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The gendered victims of (anti)trafficking

Beyond Slavery editors discuss the deep links between anti-trafficking campaigns and ideas of female victimisation to introduce their next issue on gender.

Ryan Brown for UN Women/Flickr. Creative Commons.

As we at BTS launch a month of articles focusing on gender, one only needs to turn to an unsuspecting neighbour or family friend and drop the term ‘trafficking’ to appreciate the indelible nexus between anti-trafficking discourse and gender. You are likely to hear the perfect conjuring up of everything that trafficking was and has been associated with for a very long time, namely the deception of a young girl or woman into prostitution in a foreign land against her will. The location might change and the means of deception will assume a contextual tone, but the daily drip feed of media will ensure the production of the stock image of the innocent, young, female victim of trafficking.

At the policy level, there is no better testament to the deep association of trafficking with prostitution than the negotiations that led to the 2000 Palermo Protocol, officially known as the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. Indeed the centrality of the victimisation of women and children—which is reflected in the sub-title to the protocol—and the perceived urgency of addressing their sexual exploitation has been a significant driver for the protocol’s extraordinary ratification and translation into domestic law over the past fifteen years.

Despite what was presumably tended by the drafters, the unexpected consequences of a criminal justice approach to trafficking and sexual exploitation soon became evident. As documented by the 2007 GAATW report Collateral Damage, the first and most frequent casualties of the protocol have been sex workers, migrants and refugees. Even though the definition of trafficking was not limited to prostitution in the protocol, intra-feminist debates on the normative status of prostitution played a crucial role in how both concepts were treated. This led to an overarching definition of trafficking that has since been reframed in terms of ‘forced labour’ and ‘modern slavery’. This is one reason why we now hear talk of trafficking in a wide range of sectors, from shrimp farming to agricultural labour to migrant factory work. Nevertheless, visions of women and girls in prostitution still remain central to trafficking debates.

What accounts for the resilience of the prostitution question in the trafficking debates? Our contributors will attempt to find some answers over the next few weeks, while recognising that the unresolved status of the labour inherent in sex work in turns informs how women’s labour in other sectors is understood, valued, recognised and regulated. At the same time, we also ask whether the continued emphasis on sex work as problematic has translated into furthering the rights of sex workers themselves. If so, what circumstances enabled the realisation of these rights and how might this success be replicated elsewhere?

We begin the series with an essay by Julia Laite, who details the long relationship of anti-trafficking campaigns and abolitionists with sex work. Sine Plembech describes the vulnerabilities associated with both returning home to Nigeria as ‘victims of trafficking’ and remaining in Italy as undocumented migrants. She concludes that statist categories are unable comprehend the continuum of violence faced by Nigerian sex workers at home and abroad.

Letizia Palumbo meanwhile problematises the distinction between ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘labour trafficking’. Drawing on her work amongst female Romanian migrant workers in the agricultural sector in Sicily, she argues that the exploitation of women labourers in sectors other than sex work is most covered when accompanied by sexual abuse. This leads to sexualised, sensationalist reporting that often questions whether or not the women consented to the sexual acts in question. Palumbo thus proposes a gendered approach to trafficking that accounts for the systemic exploitation of women instead of reinforcing gendered notions of vulnerability that fail to recognise women’s agency.

Later on in the week, Hae Yoon Choo powerfully demonstrates that despite similarities between migrant hostess work and migrant factory work in South Korea, migrant advocacy organisations view hostesses as engaged in ‘easy work.’ Choo calls for the need to reconceptualise hostess work and women’s labour more generally as worthy of rights and dignity. In the interests of furthering workers’ rights for sex workers, Fraser Crichton’s article elaborates on the unique conditions under which the decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand through legislative reform became possible. We finish our first week with Vibhuti Ramachandran’s insightful ethnography of the dismal institutional space of the Indian rescue home. This reveals the hollowness of the favoured rescue and rehabilitation solution forwarded by mainstream anti-trafficking activists and underscores the need to treat women as serious economic actors through robust attempts at redistribution rather than through charitable hand-outs.

The articles coming out this week thus illuminate the implications of an expanded anti-trafficking field and the collateral damage of the early years of anti-trafficking campaigns. They highlight how both the labour and working conditions of women are conceptualised, as well as the need and prospects for furthering workers’ rights of women irrespective of sector.

In the following weeks, articles will focus on two sets of issues. The first set of articles are clustered around gender and migration. They highlight how state and institutional practices, especially those that deny women’s agency and reinforce stereotypical notions of female vulnerability, adversely impact women’s mobility and render their migration choices precarious. The second set of articles will demonstrate how mainstream anti-trafficking activists are hardly exceptional in their paternalist call to arms when it comes to female and child victims of trafficking. Our contributors show how evocative yet ineffective understandings of complex issues such as surrogacy, female genital cutting, and child marriage result in the reiteration of simplistic reform strategies rather than the restructuring of the very conditions under which women negotiate power structures.

About the authors

Prabha Kotiswaran lectures in Criminal Law at King’s College London. She is the author of Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor: Sex Work and the Law in India, published by Princeton University Press (2011) and co-published by Oxford University Press, India (2011). She also blogs for the Interdisciplinary Project on Human Trafficking.

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.

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