A Debate that is Breaking Up The Women’s Movement

By Mona MishraonAug. 18, 2015in Perspectives

Army of Lovers

“Love,” said Phaedrus, “is the oldest of Gods, and one of the most powerful. Give me an Army made up of lovers and I can conquer the world.” The Phaedrus, written by Plato in 370BC, is a dialogue between Plato’s main protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus. Although ostensibly about the topic of love, the discussion in the dialogue revolves around the art of rhetoric and how it should be practiced, and dwells on diverse subjects.

Notions of sexual morality and decency can be divisive externalities in an otherwise value driven discussion on human rights. Here is how.

Amnesty International‘s call for decriminalisation of sexwork has yet again pried open the divisions between the women’s empowerment movements around the world.

Abolitionists have long argued that sexwork is not only demeaning for women in and of itself, but worse, it leads to trafficking of women and girls and hence should be abolished. Sexworker movements, on the other hand, have hailed the Amnesty policy as a hard won victory.

This is a debate where notions of morality and decency clash for primacy over justiciable Rights.

The beleagured battleground seems to be the sexworker’s identity, her sexuality, her voice and her agency.

In India, this debate is loud, polarised and far from resolved. Its angularities are complex. The various aspects of the debate include the current legal assumptions and definitions, meanings of morality, persistent and entrenched gender disparities and so on.

It is worth pausing to explore whether the clash between the anti-trafficking camp and the sexworkers’ rights camp does a fundamental disservice to the larger cause of women’s empowerment in India by making adversaries of women in the name of women.

This debate is based on a binary of rights. It posits that the rights of sexworkers threaten the rights of women and girls who are victims of or are vulnerable to trafficking. It seems to be saying therefore that for the rights of the latter, the rights of the former need to necessarily be sacrificed. I will try to unpack this a bit later.

Lets refresh our understanding of Human Rights

Human rights are “rights that belong to an individual or group of individuals as a consequence of being human. They refer to a wide continuum of values or capabilities thought to enhance human agency and declared to be universal in character, in some sense equally claimed for all human beings.”

Which are the Human Rights applicable in this debate?

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4: No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Sex trafficking violates Article 3, Article 4 and Article 5 above.

Sex workers on other hand are fighting to uphold their rights reflected in Article 3 and Article 23 above.

Trafficking of women and girls is of deep concern for any civilised society which must at all costs agitate against it. Migration, which is at the center of man’s knowledge about an age old process of exploring ways of improving the human condition and is an established method of increasing social and economic mobility. The question to be asked is whether existing or new legal frameworks can ensure safe migration for women and girls to find work and employment of their choice while eliminating their vulnerability to exploitation of various kinds, sexual exploitation included.

Sexworkers who have chosen to be part of the sex industry have found themselves being denied basic citizenship rights. Given the established hetero-normative understanding of sexuality, all sexual choices of women which defy those which are circumscribed by ‘marriage’, are deemed by society as ‘immoral’ and hence unfit to be called a ‘choice’. Hence women who choose the sex industry as their arena of work and livelihood, find that their rights are negated within and outside legal frameworks. They almost cease to exist as human beings leave alone as citizens.

Two reasons why this head-on clash of Rights is fundamentally flawed

I first started working with understanding the issues of sexworkers in 1996, when the HIV work in India had just started. Since then I have led a large national programme on prevention of trafficking and HIV in India, implemented by UNDP. In this piece I will rely on my observations from these engagements on this issue, with specific reference to India.

One, the debate is based on incomplete and hence flawed definitions. Neither does the debate describe trafficking in all its dimensions nor does it describe sex work in all its dimensions.

The debate assumes that women and girls are only trafficked into sexwork. In doing so it ignores the fact that women and girls are trafficked into several other high absorbtion labour sectors such as domestic help, construction sector, and small scale industry. Hence theoretically, even of sexwork were to be abolished and it indeed disappeared as an ‘option’, trafficking would be far from over, and women and girls would continue to be victims of trafficking.

On the other hand, the debate assumes, as does the law Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, that all women in sexwork are trafficked and are in the trade against their wishes. According to the law they are in need of state protection to take them out of the trade and be rescued (and indeed rehabilitated). This definition ignores the fact that sexworkers could have come into the trade of their own volition as part of an adult decision.

Hence this incomplete definition of sexwork, seen in conjunction with the preceding point about the incomplete definition of trafficking, leads to a debate whose resolution however farfetched, will neither eradicate trafficking of women and girls in all its forms nor address the issues of sexworkers in any satisfactory and sustainable way.

As soon as we use the complete descriptions for both trafficking and sexwork, it becomes self evident that while both phenomenon need to be addressed, this can be done in a meaningful and sustainable way only if the rights of both constituencies are upheld.

Two, this debate establishes a causality that is incomplete and hence flawed. In this debate, anti trafficking activists argue that merely by virtue of there being a sex industry, women and girls are trafficked — thereby arguing that the sex industry is what causes trafficking.

Now if we were to ask a group of women and girls who are survivors of trafficking, as I have during the course of my work, about the reasons why they were trafficked, it is highly unlikely that they will name the existence of the sex industry in the top five reasons. The reason they typically cite is the betrayal of trust by someone who promised to give them work so that they can earn some money for a better life. Hence the underlying reasons, more broadly, lie in extreme poverty, neglect of the girl child, abuse in the family, incapability to repay debts, a bad drought or disaster, and so on.

Merely abolishing sex work or criminalising sexworkers will do absolutely nothing to address, minimise or eradicate these underlying causes for trafficking of women and girls.

In fact, any move to abolish sex work or deem it illegal will only drive it underground and hence undermine the rights of women in sexwork without achieving, in any measure, the goal of upholding the rights of those vulnerable to or victims of trafficking.

Ways forward

Trafficking of women and girls can be eliminated without the rights of sexworkers being diminished. Separate legal frameworks are required, new conversations need to start, women’s empowerment needs to be understood from the rights framework rather than the framework of morality and decency.

Several examples have shown how sexowrkers themselves become instrumental in reducing trafficking of women and girls.

A debate that is based on flawed definitions and simplistic causal linkages as described above can only lead to diminution of all constituencies involved.

Worse still a debate, predicated on women’s empowerment, that creates adversaries of two groups of women is a travesty which can produce no worthy gains for those involved.

An inclusive protestation against processes and structures which limit women’s choices to achieve their full potential is a solution waiting to be explored.

First published on the author’s blog

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