The questions that participants have tackled over the last two days of the of the Trust Women conference, Putting the Rule of Law Behind Women’s Rights, have been ambitious and varied: “Arab Spring, Opportunity or Disaster for Women?”, “What happens when culture clashes with the law?”, “Women for Sale: how to stop human trafficking?” After two days analysing and debating these issues through the lens of “the rule of law”, the 250 participants from the fields of business, government, law, media and NGOs left ready to fight for women’s rights on a range of fronts: to lobby their governments to adopt the International Labour Organisation Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, to create a network of bro bono lawyers dedicated to protecting women’s rights and to "match funding" for social enterprise ventures for trafficked women. The key was, said Douglas Alexander, British MP and shadow foreign and Commonwealth secretary, to use our “emotional revulsion as a prompt to action”.
As I unpack my handbag from the conference, thinking about my own next steps, I pull out a flurry of business cards, a stress ball with a corporate logo on it that says "sales force" and the social responsibility reviews of several organisations. As a feminist activist stress balls can certainly come in use… but as I play with it I’m on edge; I'm wrestling with a wider question debated at the conference: it’s a question about who is best placed to take these next steps and to ‘invest’ in women’s rights: states, NGOs, local businesses, international corporations, lawyers, investigative journalists? The range of stakeholders at the conference have been keen to take the debate forward, but it’s hard to find a core strategic thread, one which takes seriously the question of where power, and hence obligation lies.
The question of who holds the power to protect women’s rights was mainly debated in relation to the fight to end human trafficking, a $32 billion industry with 4 million female victims a year. We heard horror stories from all over the world of women and girls having ID documents confiscated, denied medical care, held in debt bondage, forced to work 18 hour days in factories, repeatedly raped, tortured and even murdered by traffickers and also border guards and police. Tsvetelina Ivanova told of her experience being trafficked from Bulgaria to Amsterdam, "you work 24/7 with no rest unless you have to go and die or something." For Tsvetelina, freedom came in the form of legal support as she mounted a successful challenge to sue her pimp: "you've got to know your rights", she concluded.
In addition to legal support, many participants argued throughout the day that the best way forward to both prevent trafficking and to support victims like Tsvetelina was to "fight business with business". In fact, although the theme of the conference was law, much of the discussion centred around business.
During an afternoon workshop on “putting the trafficking business out of business”, Christopher Davis from The Body Shop International, the campaign arm of the ethical cosmetics company, spoke of how consumer power can help to campaign for change to the trafficking industry at the international level, both in terms of sourcing ethical ingredients and through transforming customers into activists: “businesses can reach consumers in a way governments and NGOs cannot”, he said. Since the company began working on a campaign to stop sex trafficking of children and young people 5 years ago, their staff have sold their petition to over 7 million people through face-to-face interactions, creating “the largest petition in EU history on human rights.” As a result of their petition, Christopher claims that 22 governments have changed their laws to defend the rights of trafficking victims.
The problem with consumer campaign power, said Tracy Tully, membership support worker at the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers, is that some issues are more easily ‘packaged up’ to consumers than others. This puts the focus on the sensitivities of customers rather than what would be more effective for the “victims”, making it neither a democratic nor accountable way to campaign. Just as the media will focus on certain issues, she added, corporations are more likely to invest in certain causes, "we have seen this with the focus on rescuing sex workers from sex trafficking...it has become a growth industry, a business in itself...sex sells."
Data suggests that only 1 out of 9 trafficked people are trafficked for sexual purposes and yet at the Trust Women conference there was very little talk of sweat shops, brick kilns, fruit fields or fisheries. One participant expressed her own concern that, partly because of the focus on sexual exploitation, the issue of human trafficking has been feminised in the mainstream: “what about the boys?”
In the same workshop, David Batstone, founder of social enterprise Not For Sale, made the argument that business could operate to empower trafficked women at the local level, explaining how his organisation set up a catering business in Amsterdam to create alternative employment opportunities for women who have been trafficked for sex work and who “want a way out”. A lively discussion ensued on the pros and cons of social enterprise, and as to whether small business is the best vehicle for the entrepreneurship of trafficked women. “Forget a government grant” said one business owner, “better give a woman a chance to support herself.” Yet Lydia Cacho, Mexican journalist and women’s rights activist, explained that whilst sustainability is important, it is not always easy for women’s rights activists to be businesswomen on the ground, “self-sustainable - I have to ask, what the hell is that? We face death threats, we run away, we train people and along with that we have to open our own business...” Ruchira Gupta, President of trafficked women’s empowerment initiative Apne Aap, also warned of underestimating the inventiveness of the traffickers who will often beat you at your own game. In India, if you set up a support programme in one town, she explained, they will simply move on to another one.
In a panel discussion on “Women for sale: tales from the frontlines of the fight against trafficking and slavery”, Cecilia Flores Oebanda, an anti-trafficking activist from the Philippines, also gave participants a humbling reminder of the need to adapt strategies to the local context and to offer a comprehensive solution which recognises traffickers as skilful and strategic businessmen and businesswomen in themselves: “we need to think about what is really in the mind of the traffickers…you’re missing that component...the landscape of battle on the ground is changing, the traffickers are more sophisticated and powerful. They are killing our work on the ground.” In these conditions, social enterprise can only do so much; what is needed is state protection and state accountability.
In this context, many participants echoed calls by lawyer Karen E. Silverman to move towards a more detailed discussion of migration, citizenship and labour rights, stressing that trafficking victims need concrete legal solutions. Karen explained how in some states immigration law prevents trafficked women rebuilding their lives, for example through denying them the right to enter the formal labour market, as in the Netherlands, or through forced repatriation, sometimes at risk of persecution. In the UK alone, up to 200 trafficked women were being held unlawfully in immigration detention centres each day in 2011. In the face of this flouting of international standards, we need to ask: what duties do states have to protect the individuals trafficked into their states? What protections are enshrined in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children and in other human rights legislation? And most importantly, how can we get states to implement them?
For all the different tactics and strategies participants described in the struggle to protect women's human rights, at the end of the day states have the ultimate power, and fundamental obligation to do so. No matter to who or how the message is packaged, and despite the efforts of those who are harnessing market power to tackle trafficking, those who are in the business of exploiting women for financial gain still call the shots, hold the power and keep changing the landscape of the battleground. In this context we need to hold our democratic institutions to account. In the words of Emma Bonino, “we cannot work with a self-help methodology without bothering the institutions…if we leave them alone and think we can solve all the problems they will be happy…institutions are accountable to people…and we must mob them!” This, it seems, is a strategic thread I can hold on to.
Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50 covering the themes at the Trust Women conference