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The Naked Anthropologist · helping


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michaelrougierEfforts to save migrants and sex workers also appear in ordinary fiction (by which I mean not melodramas produced by moral crusaders) and some authors have a fine-tuned sense of irony. In Magdalen Nabb’s Some Bitter Taste (2002), Marshal Guarnaccia, a policeman in Florence, helps an Albanian woman escape from her pimp, who is sent to jail. The woman goes to live with a nice man, Mario, but after a time she visits Guarnaccia in his office to tell him his effort to help her has failed.

You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me… so I wanted to tell you because if I don’t somebody else will. You’re bound to find out. I’m going back on the game.

- What? You’re what? And Mario?

- Oh, Mario… Jesus… I mean, he trotted off every morning at a quarter to eight and I was supposed to clean up his crumbs and wipe the floor over and then he’d come trotting back again and I was supposed to have the water boiling for his pasta and then it was one long whinge – there are no clean shirts, have you seen the fluff under this bed? Where’s the other sock to this? You’ve forgotten to get milk again… No, no, I couldn’t stand the boredom. So I upped and offed.

- Back to Ilir?

- Why not? He’s out now and he wants me back. Nobody ever earned him as much as me and he kept me in style. We ate in a restaurant every night. I like a good time and I get clients who give me a good time, you know what I mean? I like champagne and a few presents. I’m not spending the rest of my young life washing the floor of some poky little kitchen for a boring spotty clerk who thinks he’s earned the right to have his socks washed for a lifetime because he’s been good enough to save me from the streets.

- But what about when you’re not young anymore?

- Well, it’s all over then, isn’t it? Get it while you can, I say. I just… I wanted to tell you myself. It’s not that I’m not grateful to you. I know you meant well. Are you pissed off with me? You are, aren’t you?

-No, no…

- You’ve every right to be. I’d better go. I’m sorry. Because of you, I mean, not that little prick Mario, only because of you. I know you did your best.

Carve it on my tombstone, thought the marshal, watching her leave through a skein of cigarette smoke.- p 309

It’s good commentary on the institution of couplehood: the marriage model in which woman has a domestic capacity. Some would say all would change if they were to have children, but, after all, she still wouldn’t be able to eat in restaurants every night. And the presumed debt to saviours sounds awful: a side-effect of Rescue rarely addressed.

Funny how she comes to thank the policeman but calls the husband-man a little prick.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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CCO.Knabe-Sex-Trafficking-Board.5.31.12 (1)My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.

busHere the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.

Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.

satmThis field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).

Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.

billboardarlingtonHere’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.

The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.

Google “Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015

Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …

Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …

Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …

SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …

Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …

Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.

Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …

Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.

Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …

mccainThen, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.

In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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CultMany wrote to me during the brouhaha about Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof as though I were not paying enough attention to it. There are lots of events in the fields of anti-trafficking, the sex industry and now even the Rescue Industry that I glance at and don’t find remarkable enough to comment: after 20 years of observing I find it difficult to be really surprised by anything. While I appreciate how infuriating bogus experts are, I published the following to remind everyone that individual personalities are only superficially important in the now highly institutionalised scheme of things.

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality, 16 June 2014, Jacobin

By Laura Agustín

A Cambodian activist against sex slavery, Somaly Mam, recently resigned from her foundation after an outside investigation confirmed she had lied to attract donors and supporters. The revelations of Mam’s fraudulence are old news, however — Simon Marks’s reports have been appearing in the Cambodian Daily since 2012, and many other debunkings and doubts circulated much earlier among institutions, researchers, and activists trying to reverse unfounded sensationalism about sex trafficking.

Newsweek published some of Marks’s work on May 21, provoking outrage in the New York media establishment — less towards Mam than one of her greatest fans, self-styled slave rescuer Nicholas Kristof. He is accused of hoodwinking liberal-identifying readers and letting down the cause of journalism. Both accusations miss the point.

An editor from this media in-group asked if I would write for them about Somaly Mam’s resignation, having seen tweets indicating I don’t consider it significant. She suggested I write about problems of “accountability” with institutions like Mam’s, along with the “history and failures of the organization and others like it.”

I asked if she was acquainted with my work, mentioning my research on projects to help and save women who sell sex, documented in Sex at the Margins, which originatedthe concept of a “rescue industry.” Since my analysis rarely gets into the mainstream, the focus of anything I do for such outlets would have to explain the basics about that industry. The editor replied that she was not interested in anything so broad. I said if she wanted someone who has studied Mam’s annual reports and the workings of her rescue centers, I have not. I got no reply.

To focus on accountability implies that one accepts that there is a verifiable phenomenon to be accountable about, to espouse the fundamental propositions about human trafficking promoted by government, moral entrepreneurs, and the media which cry that trafficking, especially the kind where women sell sex, is the great scourge of our time. To focus on accountability assumes that the dominant narrative is based on reality, and all we have to do is quibble about individual ethics and demand high standards. This is all wrong.

