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Interview: forced rescue and humanitarian trafficking

Many anti-trafficking oragnisations prioritise donor preferences over actually improving the lives of 'vitcims'.

Benzene Aseel/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I'm Kimberly Walters, and I am a cultural anthropologist teaching international studies at California State University in Long Beach. I recently finished my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Most of my work has been on sex work, but recently with the advent of trafficking discourse, I have now done a lot of work on the question of sex trafficking and rescue and rehabilitation, as well.

Neil Howard (oD): I'm aware that you have looked a bunch at some of the negative side effects, if you will, the collateral damage that international anti-trafficking engenders as it is transposed into, in your case, into the Hyderabadi context? Tell us about it.

Kimberly: In Hyderabad in particular there are some very powerful and very well-funded anti-trafficking organisations that, first of all, understand any form of sex work to be a form of trafficking. This position allows them to view the world around them in terms of trafficking, so that any woman who's out on the streets, participating in sex work – and this is all only women, for some reason they don't include transgender people or men – is by their definition automatically trafficked. They are therefore justified in forcibly rescuing that woman from her labour, from her position in the street, her position in the brothel, her position in a parlour, wherever it is.

I have worked with a lot of women who have been on the streets, soliciting customers, when they are picked up off the streets by NGOs who were working in combination with the police. The NGOs are then processing women and locking them up in 'shelters'. They are presented to donors as shelters, when in fact, what they operate as jails. There they have everything that they have with them taken away. Their phones are taken away. They're not allowed to contact their families, they're not allowed to contact their friends that could help them. Their money is taken away, sometimes even their jewellery is taken away from them.

They’re held not understanding the process to be able to get out. They don't really know what legal code they’re being processed under. They know that there's a court that has mandated that they stay in these shelters, but they have no sense of what the process is to be able to get out. So, within this context, they are then treated as less than human. They have no ability to leave. Their will is not taken into consideration at all – whether or not they want to be in these shelters.

In short, the response is that they're picked up off the streets. They are kept against their will. They're not allowed to contact people that could help them. They're completely cut off from their world, their life. They're not able to take care of their children, their families. They – the women themselves – call this a form of trafficking.

I think of it as humanitarian trafficking, because this is done for humanitarian donations, right? So there is an actual monetary gain to be had by trafficking these women off the streets and into shelters. So in that sense, it actually meets all of the qualifications set out by the Palermo Protocol. Women themselves are calling this a form of trafficking and in response to being humanitarian trafficked off the streets, they attempt to flee. They try and escape the shelters. Inside they sometimes riot – in one case over 130 women rioted from within a large group of 300 women in a shelter. Some women attempt suicide.

Women themselves are calling this a form of trafficking and in response to being humanitarian trafficked off the streets, they attempt to flee.

Regardless of their own response, there are other really serious consequences for the women as well. They're not able to earn money during this time. Often times, there's no one to take care of their children at home. These women are usually held for a minimum of three months, sometimes longer, depending on what sort of paper work they're able to produce or not to produce. Whether or not their family’s willing to cooperate, to go and pick them up in the shelter, and get them released.

So they're all sorts of consequences for their families, but some of the major consequences that I've seen for women's own lives are, for example, that they're not always given the medication that they need. Women who are H.I.V. positive have been denied antiretroviral medication while they're in shelters. In some instances they have also been denied the proper nutrition they need – if you're H.I.V. positive you need to be very careful about what you eat in order to keep your health at a certain level. As a consequence, women's health often degrades when they're in these shelters.

Last year I attended the funeral of a long term friend of mine who had been picked up for trafficking. She was just a sex worker, but she'd been picked up as a victim of trafficking. She'd been living with H.I.V. since I first met her in 2009, and she was not given medication. She was given really poor quality food. Meanwhile, on the outside, her family was not willing to come and claim her. In the Indian context that's what's required. Your family has to come. Adult women are not treated as having the agency to release themselves from the situation, they are treated as the property of families and their families have to come and claim them to get them released from these rescue shelters. Her family wasn't cooperating, and so she was held for six months in the shelter. When she came out, she was what her friends described to me as a shell of herself. She was sucked dry and she died six months later.

So there are many minor consequences, many, many small problems. But they're also women who face really major consequences for our current obsession with rescuing what we think of as women who are trafficked into the sex trade.

Neil: That extraordinary tragic story makes clear that there are some remarkably horrific, perverse consequences to the business of anti-trafficking. In your experience, how do anti-traffickers, in light of this, justify what they do?

Kimberly: What's become clear to me is that there's a major split. Anti-traffickers present themselves and their work in one way to donors, potential donors, IGOs and other kinds of transnational bodies, and then they treat the women that they interact with quite differently. How they themselves explain this split, I don't in fact know.

