This paper highlights the impact of raid, rescue, and rehabilitation schemes on HIV programmes. It uses a case study of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a sex workers collective in Sangli, India, to explore the impact of anti-trafficking efforts on HIV prevention programmes. The paper begins with an overview of the anti-trafficking movement emerging out of the United States. This US anti-trafficking movement works in partnership with domestic Indian anti-trafficking organisations to raid brothels to “rescue and rehabilitate” sex workers. Contrary to the purported goal of assisting women, the anti trafficking projects that employ a raid, rescue, and rehabilitate model often undermine HIV projects at the local level, in turn causing harm to women and girls. We examine the experience of one peer educator in Sangli to demonstrate and highlight some of the negative consequences of these anti-trafficking efforts on HIV prevention programmes.
Unfortunately, these programs are a result of a political coalition that includes some motley bedfellows:
Professor Janie Chuang has documented the rise of neo-abolitionism, a US based movement of feminist abolitionists, conservatives, and evangelical Christians to end trafficking globally. Despite common knowledge that trafficking can occur in many labour sectors, the majority of attention by neo-abolitionists is given to trafficking in the sex sector. The motivations of these various anti-trafficking submovements differ considerably. Professor Janet Halley and her coauthors examine the rise of abolitionist feminism in particular, highlighting its growing influence in the context of international legal regimes.
For those who may be confused by the feminist angle, given the general expansion of sex-positive thinking in recent years, Ahmed and Seshu elaborate:
Feminist abolitionists are often driven by the “dominance” feminist perspective that all sex work is trafficking and is thereby coerced. This idea is premised on a larger notion of women’s lack of agency in sex. The work of sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein places the anti-trafficking movement inside in the context of carceral feminism— or the rightward shift of feminist organisations that offers increasingly punitive solutions including the use of criminal law as a means to end trafficking.
These misguided efforts, however, are based on (surprise) a racialized mythology of victimization:
The current coalitions acting to end sex trafficking emerge from a long history of abolitionism fueled by “White Slavery:” the myth of young white women forced into prostitution. This precedent movement that emerged in the 19th century provides the contours of current anti-trafficking campaigns. Fuelled by the trope of the captured young sex slave who cannot escape her trafficker neo-abolitionists have become increasingly reliant on raids, rescues and rehabilitation as a primary method of fighting sex-trafficking.
So what we have, in effect, are harsh anti-trafficking measures based on a largely false narrative of victimization and coercion that fuels the self-righteousness of activists who can’t conceive of a poor woman choosing to be a sex worker of her own volition. The narrative of victimization then leads to an institutionalized effort to “save” sex workers, in which the authorities forcefully remove them from their surroundings, and end up doing more harm than if they’d simply left them alone. Case in point:
Cases of sexual assault and rape and sodomy have also been reported during [brothel raids]…Research from Indonesia and India has indicated that sex workers who are rounded up during police raids are beaten, coerced into having sex [and]…placed in institutions where they are sexually exploited or physically abused. The raids also drive sex workers onto the streets, where they are more vulnerable to violence…
None of this is to say that exploitation doesn’t occur in the sex industry, or that sex workers never get hurt or abused. It is rather to say that “prohibit and punish” is the wrong way to go about remedying the situation. Retributive impulses and prohibition-based methodologies have arisen out of a refusal by some activists to view the sex industry in third-world countries as anything but an industry that thrives on coercion and exploitation. Unfortunately, this only makes it more difficult to help sex workers who are exploited or abused, because the “kill it with fire” methodology of the abolitionists results in tons of collateral damage.
Maggie brings it home:
The total disregard for these women’s autonomy is deplorable; the few underage ones (if there were any) are said to be so stupid that they can’t even think of passing themselves off for 18 without being “taught” to say it, even though every teenager in the West can think that up all by himself.