There are flagrant injustices that need to be addressed regarding undocumented travel and labor, including selling sex. Exploitation of all kinds is rampant, and libertarian claims to bodily autonomy, the adult right to trade sex for money, and “no borders” are not enough. As I’ve been saying for many years, new migration and labor policies can begin to address the problems — not criminalization, policing, the infantilization of women, or raising “rescuer” to a saintly profession. The trafficking hoo-hah is not “myth,” but a terrible misnomer and misframing  — the glossing of complex social phenomena into a simplistic idea that fails over and over, even on its own terms.

In the wide field I call the rescue industry (all missions to “help” women who sell sex, or save them from it), one personality like Mam more or less is unimportant. She became a figurehead through a cult of personality, the phenomenon by which people uninformed about a subject look up to an individual as an inspiring symbol, endowing them with expertise and special knowledge, imagining they are leaders. Cults of personality rely on an unquestioning belief that the hero worshipped has the right fine feelings about an issue, perhaps gained through personal experience.

Human trafficking as a cause began to catch on with the general public in part when film stars attached themselves to it, adding patronage of exciting causes to their portfolios. Various UN agencies named actors as “Goodwill Ambassadors,” lending needed color to the endless parade of men in suits (bureaucrats), men in uniform (police), and frowning women that held sway. Such celebrities presumably inform themselves by reading what comes up easily in online searches, which means media reports parroting uncorroborated statistics and sensationalist horror stories.

To make their knowledge seem real, however, and to be able to project their feelings of caring, celebrities make field-visits to rescue centers in poorer countries. A long list of Hollywood and other celebrities have used such visits to demonstrate their empathy — many specifically visiting Mam venues: Mira Sorvino, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Emma Thompson, and many more. I have written many times about visits like these as an expression of colonialism.

In the world of NGOs, visits by a raft of different characters are viewed as an unfortunate but necessary part of survival. Whole days are dedicated to showing outsiders tidbits of projects in the hope that flattering reports will reach donors’ eyes. Those receiving visits carefully orchestrate them to be entertaining and rewarding for visitors, including by arranging photo opportunities. It is totally conventional for the same objects of pity to be wheeled out every time: They have learned their lines and how to behave appropriately, they know how to hug visitors and smile for the camera. It would be too time-consuming to set up a new scenario for every visit.

The repetition of stories by the same inmates is well known, as is the phenomenon by which victims learn to embellish their stories to provoke more sympathy in listeners (including researchers and program evaluators). That these narrations are often exaggerated in performance or fabricated out of whole cloth is so well known in NGO circles as to be banal. Everyone does it, one old hand wrote me.

Those not familiar with this world are upset to discover that Mam made theater for visitors, because they seem to assume that NGOs must be squeaky-clean ethical. But NGOs (even if their tax-status is called nonprofit) are organizations with employees who want careers, security, and decent salaries so they can buy houses, cars, and everything else employees of profit-making businesses want.

NGOs operate in a precarious world of capricious funding in which they are forced to write proposals for projects in vogue with donors, even projects that contradict their own beliefs. NGO workers cultivate an attitude of benevolently caring more about their social causes than others do, but this is identity-formation, not fact — the building of a satisfying self-image to project to the world. These are conventionally career-seeking people, not self-sacrificing saints.

Of course, fabricating stories to get more followers and money is unethical, and Mam seems to have done a lot of it. Inventing a few false victims for public consumption does not, however, prove there are no real victims or that Mam’s activities never helped anyone. This is why the SMF foundation had her resign — so that activities can continue and damage can be limited.

Will any donors lose significant confidence and withdraw funding because of revelations that her story and two others were falsified? I doubt it. Donors do not like to admit they were duped. But if some do stop funding SMF, they will simply shift support to other similar institutions engaged in the same cause, since the money was already earmarked for it. And some new figure with the ability to stir feelings will eventually emerge from the hundreds of groups now dedicated to sex trafficking and sex slavery.

Figureheads and personalities are of little significance, anyway. The anti-trafficking movement is now structurally mainstreamed in overlapping national and international initiatives — bigger, like the US Trafficking in Persons Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and smaller, like the Swedish Institute. Multinational projects like the Global Slavery Index provide official-looking data on trafficking that rest on the wobbliest of sources.

The machinery is now well-oiled. Personalities are beloved by the general public, but dry technocrats and calculating consultants are in charge, with the regular intervention of opportunist politicians.

Then there are the journalists. A few years ago, a veteran New York literary agent said she could not consider my book proposal because she believed Nicholas Kristof. If he was right, I could not be. Kristof’s flying photo-shoots to the jungle were worth more than my twenty years of research. For members of the liberal mainstream that expect the New York Times to be responsible and unbiased, his protagonism in the sex-trafficking craze has been a moral seal of approval, and those liberals feel betrayed by him.