Coming as a foreigner from the outside, most of them present only their 'donor face' to me. I have never been able to get any of them to explain to me how they understand it. I have spoken to staff members who worked on the inside of some of these organisations, who find it extremely problematic, and who are really troubled by what goes on inside these shelters.

There's one woman I know who came to volunteer at a rescue shelter because she was so entranced by the narrative of trafficking. She wanted to help people that she saw as extremely victimised, and it so understandable to want to help those whom you understand to be victims. She'd seen YouTube videos of the head of a major NGO in Hyderabad that really inspired her. Yet when she got on the inside, she was told to not allow the women to get close to her emotionally. She was told, "If you allow them to get close to you emotionally, they'll eat your head" In a sense that they'll start to control you, that they'll make you do things that we don't want to happen. Above all, they'll demand their right to leave. Like, if you become close to them, then they'll have the means to emotionally demand from you their freedom.

So the staff were actually trained to keep a distance, to imagine the women as adversaries, and to treat them as if they were disciplinarians. For the staff members who come to the position because they want to help, that's a problem. But many of the staff members are actually trained from the inside. They are often people who don't have a lot of means, and they are given jobs that essentially create a necessity for loyalty. This allows them to participate in this form of disciplining sex workers. It's also easy for them to imagine sex workers as bad, because they are participating in sex work. So there's this weird shift between thinking of these women as victims who need to be succoured and taken care of, and then the people who are actually doing that work thinking of them as whores who need to be disciplined.

Neil: That actually makes a great deal of psychological sense, when you think about it. Both of them require a fundamental de-personalisation of the other. You are either this sacred thing to be rescued or this profane thing to be swept away. But sacred and profane are ultimately two sides at the same coin.

Kimberly: Very much so. Either victim or whore, neither of those are people. Those are categories, right? So you're dealing with a category as opposed to a human being with agency, with will, with desires, and with thoughts.

Neil: I'd like play a moment of devil's advocate, because I can very much envision a member of the wider international anti trafficking community is saying, “This is really horrific and we can’t believe this is happening. We want to put a stop to it, but it’s most likely one isolated example”. In response to that, could you speak to the wider negative tendencies that you’ve seen within the sex workers’ rights movements more generally? Those that aren't specific to bad apple shelters but have come about because of anti-trafficking logics and discourses.

Kimberly: Before I get to that, let me first say that I don’t think that these are exceptional cases. From everything I have read, and all of the people and researchers whom I’ve talked to, this is in fact status quo for shelters. Most shelters have these kinds of problems, at least in India. I’m not speaking to other places, because I don’t have any data on those. In fact, some of the shelters that I’m talking to are far better than some of the government shelters that have even worse conditions. So the riots, and the attempts at escape, and the attempts at suicide – these are happening at some of the best funded, some of the loveliest shelters in the country. What’s happening in some of the more underfunded shelters is even worse. But I’ve never met a researcher who’s been on the inside of one of these shelters in India who has found it to be adequate or something to be replicated.

The riots, and the attempts at escape, and the attempts at suicide – these are happening at some of the best funded, some of the loveliest shelters in the country. 

Neil: So these are actually generalised, problematic conditions.

Kimberly: In India, yes. There are organisations—most of them sex worker organisations—that do have some really excellent anti-trafficking programmes that are not focused on raid and rescue and forced rehabilitation, but are instead focused on understanding what women who have been trafficked want and meeting those needs in a very specific, very case by case basis. Contrast that to having a large, systematic approach to a victim category as opposed to an actual, individual story.

So there is good anti-trafficking work that’s happening in India, but, by and large, that’s not the case. But this question of the larger impact of the dominance of trafficking discourse and our current obsession with the trope of traffickers and victims: our obsession with that in the media, our obsession with that in policy, it seems to be in our dreams and our water right now. Other than direct violence on women and their lives, their desires, their goals, some of the other consequences have been to the sex workers’ rights movement.

Sex worker rights organisations that were at one point moving forward to demand recognition from the government to organise, to unionise, to create better labour conditions for people within the sex trade – much of that momentum has been stymied by this obsessive focus on trafficking. There are organisations that have in fact pivoted away from sex worker rights work and are now focused on trafficking work. It’s essentially been regressive. We’ve moved back from much of the progress that had been being made toward a real change in our laws and our policies toward sex workers. So I think, at least, in my experience, in my research, that’s been one of the major negative consequences of the ascent of trafficking discourse.

Neil: To understand you better then, is it that somehow anti-trafficking has created something like a perverse incentive structure within the 'market' of self organisation?

Kimberly: Yes.

Neil: What specifically has that led to in terms of organisational shifts or activist shifts within the sex workers’ rights?

