitution and sex trafficking’. Funds tend to flow towards faith-based organizations that use religious rhetoric to justify actions against the sex industry.

However, these brothel raids frequently hurt the sex workers they purport to assist. In Bangladesh women sex workers usually lose all their possessions, including any savings they may have. Without access to banks, most women keep their savings in jewellery and cash, which are often seized or stolen in the chaotic circumstances of a raid. Many women incur new debts as they buy their way out of the Vagrants Home to which they are sent after being ‘rescued’.

Hazera Begum, president of Durjoy Nari Shongho, an organization of sex workers in Bangladesh, said: ‘I never want to be “rescued” again. I have been “rescued” – taken from the streets – and jailed in the Vagrants Home three times, the longest for four years. My first time in the Vagrants Home, I was 11 years old, and I was raped. When I got out, I became a sex worker; this is usually what happens to girls who have been raped in my country.’

Anti-trafficking has too often become anti-sex work

Anti-trafficking efforts such as increased border security and brothel raids are not only harmful to sex workers; these measures also sabotage the contribution that sex workers can make to combating trafficking. Sex workers and clients may be in the best position to assist those trafficked into the sex industry to escape. Sex worker-led grassroots responses to trafficking are among the most effective anti-trafficking projects known.

One such, the anti-trafficking effort of Kolkata’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee – better known as the Sonagachi Project – has assisted many women and girls held in the sex industry against their will. The project was started when one member, Mala Singh, helped a young girl to leave the red-light area and return to her family. Now, newcomers to the red-light areas are interviewed to find out how they arrived there, what they believed they would be doing, and whether they have been coerced.

This sex worker-led anti-trafficking initiative is not unique. Juhu Thukral, director of the Urban Justice Center Sex Workers Project in New York City comments: ‘In many of our cases where women and girls were forced to work in brothels, they were able to escape because the other sex workers, or even men who do other work in those brothels, recognized that our clients were in coercive situations and helped them to leave. Empowering more sex workers to identify and assist people who have been coerced is the most effective way to combat trafficking into sex work.’

Treating all sex workers as either victims or criminals makes such efforts impossible. All sex workers are harmed by trafficking, in one way or another. It is therefore in the interests of all to raise awareness and work against it. But it is difficult for sex workers to do so in an environment where they are being demonized or accused of not taking the issue seriously enough. It’s essential to include sex workers in decisions about how to address trafficking because sex workers are invariably affected by responses to trafficking.

Too often anti-trafficking has become anti-sex work. Abuses committed under the rubric of anti-trafficking make sex workers wary even of the term ‘trafficking’. I believe that, for the long term, the most effective measure for improving conditions for sex workers, including workplace abuses, is to shift the debate away from looking at trafficking as a criminal issue and toward using a human-rights framework to promote workers’ rights for people of all genders who exchange sex for goods or money.

Sex workers use the slogan: ‘Only rights can stop the wrongs’ to highlight that a rights-based approach to sex work is the only way to prevent and stop abuses in the sex industry.

Melissa Ditmore is the co-ordinator of the Network of Sex Work Projects and editor of Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work. She holds a doctoral degree in sociology, for which she investigated the conflation of prostitution and trafficking.

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