Earlier this week, President Obama issued a proclamation declaring January 2012 to be National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. He stated,
“We stand with all those who are held in compelled service,” Obama stated. “We recognize the people, organizations and government entities that are working to combat human trafficking; and we recommit to bringing an end to this inexcusable human rights abuse.”
Given this proclamation, and the fact that human trafficking is such a hot topic in the world of human rights, I’d like to bring our attention to some very important and often overlooked facts:
Human trafficking is a broad category of human rights violations. It includes, but is not limited to sexual exploitation. In fact, per the UN, 43% of trafficked persons are involved in forced commercial sexual exploitation, of whom 98% are women and girls. But just as important is the fact that 32% of trafficked persons are involved in forced economic exploitation that is separate from sexual exploitation. Domestic workers, many of whom are trafficked and working in underground economies, suffer terrible abuse are often overlooked in media coverage in comparison to the attention paid to sexual exploitation. There are many languishing international labor treaties that would protect these workers, not to mention the Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW), that would go far to hold governments accountable. Thus proving, again and again, that the lip service paid to the very real horrors of human sexual slavery and sex trafficking is a matter of getting headlines and not solving the problem of forced labor.
Secondly, human trafficking happens all over the world. Contrary to common media descriptions, this is not something that happens only to poor women from Asian countries. According to UN stats, 161 countries are reportedly affected by human trafficking; either as a source, transit or destination. Furthermore, people are trafficked from 127 countries and moved to serve as forced labor in 137 countries, affecting every continent and every type of economy. Further, many trafficking victims have at least middle-level education – busting the myths about who is being trafficked from where and by whom.
Finally, sex work is not necessarily trafficking. This dangerous conflation does great disservice to both the movement for sex workers rights and the movement to end human trafficking. At the beginning of the 20th century, international conventions established that the movement of women from one country to another for prostitution is tantamount to trafficking, irrespective of consent. It took another two decades before a definition of exploitation emerged in international law. This fault line in our international legal frameworks enables anti-trafficking laws that seek to criminalize involved parties.
In countries where sex work is illegal, enforcing the law to prevent trafficking has once again been conflated with enforcing laws to stop women from engaging in sex work. As a result, there have been in increased raids which threaten the safety and security of the folks involved in these economies. Such criminalization disrupts the fragile support systems created by sex workers and rarely results in the prosecution of traffickers.
This kind of conflation also allows for a tidy and shallow assessment of all the people involved in sex work as either victims or criminals. Migrant sex workers who are detained in ‘raid and rescue’ operations are liable to arrest and prosecution as illegal immigrants and illegal sex workers. People engaged in sex work and the street economies are often unable to rely on the state to protect them, and as we know, this means you do what you have to do to survive. I cannot recommend enough this detailed and clear report from the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects.
When he declared this month National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, President Obama noted that Jan. 1 was the 148th anniversary of the effective date of the Emancipation Proclamation. The choice between an identity as victim or criminal reduces the complex relationship between globalization, sex work, survival and agency to a sensational sound bite. The oversimplification of the very real and very grave problem of sexual exploitation does a great disservice to feminism. In this scenario, there’s no regard for considering human agency, dignity or rights – and just as it was 148 years ago, those are the key to emancipation.