Kimberly: One of the organisations with which I've done most of my research has changed since I began watching them in 2009. In 2009 they were confronting police for their brutality against sex workers. They were bringing court cases against the police. They were organising trainings for politicians and for sex workers, trainings for policy makers trying to advocate on behalf of sex workers. They were creating what were called “crisis committees”, organisations within organisations that would see to women’s needs when they were picked up by the police, or when they had problems with thugs, or when they had problems with landlords.

Now that this organisation has pivoted towards attempting to get trafficking dollars, all of that has ended. They’re no longer confronting police over brutality against sex workers. They are not bringing court cases. They’re not marching and demanding change to the legal status of sex work, or demanding decriminalisation. They’ve disbanded the crisis committees, so that women are having to deal with the police on their own as individuals rather than as groups or as part of a collective. So there have been very real consequences in the organisation itself.

Other than that, they have garnered a lot of funds to do rehabilitation programmes which tend to focus on teaching women tailoring lessons or soap making lessons or...

Neil: ...other forms of socially legitimate work...

Kimberly: other forms of socially legitimate work that are not economically viable.

So they spend a lot of time and money doing things that don’t in fact have any traction, and that cannot suffice to answer the problems that women face in their lives. So, they have shifted from doing things that mattered and that improved women’s lives by collectivising them, by mobilising them, by politicising them and now, instead, they are spending their time and effort in ways that correspond to donor preferences and have no real value in the lives of sex workers.

Neil: You brought up police brutality earlier, and when we talk about rescue, there’s always the question of, and assumptions around, who is being rescued from whom. I was wondering if you could speak a bit more on the full spectrum of sources of violence for sex workers while at work. Where is the violence they’re facing coming from?

Kimberly: Sex work is so varied and happens in so many different situations, it’s very difficult to speak about it in generalities. Definitely the police are a major source of violence against women and sex work. Women who are working on the streets, particularly in very dense, what are called 'hotspot areas', do face potential violence from thugs – what are called, 'goondas' in Hyderabad – who may want to get money from them. It’s not always a threat from a pimp. Very few women in Hyderabad are pimped, per se. But there’s extortion of funds, because sex workers tend to have a fair amount of cash on them, so that’s a potential source of violence.

There’s violence from other sex workers, in terms of turf wars or battles over clients. But I’d say that for most of the sex workers with whom I've worked, the primary source of violence they face is in fact from their lovers and domestic partners, just like any other Indian woman, or women more generally. This is something that the empowerment approach to collectivising sex workers has done so well – thinking about interventions to address violence from domestic partners.

That’s something else that has dried up as organisations have shifted to a sole focus on trafficking. It is true that a slice of the women and children in the sex trade have been kidnapped, coerced, drugged, and put in situations of forced labour within the sex trade. There is that form of violence. It’s, by no means, the majority or even a very significant portion of the women who participate in sex work. It’s very, very small. But those are some of the various sources of potential violence – direct physical violence. I’d say that, more than that kind of violence, women tend to fear and be impacted by reputational violence and by stigma from landlords, stigma from neighbours, stigma from the healthcare workers that they interact with, and it’s those forms of emotional violence that I think tend to worry them the most.

Women tend to fear and be impacted by reputational violence and by stigma [...] and it’s those forms of emotional violence that I think tend to worry them the most.

Neil: One final question, as you also brought this up earlier. In terms of projects to 'rescue' women into other forms of more socially acceptable work, who funds this sort of work? It is churches, big philanthropy, and corporate responsibility money? I'm particularly curious if the garment factories, which are so relevant to the economy here, underwrite this work.

Very successful organisations get funding from all over, but a lot of it ultimately comes from organisations that are Christian or religiously based. That said, an increasing portion of funds comes from multinational corporations, so Google is very active in funding anti-trafficking work in Hyderabad. There are also an increasing number of smaller I.T. firms that are putting money into anti-trafficking work in Hyderabad.

Ever since the United States Congress passed laws in 2003 that conditioned USAID funding to signing an anti-prostitution agreement, it’s been very specific kinds of organisations that are funding anti-trafficking. There’s a great deal of money that gets funnelled from the US government into NGOs, which then gets transferred to anti-trafficking work in India. Those NGOs are very often faith-based, so even though it may directly come from a faith-based NGO, much of that money ultimately comes from the US Congress which has prioritised trafficking in recent decades.

There’s also a great deal of individual donation right now. The experience of seeing an online ad or pleas for help for victims of trafficking on social media, and then being able to go directly from that to being a donor with a single click, also helps support anti-trafficking organisations. But – the majority, I’d say, used to come from faith-based organisations but now increasingly comes from I.T. firms that see anti-trafficking work as, in a sense, the ultimate form of good. It just feels so, right, to be able to help women who you imagine as victims of trafficking. There’s also some funding coming from within India, as well. Lots of sort of big family corporations that have various kinds of businesses, and some of their foundations give money for anti-trafficking in Hyderabad.

About the authors

Kimberly Walters is Assistant Professor of International Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.


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