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Rescued from rights: the misogyny of anti-trafficking

For some sex workers subjected to forced ‘rescue’, the line between care and harm is very thin. What anti-trafficking often looks like is a form of ‘humanitarian trafficking’, not protection.

Eric Parker/Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In July 2016, Vijaya admitted her young daughter to an orphanage in Hyderabad, India and then herself to a hospice for AIDS patients. She died a few days later. Vijaya had acquired HIV long before I first met her in 2009, but she had previously remained healthy. HIV/AIDS initiatives had equipped her to manage well. She even worked instructing others on how to avoid infection. Vijaya’s fortunes changed, however, on a night in June 2015, when Hyderabadi police forcibly extracted her from the railway station where she was soliciting customers along with dozens of other sex workers. The police selected a few of these women to prosecute as ‘traffickers’ and logged the rest as ‘victims of trafficking’. According to women there, the police made this distinction arbitrarily in order to address international demands that they not only free ‘victims’ but also locate and prosecute their ‘traffickers’.

A magistrate mandated Vijaya, against her will, to remain in a rescue shelter until her family could produce the paperwork required for her release. The process met with repeated complications and dragged on for six months. During that time, the head of the shelter refused to give Vijaya the anti-retroviral medication and nutrition necessary for managing her HIV. When she at last walked free, her CD4 cell count was low, indicating a decline in the health of her immune system. Her friends described her as having been ‘sucked dry.’ Angered but also emotionally destabilised by what amounted to her incarceration, Vijaya ignored her health and plunged into a spell of self-destructive drinking. Seven months after her release from the shelter, I attended her funeral. Though her shelter stay was not the sole cause of her death, Vijaya would likely be alive today had she not been targeted by police as a victim of trafficking, and subjected to a period of forced confinement that lead to the deterioration of her physical and mental health.

Vijaya would likely be alive today had she not been targeted by police as a victim of trafficking, and subjected to a period of forced confinement that lead to the deterioration of her physical and mental health.

Vijaya’s case is not an isolated event. Other Hyderabadi sex workers report knowing colleagues whose death was in some way related to forced rescue and rehabilitation. Being held in a shelter with diabetes, for instance, poses a danger similar to HIV if regular medicines are not provided. Inadequate medical treatment, however, is not the primary problem dogging anti-trafficking efforts in India. It is, rather, the refusal of some anti-trafficking organisations to distinguish women who wish to be rescued from those who do not. In Hyderabad, some anti-traffickers disregard the desires, agency, and rights of the very women they claim to protect, and engage instead in a misogynistic paternalism that contradicts their feminist ideals.

During the period of my PhD fieldwork in Hyderabad, I found it typical for police and NGO staff to round up sex workers from their places of work through the use or threat of physical violence. Women reported having their phones, money, jewellery and sometimes clothes taken from them when they entered a shelter. In the name of protecting them, staff permitted them only the most restricted contact with their family and friends, who often panicked when they disappeared in the rescues. In addition to losing their freedom, these women lost the opportunity to earn money, to care for their dependents, and to meet their financial obligations.

According to women who experienced this kind of rescue, perhaps the most excruciating aspect of being labelled a ‘victim of trafficking’ was being subject to the process whereby anti-traffickers determined the suitability of their ‘parents, guardian, or husband’ to collect them and bring them home – a patriarchal requirement of India’s legal code. The procedure provides a pretext for staff to inform women’s landlords, neighbours, village leaders, husbands, and family members that they have been caught selling sex in the city. As a consequence of the scandal that this can trigger, several Hyderabadi sex workers told me that their most vital personal relationships unravelled permanently during this process. Anti-trafficking initiatives, though conceived as a form of care or protection, instead operated for some as a mode of perpetual punishment.

Upon losing their freedom, some ‘rescued’ sex workers slipped into depression and even attempted suicide. Others rioted in response to caustic treatment meted out by shelter staff and guards. Some attempted to escape and some succeeded. After being removed from the streets, denied autonomy of movement and communication, and witnessing donors touring their facilities, some women compared being ‘rescued’ to being trafficked for NGO profits. One sex worker told me, ‘Here we are being treated the same as how we are treated by traffickers’. Forced rescue in India has thus birthed a mode of humanitarian trafficking that meets many (if not all) the United Nations criteria for the definition of trafficking, beginning with the use of force, fraud, or coercion for monetary gain.

Forced rescue in India has thus birthed a mode of humanitarian trafficking that meets many (if not all) the United Nations criteria for the definition of trafficking.

No one can doubt that people wishing to escape traffickers deserve extensive professional assistance to redress the horrors they experience. But the majority of women that are being targeted for rescue in Hyderabad in response to the transnational moral panic over trafficking do not fit that description. Even some anti-traffickers admit this: the head of a prominent Hyderabadi NGO told a local news reporter in 2014, ‘We usually get around sixty-five women sent to our home each month on prostitution cases. As soon as they arrive in our home, they cry and cry and cry. “When will you release me? When will you release me?” they ask. They fight and swear. That’s what we see on a daily basis’.

The 2016 TIP Report portrays forced rescue as an atypical occurrence in India, but of the 15 formerly ‘rescued’ Hyderabadi sex workers that I encountered in the course of my broader fieldwork in 2013 and 2016, only one reported consenting to be rescued, and only two reported positive shelter experiences. Notably, all of these women chose to return to sex work despite sometimes undergoing vocational job training programs. These women began selling sex again, because they found that they were not able to support themselves and their dependents through the low paid work that NGO trainings prepared them to accept.

Confining adult women against their will in the name of rescuing them from trafficking and then premising their release on their ‘parents, guardians, or husbands’ appearing to take them home speaks to the stark discrimination that Indian law continues to mete out to female citizens who should be treated as men’s equals. By contrast, male and transgender sex workers find themselves harassed or jailed by police but not forcibly rescued, detained as victims, and subjected to weeks or months of waiting, before being reclaimed by their relatives. Yet some anti-traffickers continue to insist on the ‘victim’/‘criminal’ binary to describe those who participate in transactional sex, which raises the question: why are women who sell sex automatically ‘victims,’ while men and transgender women who sell sex are not?

The Constitution of India promises liberty and equality to all its citizens, irrespective of gender. The renowned Indian jurist Ambedkar once asked, ‘What are we having this liberty for? We are having this liberty in order to reform our social system, which is full of inequality, discrimination and other things, which conflict with our fundamental rights’. Forced rescues in India conflict with women’s fundamental right to liberty and deny their basic rights to equal treatment and self-determination. Anti-traffickers should gain women’s full consent before attempting to rescue or rehabilitate them. As India reconsiders its approach to addressing human trafficking, women’s constitutional rights to liberty and equality must prevail over misogynistic laws that serve to infantilise and harm them.


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