Never expecting institutions like the Times or the Guardian to be unbiased, I paid little attention to Kristof until late 2011, when he live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia alongside Somaly Mam. When I expressed revulsion at this on my blog, I received hate mail. One was not permitted to question Great White Hunter reporters. I was a nobody — how dare I write on this topic? I responded with The Soft Side of Imperialism: Kristof and the Rescue Industry.

Despite many takedowns, Kristof has maintained his popularity, in another cult of personality that simply refuses to ask critical questions. After Mam’s exposure in Newsweek, Kristof first said mildly that it is difficult to pin down facts in Cambodia, excusing himself by faulting a backward nation. After being upbraided loudly by other journalistshe disavowed Mam in a move even more repulsive than his original adulation. But to complain about his misplaced faith is merely an attempt to shift the blame from his followers’ own original flawed act: allowing a sanctimonious Braggadocchio to define the facts in a complex and contradictory field.

One can understand how people swallow grand claims at the outset of a craze, but not years later, after repeated public failures to find large numbers of self-identified victims, the obvious re-branding of old categories like pimping as “trafficking” in order to inflate numbers of villains, and the steady debunking of myths like the sky-rocketing of sex trafficking at sports events.

Why do supporters whine that Kristof deceived them when they have no one to blame but themselves for refusing to face the truth for so many years? They complain that journalists should be accountable, but Kristof writes on sex trafficking in his columnist identity, on editorial pages where his is not the only mediocrity. He is part of a mainstream media machine that supports the status quo and ignores ideas not originated by old-boy networks.

Sad personal stories constitute the most convincing evidence of suffering presented by figureheads like Mam and Kristof. But even if all these were verifiable, they cannot justify the enormous outlay in time, money, and spirit assigned to this cause over time. And sad stories are much less common than the not-so-sad, less sensational stories told to many dozens of field researchers who have interviewed women who sell sex, many of them undocumented migrants (even leaving aside self-identified professional sex workers). Yet these more complicated stories are disqualified by anti-trafficking adherents who dismiss anything that throws doubt on their crusade.

The current fuss about Kristof and Mam reproduces the cult of personality that caused trouble in the first place. To focus on individuals is to avoid addressing structures. A couple of self-promoting showoffs pale beside proliferating government machinery that now churns out salaries and prestige for thousands worldwide caught up in a movement based on fraud.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders who provide services that facilitate solutions. Hands predominate in icons used on social-work websites: holding hands, piles of hands, hands of different shapes and colours. I suppose these are meant to signify working together – mutuality – non-hierarchy – equality. But how many social-work situations involving a sex worker reflect those values? Take this news item from Los Angeles:

Getting tough on underage prostitution

LA County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets. “Children cannot give consent by definition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It’s a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

Rejection of help is widely known amongst people who sell sex of all ages, yet to question ideas about helping is frowned upon. It is said people who are at least trying to do good deserve credit. Do they have to be perfect? At any rate, they are not employed as soldiers or bankers, they are socially involved, at least they care. But for most social workers, the job is just a job. They don’t imagine themselves to be saints but do appreciate the security and respect associated with it. They would probably prefer to think their work is relevant and appreciated. Consider a news item from Texas:

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

“You would think that if you ran across a child that was being used for sex trafficking that they would stand up and say help me and that’s not the case,” said Paris Regional Medical Emergency Director Doug LaMendola. “They are so mentally reprogrammed into submissiveness that they won’t speak up.”

It must be frustrating when help is rejected, but inventing psychological reasons is a dodge to avoid wondering if the projects could be improved. Some psy excuses used with women who sell sex are brainwashingStockholm Syndrome and acting out. Now consider a news item from Chicago:

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

One recent Friday morning in a stuffy, crowded classroom at the Cook County jail in Chicago, a few women shared stories at a meeting of a group called Prostitution Anonymous. If they agree to get help, the women usually are not charged with prostitution in Cook County, though they may face other charges, from drug use to disorderly conduct.

Coercing people to participate in programmes is where social work touches bottom.

The idea that it’s impossible to change the lives of those in need unless they want them changed reveals a key assumption: that those in helping positions by definition already know what everyone needs. What happens if the person to be helped doesn’t accede to the helper’s proposition? Help fails, as it so often does in the oldest and commonest attempts worldwide to help women who sell sex, known as Exit Strategies, Diversion Programs and Rehabilitation. Consider recent news from Oklahoma:

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

“She was in protective custody and doesn’t want any help,” he said. “There is no indication of a drug history. That’s the life she preferred. There is no telling how much money she was making.”
Woodward said the teenager comes from a rough family in the Tulsa area. “She doesn’t like her family, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” he said.

