POTUS declares Human Trafficking Prevention Month

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.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/pamcash/ Pam

    I really like your final point. I always wonder, “Why isn’t more responsibility for sex trafficking placed on the clients? Obviously it’s their money (and their must be a lot of buyers, or else it wouldn’t be worth it) that keeps it going.” And I realized that a lot of men who see victims of this may not even know, may have been presented a classy package promising well cared-for girls and might have no idea what the actual conditions are. I’ve done a lot of research and have met a lot of people involved in the adult industry in Los Angeles, and their experiences vary so much. One thing they have in common is this: if they have a terrible experience, there is no one to run to. I’ve heard stories from a woman that horrified me and she couldn’t tell the police because she was afraid of getting arrested for selling sex. I believe that increasing rights for sex workers in this country would absolutely help horrifying black market practices decrease dramatically. And if people are thinking, “Oh, trafficking only happens in other countries,” they are absolutely wrong.

    • http://feministing.com/members/cnysam/ Sam

      Among anti-trafficking activists who oppose legalization of sex work, the swedish model is generally considered the gold standard of public policy. In Sweden, sex work is decriminalized, but pimping, and more importantly, purchase, of sex, is a crime. Johns can face up to 6 months in jail for a single offense. Also, Sweden provides considerable social services and job placement opportunities to victims of sexual exploitation (including, but not limited to victims of actual trafficking). While the Swedish model is considered politically difficult in the US (for reasons not entirely comprehensible), laws in many states (and at the federal level) offer some protection to minors in prostitution, and strong punishments for their customers. For adults in prostitution, the legal situation is rather more troubling. Some law enforcement bodies, notably in Illinois, are trying to carry out the swedish model as department policy. Activists are trying to persuade the NYPD to do this as well. Most parts of this country, unfortunately, have not come this far yet. It is up to us to educate them.

    • http://feministing.com/members/princesskaguya2000/ Jenn

      Federal definitions of what trafficking is allow for the prosecution of a consumer. The catch is that federal law is enforced by the FBI so the case being prosecuted must be state to state, the agents have to give a crap, and the court system has to feel like prosecution is worth their time.

      Several state laws are actually written to exclude the consumer because they feel the court load would increase too greatly or in some cases, certain people at the helm actually believe that buying sex is a right of passage for men but women who sell it are whores who should be thrown in jail.

      One of the best things to do is get to know local anti-trafficking groups. Find ones that will openly discuss the intricacy of trafficking vs. prostitution and acknowledge the range of definitions of trafficking and who may be a victim or a consumer. Avoid any group suffering from “white knight syndrome.” Anti-trafficking groups will usually have connections in social services and law enforcement who *do* care and will work with victims to find safety and drive home the fact that, even if an individual participants in an illegal activity like prostitution, they still deserve respect and have a right to safety.