Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Feminism’s undeservedly bad reputation in anti-trafficking discourse

The strain of feminist thinking that promotes the rescue industry and the criminalisation of sex work springs from a small but vocal community of activists. Treating it as the voice of feminism silences competing voices, especially those outside of America and Europe.

Ingrid Palmary
29 January 2015

A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Trafficking has been a central preoccupation in South African public discourse since 2006, when the US State Department first included it as a ‘problem’ country in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report. This indicates that South Africa was either taking insufficient action against trafficking or that trafficking problem there was particularly severe. Fierce debate broke out about the source and accuracy of the figures following the report’s release, but nevertheless it gave rise to a significant counter-trafficking programme and the development of what has since become the Trafficking Act. The Trafficking Act set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever to make its way through parliament, a remarkable feat given the extent of legislative change in South Africa since the end of apartheid. It however stalled, in part because of the debates I outline below, and was only passed into law in 2013.

Much of the debate centred on sex work, in part because the 2000 Palermo convention against transational organised crime (see Prabha Kotiswaran) emphasises sexual exploitation of women and girls, and in part because sex work and traffficking are frequently conflated in South Africa. Much work has been done trying to untangle these two, mostly by sex worker rights groups, but in the meantime a polarised debate has broken out between two camps of activists. One side, driven by local sex worker organisations and representatives, espouses a human rights perspective that is critical of counter-traffickig interventions and pro-decriminalisation of sex work. The other camp, spear-headed by US and occasionally European activists, has been labelled the ‘feminist’ perspective. It supports the rescue industry, the counter-trafficking campaigns associated with it, and the criminalisation of sex work.

Those campaigning under the banner of human rights have levelled a withering critique against the ‘feminist’ perspective, suggesting it is just another colonial project to rescue naïve Africans. In doing so they elide a number of very important nuances that I highlight in this article. One is that there is no one ‘feminist’ perspective. The very vocal position described above comes from a minority of activists in America and Europe, and in no way represents the positions of many other feminists either there or in South Africa itself. This critique furthermore fails to account for support within South Africa for the rescue industry with anything more than blithe dismissal. Finally, it attempts to globalise a set of ideals with little concern for local circumstances.

There is great diversity in feminist approaches to trafficking and exploitation. The position held up as ‘feminist’ is a minority position that ignores the debates within postcolonial feminism and indeed African feminism. Since Gayatri Spivak first caricatured western feminism as “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” the postcolonial feminist movement has responded to the representation of Africans as lacking agency and in need of saving from themselves. We should not allow a minority of activists to claim sole representation of the feminist position(s). This is crucial as their perspective reinforces the perception that feminism is somehow unAfrican, a very colonial idea given that it imagines African women to be so saturated in their oppression as to be unable to critique the forms of patriarchy that shape their lives. This minority perspective also silences the continent’s very active feminist movement that has very bravely challenged the growing repression of non-conforming sexualities in Africa today. In this way further power is given to the kinds of western feminism that have been unable to recognise or respect the diversity of feminist voices.

The claim that counter trafficking interventions are solely western feminist impositions also needs more thought, as it ignores the remarkable enthusiasm that South African organisations have shown for the trafficking interventions and the rescue industry. Indeed, entire organisations have sprung up in response to this discourse. Thus, notwithstanding the influence of US TIPs reports on South Africa and the similarities of the counter-trafficking industry to colonising projects, it is wrong to write off local groups as simply puppets of a western campaign. Rather, we need to engage with how global ideas about trafficking gain currency locally and with what consequences.

Post-apartheid South Africa is caught in the grip of a “moral regeneration” campaign, driven by multiple crises including the spread of HIV, the perception that families have been destroyed, growing youth unemployment and crime, and a strong Christian fundamentalism. These conditions make a ripe environment for counter trafficking campaigns, and they need to be understood and explained rather than cast off as ignorant Africans who obey the western master.

This leads me to my third point, which is that one of the consequences of a global campaign against trafficking is that it erases the nuances of context. Campaigners who insist on universal understandings of trafficking disregard local dynamics as well as local forms of exploitation when they force both victims and perpetrators into existing categories and definitions. This is dangerous, as it inexorably leads to the invisibility of some and the incorrect labelling of others. For example, when debating the Palermo convention with magistrates in South Africa, a long debate was held about whether a mother who sends her child across a border to beg on the streets is trafficking her child. Such a scenario does not fit easily into any universal definition of trafficking, and thus calls them all into question.  However, in the polarised fight between human rights and feminism, the same universal traps have been reproduced in which local debates are erased and the loudest global voices are presented as the only positions.

So in spite of feminism being presented as part of the reason why the counter trafficking campaigns have been so problematic, I am arguing that in fact what we need is a feminist analysis of trafficking. However, such analysis needs to spring from the branches of feminist thinking that refuse universal claims and allow space for individual rights.


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