Most women and young people who sell sex are simply not attracted by the alternative occupations or ‘homes’ offered that provide no flexibility, no autonomy, no street life, no way to have fun and pitiful money. Social workers can always point to people they know who appreciated some such project, but mainstream media provide examples of failure every week. The significant refusal here is on the social-work side, where not believing what people say they need guarantees that the situation for sex workers stays the same, despite endless hand-wringing and rhetoric about the need to help them.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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I remember where I first heard the word empowerment. It was a poor, not very attractive place, the kind celebrities visit to have feel-good photos taken of themselves hugging children who appear to adore them. The girls at Somaly Mam’s over-visited home for ex-victims of trafficking are regularly required to perform the emotional work of gazing happily at rich visitors from abroad (as in this shot the US State Department has the nerve to call ‘diplomacy’).

Celebrity Rescuers like Shay Mitchell imagine they are experiencing Love:

My friends and I went to [a Mam] center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit — that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.

That’s a lot of naiveté, even for a missionary. Do these folks actually not know that oft-visited residents learn how they are meant to greet fat-cat visitors? And there’s a jolly neoliberal proposition:

Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces . . . They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient – Is she kidding? Mam’s website is characterised by statements like We help victims of sex slavery to become survivors, and empower survivors as part of the solution. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following piece daring to doubt the idea of empowerment, and I haven’t changed my mind today. (More repellent feel-good photos here, if you can stomach them. Below, I do believe some of the faces from another Mam photo shoot are the same as above)

The Em- of Empowerment: Injecting pride in unwilling subjects?

Laura Agustín, Research for Sex Work, 3, 15-16 (2000).

The verb is transitive: someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find power in themselves. It’s used among those who want to help others identified as oppressed. In Latin America, in educación popular, one of the great cradles of this kind of concept, the word itself didn’t exist until it was translated back from English. To many people, if they know it at all, the word empoderamiento sounds strange. It’s an NGO word, used by either volunteer or paid educators who view themselves as helpers of others or fighters for social justice, and is understood to represent the current politically correct way of thinking about ‘third world’, subaltern or marginalised people. But it remains a transitive verb, which places emphasis on the helper and her vision of her capacity to help, encourage and show the way. These good intentions, held also by 19th-century European missionaries, we know from experience do not ensure non-exploitation.

In the current version of these good intentions, ‘first-world’ people and entities use their funds to help or empower those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who remain in offices, often engaged in writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organisations have hierarchies, and those engaged in education or organisation at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used. Those closer to the top, who attend conferences, live in Europe or have career interests in the organisation, know how proposals must be written to compete in the crowded funding world. This condition of structural power should not be overlooked by those concerned with empowerment, who more often view themselves as embattled, as non-government, as crusaders situated against conservative policies. Yet, when a concept like empowerment comes from above in this way, we needn’t be surprised at the kind of contradictions that result—literacy programmes that don’t keep people interested in reading, AIDS education that doesn’t stop people from refusing to use condoms.

To empower me as a sex worker you assume the role of acting on me and you assume that I see myself as an individual engaged in sex work. If I don’t see myself this way, then I am disqualified from the empowerment project, despite your best intentions. The identity issue here is crucial; funders and activists alike are currently interested in valorising cultural and individual difference. While it is a great advance to recognise and ‘give voice to’ human subjects who were before marginalised or disappeared, the problem remains that if you want to inject pride in me that I am a worker and supporter of my family and I don’t recognise or want to think of myself that way, the advance won’t occur, in my case.

But, you say, those are the real conditions, we live in a world of funders and partial successes. We’re doing the best we can, and we acknowledge that these empowerment projects often fail. Since it’s to no one’s benefit that successes be quite so partial, let’s consider whether there is any way which this empowerment concept might be conceived differently, forgetting for the moment the funder and his funds.

In educación popular, in programmes sometimes called capacitación [capacity-building], people get together to talk, sometimes with the encouragement of a person from ‘outside’. This person might be called an animadora or an educator, her job to facilitate conditions where subjects might realise they have a problem in common which, if they acted together, they might be able to move toward solving. I’m describing a very fundamental, ‘pure’ version, perhaps, now complicated in many places in many ways by different histories, international contacts, hybrid forms. Still, it’s worth considering what the most basic idea always has been.

Here, the most the outsider does is provide the suggestion of a time and place, with perhaps a very basic reason for getting together, perhaps just ‘meeting neighbours’. Who finds out about this meeting? Everyone who lives there, if it’s a village or small barrio and people talk to each other fairly freely. Letting people know can be an important task of the outsider. Sometimes, in larger places, an ‘identity’ is targeted, but it can be a very general identity, such as everyone concerned to improve conditions in the community.

The educator/animator might suggest the group talk about a topic such as how to get running water, bus service or rubbish collection—topics of concern to everyone, including sex workers. Or she might present a question—such as why everyone is talking about migrating to work somewhere else—and hope people will respond. But if they don’t, and if nothing seems to happen, her job is to resist the temptation to push the conversation. The hope is rather that if people feel free to talk, they will, eventually, if only to see if others share their feelings. This process can be extremely slow and even invisible, and no money or materials from outside are required. The profound assumption is rather that people themselves already know a lot—what they want, what they need. If they agree after some time that a technical fact or help is needed that none of them possess, then they might feel ‘empowered’ to search for that fact on the outside.

Does the ‘outsider’actually need to be there during this process? The answer depends on the person, on how quietly encouraging she is, on how patient and undisappointed if the group doesn’t take off, agree on anything or if it agrees to a programme the opposite of what the funders want.

Can this vision be applied when funders seem concerned solely with the sex organs of people assumed to ‘identify’ themselves as sex workers? If educators must ‘target’ prostitutes as those who come to a meeting? Perhaps, if the same kind of mostly undirected sharing of experiences is encouraged. Many times sex workers will then be heard to discuss not sex, clients and condoms—the topics always brought up by funders—but all the other aspects of their lives, which are not peculiar to them as sex workers. They might talk about a new song, a new dress, a new club—or a new idea for getting together to protect and help each other.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Numerous novels tell the story of attempts to rescue sad prostitutes or fallen women unconscious of their own degradation. It is a classic theme that took shape in the 19th century, signalling new beliefs in social reform: the possibility that those at the bottom of the social heap were not doomed to stay there but with help could rise up and better themselves. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a fallen woman‘s moment of epiphany, is unusual in omitting any Rescue person showing the way, lifting her up, teaching her how to live.

One version of the prostitute’s saviour is a confused, melancholic man who ‘loves’ her and aims to remove her from the life. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a naive meddler in Vietnamese politics also sets out to rescue Phuong, the young mistress of a jaded older journalist. This book from 1955 is recommended reading for those interested in the Rescue Industry, and I bring it up because the review of another book relates it to Greene’s work.The novel is Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, the setting is also Saigon and the reviewer’s insights into the main character’s Rescue complex are pointed.

The only off-note in the review is the cliché murky in the headline, as if every time sex goes on sale the moral lights have to go out.

Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

Emily Maguire, The Australian 6 October 2012

“The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,” Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the “deep unfeeling blankness” on the face of the “pretty young prostitute”. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman. . .

Joseph cannot see sex workers as fully human lest he be forced to admit that some don’t want saving and, thus, he cannot be the hero he so desperately needs to be.

Emily Maguire’s understanding of Joseph tallies with what I concluded much of Rescue is about after a long time wondering why people saying they wanted to help prostitutes did not listen to what they had to say. In Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities I laid out the foundation for theorising about a Rescue Industry.

Real-life characters like Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara belong to the sentimental tradition of men who want to rescue fallen women and thereby construct for themselves an identity as virtuous Knights in Shining Armour – which is also a path to prestige and power.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropology


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The Daily Mail, a British tabloid renowned for taking cheap shots, made a silly story out of two young white men claiming to save ‘vulnerable women’ – code for victims of sex trafficking among other things – in the small Midlands city of Leicester. They don’t mention trafficking too loudly, but that is now the keyword to access much funding for ‘women’s issues’. It wouldn’t matter that these two guys are unlikely to have met any trafficked victims or know what to do if they did.

The opportunity they used was the hullaballoo over a new iphone for which legions supposedly queued around the world.

George Horne and Richard Wheatcroft hope to use their place at the head of the queue to raise awareness for their charity The Hope Boutique Bakery that helps vulnerable women find employment and training. The two friends from Leicester pitched their camping seats outside Apple’s flagship store in London’s Regent’s Street, arriving at 6pm yesterday to make sure they are the first in the country to lay their hands on the phone. . . ‘I’m absolutely buzzing, it is so exciting being here.’ The pair, who only met last month, said queuing together day and night will be a test of their friendship.

Hm, they met just last month and already they thought up a project that will help women? You’d think it was easy! Their Hope Boutique Bakery is out of Crowd Fuelled Causes, which is something to do with social enterprises – if you figure it out, give me a call. Probably this is so far an empty name looking for funding. But can you believe it, a bakery, of all sexist domestic patronising ideas about women? No bakery is likely to actually employ many people anyway, but hey, call it boutique bakery – where I suppose ludicrous cupcakes sell – and it’s a winner. Stuff White People Like with a vengeance.

Thoroughly sexist and neocolonialist all the way, and as with Nicholas Kristof, it’s all about them – they are front and centre, feeling excitement about being first in the queue to be photographed.

This phenomenon of ignoramuses going for trafficking funding is now old hat. Recently we had Getting money to prevent sex trafficking even if there isn’t any (also in the UK) and Wannabe Special Agents act out fantasies about sex slaves, both about do-gooding, ngo-directing, not very old, white men. We also had one of these guys implicated in a swindle with Rescue as Scam: Australian charity lies about saving girls from sex slavery.

But I believe the phenomenon goes much deeper into the patriarchal psyche, where Knights in Shining Armour: Men who Rescue Sex Workers and Slaves and women are forever falling: Fallen women, including the one Charles Dickens didn’t save. This is about the Construction of Benevolent Identities in the endeavour of Helping Women Who Sell Sex.

The Rescue Industry is heavily dependent on The Soft Side of Imperialism. The egregious Kristof was the excuse for that piece, but he is far, far from being alone. Barefaced racist imperialism seems anyway more acceptable again – hope everyone saw this of Prince William the other day.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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DMSC's Avinash clinic. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The most popular page on this website is a 2009 story about prices in Sonagachi, a red-light area in Kolkata. It got more than 200 comments, mostly from clients, some from pimps, others from morally outraged folks, mostly in India. I used to work at deleting the nasty ones every day, and then I stopped allowing comments, or there would be heaven knows how many by now. I have more than once been asked to remove the most sexist and deplorable comments, but how would this make sense, given my interest in understanding what’s going on in commercial sex and gender relations? Not to mention that erasure would be a weird form of End Demand.

DMSC, or Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, the sex worker collective described in a story below, operate a project in Sonagachi. Their principles are

  • Respect and dignity to sex work and towards sex workers
  • Reliance on the knowledge and wisdom of the community of sex workers
  • Recognition of sex work as an occupation and preserve and protect their occupational and human rights

Accusations have been made by anti-prostitutionists (among them Nicholas Kristof) that there is something sinister about DMSC. The slurs, which have never been substantiated, probably derive from the collective’s requirement that journalists, academics, philanthropists and other tourists seek permission before swanning in to take photos of people. DMSC consider such behaviour to be theft. For those who want to abolish prostitution and make everything into trafficking and slavery, Durbar’s refusal to play along with gawkers must be annoying, given the collective’s size, but that is no reason to slander the whole project.

In the following birthday story please note how many areas they are active in: culture, health, sports, children and publishing, as well as advocacy, lobbying and other kinds of activism. I especially like the description of a party for the marginalised, in which taboos are taboo.

The New Rhythms of Sonagachi

Kolkata Chromosome/Shamik Bag, 24 February 2012, livemint.com

As the city’s sex workers collective turns 20, we meet members who have found confidence in their enhanced social presence. For what is sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest profession, a mere passage of two decades can seem irrelevant in the life of Sonagachi—the red-light area in Kolkata and among the largest brothel districts in Asia. Yet, in these 20 years, 38-year-old Swapna Roy has seen a change in the way people refer to her—from being sneeringly mentioned in the coarse Bengali equivalent of slut, Roy today is a jouno kormi—a sex worker.

Roy’s daylight hours are busy—every day she is on the field in areas like Ultadanga and Janbazar as the joint coordinator of a project which sensitizes around 3,000 sex workers on safe and hygienic practices. She also keeps a tab on her two schoolgoing children, one of whom got a first division in the Madhyamik examinations last year. There is no unease about the business of her sundown hours. “We have come to realize that sex work is like any other work and I’m like any other worker. In these two decades, we have learnt to appreciate this.”

We are in the office of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a collective of 65,000 sex workers from West Bengal. The organization works for women’s rights and is at the forefront of the fight against HIV/AIDS and related issues. Sex workers are the primary office bearers and stakeholders at DMSC, and in the 20 years of its existence, the organization has been responsible for bringing out into the streets—and into middle-class drawing rooms, through newspaper and television coverage—the issues facing sex workers, including the demand for legal sanction for the profession.

“You will find bank managers trying to woo them for their accounts and senior police officers calling up to seek appointments. Many of them are frequent fliers to Delhi and some travel abroad every three months on official work. There has been a cultural shift in society’s perception of sex workers,” says Shubha Ranjan Sinha, a senior DMSC official, sitting in the spacious front room of Durbar’s Nilmoni Mitra Street office, near Sonagachi. Posters with slogans like “Liberty, Equality, Sexuality” and “Only rights can stop the wrong” adorn the walls.

The three-storey office is abuzz. The next day, 15 February, would mark 20 years since a team of medical professionals, led by Smarajit Jana of Kolkata’s All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, visited Sonagachi on an HIV intervention research study. In due course, Dr Jana realized that for the sex workers, their children’s education, access to financial services and fending of police harassment and torture by local thugs was more important than urging a client to use a condom. So Dr Jana founded DMSC, with sex workers as stakeholders, based on the value of “collective bargaining power”. From 12 members in 1995, DMSC draws its current strength of 65,000 members from 48 branches across the state, each headed by an elected secretary, according to Dr Jana.

The following day, the terrace of the Durbar office, the venue of the anniversary celebrations, is cheerfully decorated with streamers and balloons. With a cake waiting to be cut, speaker after speaker gives short speeches to mark the occasion. There is much to cheer about, it seems. In 1995, Usha, the consumer cooperative society and micro-credit programme under DMSC, convinced the Bengal government to alter the state’s cooperative law to register it as a sex workers cooperative instead of being wrongly labelled a housewives cooperative. With more than 5,000 members putting in their small savings, Usha, as of 2006-07, had an annual turnover of Rs. 9.75 crore and has disbursed Rs. 2.12 crore in loans to members. This came against the monopoly of Sonagachi moneylenders, some of whom charged 300% interest against loans. Some sex workers also have health insurance, while some have got voter identity cards with the Election Commission of India recognizing their Usha membership as valid identity proof. State Bank of India has also begun to recognize sex work as a profession while opening accounts, says Dr Jana. DMSC also runs 17 non-formal schools for children of sex workers, and two hostels at Ultadanga and Baruipur. There are regular teachers who give tuition to boarders (students who are pursuing higher education) in different subjects.

Members of Komol Gandhar, DMSC’s cultural wing dedicated to dance, drama, mime and music and run by the children, get invited regularly for paid shows. Eminent theatre personalities like the late Badal Sircar and Rudraprasad Sengupta have earlier trained its theatre unit. The Durbar football team, largely comprising children of sex workers, has for the first time in the 2011-12 season, participated in the nursery football league conducted by The Indian Football Association, West Bengal. They have won six of the seven games they have played so far, says coach Biswajit Majumdar. Some of the young footballers, says Majumdar, have represented Bengal at national-level junior championships.

Mrinal Kanti Dutta, one of the 12 founding members of Durbar, is the author of three non-fiction books, one of which is based on his experience of living in the Kalighat red-light area with his mother. While the three books have been published by Durbar Prakashani, the in-house publishing wing which has around 25 titles and brings out a popular monthly magazine, Dutta’s forthcoming novel, Pakhi Hijrer Biye, will be launched soon by a well-known College Street publisher. Dutta dropped out of college out of fear of getting ridiculed after his batchmates spotted him in the Kalighat red-light area.

Yet, on various occasions, Durbar has been hauled up for its insistence on legalizing sex work, its inability to eradicate violence and exploitation in red-light areas, and for not disclosing to patients the positive results from HIV tests. As Dr Jana says, HIV+ results are not disclosed only on occasions when Durbar has to follow norms under National AIDS Control Organisation’s (Naco) “unlinked anonymous” testing programme, even while admitting that more needs to be done to stem violence.

The terrace party comes across as a zone that is manifestly liberated from the moral scruples of the greater society that surrounds Sonagachi. Here, taboos are taboo and the fringe of Kolkata life—sex workers, their children, cross-dressers and transgenders —are comfortably cocooned through their commingling. Part of the confidence and inspiration comes from the story of Bharati Dey, secretary, DMSC. Dey is a frequent flier and has already exhausted the pages of two passports. As a sex worker in the mid-1990s, Dey is well-known for the movement she launched in 1997 in the Naihati- Barrackpore industrial belt against the mafia and political extortion. As she speaks, words like attempted murder, lynching, revolver and gang rape flow effortlessly—almost as if she is nonchalant to the indicators of her earlier existence. But, as Dey admits, it is life’s experiences that have shaped her and these days words and phrases like AGM (annual general meeting), Geneva Conference, donor agencies, advocacy and human rights, are uttered as easily.

We don’t dissuade adult and willing girls from entering the profession. It is easy to say sex work is bad, but most girls come from poverty stricken families and are uneducated,” says Purnima Chatterjee, who sits on a self-regulatory board, which works as a watchdog body in all DMSC branches against trafficking and introduction of minor and unwilling girls into the trade…

It’s close to noon, and outside the clinic, where we meet, Sonagachi is stirring after what must have been yet another late night out in an area that is home to an estimated 11,000 sex workers. Bare-bodied men soap themselves frenetically at a public bath, a juice vendor peels the skin off pineapples, rickshaw-pullers wait for passengers, petticoats and blouses are collected from clotheslines in surrounding brothels. Crows and vultures fly above an overflowing garbage dump next to a black granite-faced building named Night Lovers.

Through this scene, 23-year-old Mita Mondal’s thin voice can be heard. Mondal is the lead vocalist and face of the Durbar band. She was rescued as a minor from the streets of Sonagachi eight years ago. The band practises on the vacant third floor of the building which houses the Avinash clinic, and the strident music filters out of the open windows to the streets below. Mondal occasionally goes off key and the conga player misses a rhythm or two. But everything falls into place when Mondal begins singing the Durbar anthem. It seems well-rehearsed, the dholak player shakes his head like a wound-up toy, and everybody mouths the chorus lines amid a sudden outburst of collective energy.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Once, after I’d given a talk, an academic feminist geographer became very upset while trying to get me to admit that the poor of this world are victims objectively, by definition, because of ‘global structural inequalities’. I replied that I understood how she, coming from her position of middle-class person identifying as socialist, produced poorer people this way. I went on to say, ‘But if you move over to the poor person’s place and ask them how they see their situation, they may well not produce such an image of themselves.’ I thought the woman was going to go through the roof with outrage at my refusal to accept her point as objectively true.

This planet is rife with terrible differences between the poor and the rich, men mostly have more power and money than everyone else and things are getting worse. But given the injustice, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, general categories like Exploited Victims. It is also not smart to claim that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. Most poor people don’t leave their countries.

I published Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants in 2003, but several people have written to me recently about how up-to-date and useful it is. In the mainstream media, two reductionist visions are common: one that blames migrants as grasping criminals, the other that sees them as sad victims. Unfortunately many people with leftist sympathies and visions fall into the trap of victimisation.  Click on the title to get the pdf or read the whole thing below. What I say applies to all migrants, whatever jobs they do, including sex work.

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Development, 46.3, 30-36 (2003)

Laura Agustín

There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters. Much rhetoric about migration has fallen into this pattern: migrants, it turns out, are not only vulnerable to exploitation, a patent truth, but they are ‘victims’.

The other choice, according to sensationalist media treatments, is criminal. Since news on migrants is reported only when disasters befall them, or when they are caught in something ‘illegal’, they can only be positioned in one of these two ways: as past victims of poverty or conflict in their home states and present victims of criminal bands, or as criminals who take advantage of such victims. The victims need to be saved, and the criminals to be punished. This reductionism encourages the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about being a migrant. Since migrants are usually seen as people from the third world, the positioning of so many of them as victims—of economic restructuring if not of criminal agents—harks back unsettlingly to the old category of the ‘native’. And since migrants nowadays are so often women, these natives are constituted as backward, developmentally less than first-world women. This is most overt, of course, in ‘trafficking’ discourses (for example, in Barry, 1979) but can now be heard in general talk about ‘illegal’ migrants.

Ratna Kapur shows how this victimising tendency began in the early 1990s with the project to reveal the widespread, routine nature of violence against women:

In the context of law and human rights, it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse (Kapur, 2001: 5).

This strategy has led to many benefits for women. The problem is that the person designated a victim tends to take on an identity as victim that reduces her to being seen as a passive receptacle and ‘encourages some feminists in the international arena to propose strategies which are reminiscent of imperial interventions in the lives of the native subject’ (Kapur, 2001: 6).

The category ‘migrant’, awkward and ambiguous to begin with, becomes more so when it is victimised. In this article, I want to look at what we think we mean when we call someone a migrant, and then suggest that there are both class and postcolonial analyses to be made of this constructed identity and the passivity assigned to it. To do this, I will call on my own research with migrating people in various parts of the world. What I recount is widely known, but not often included in formal studies of migrations.

Conventional travellers

On the surface, there seem to be patently different kinds of travellers: tourists, people whose work involves travel, refugees and migrants. Tourists are generally defined as people with time and money to spend on leisure activities who take a trip somewhere to do it: they are ‘travelling for pleasure’. Tourism is defined by an absence (work), and tourists are believed to have left their jobs behind to indulge consciously in not working. In the literature, the tourist is someone from the North (the tourism of Southerners is invisible). Some people oppose a status of ‘traveller’ to that of tourist, saying their trips are unplanned, open-ended, longer and more appreciative of the ‘real culture’ of a place. ‘Interacting with the culture’ is the goal for many of these, and this interaction most likely comes about through getting a job. ‘Working’ does not exclude pleasure, then, for first-world subjects.

People who travel in the course of carrying out their jobs are at first glance also clearly identifiable. Whether sent on trips by companies or undertaking them on their own, business travellers are obliged to be on the road. Their trips may be long or short, involve familiarity with the culture visited and the local language or not and require sociability or not, but they have in common that this is not supposed to be ‘leisure time’. But is this true? Many businesspeople also engage in tourism during their trips, using their ‘expense accounts’ to entertain clients, much of this money going to sites where tourists also go (theatres, cabarets, sex or gambling clubs, restaurants, bars, boat trips, sports events). The trips taken to attend conferences, do field work or provide consultations by academics, ‘development’ and technical consultants, missionaries and social-sector personnel also feature tourism. Sports professionals, singers, musicians, actors, salespeople, sailors, soldiers, airline and train personnel, commercial fishermen, farm-workers, long-distance truck drivers and a variety of others travel as part of their professions. Modern explorers search for oil, minerals, endangered species of animals and plants and ‘lost’ archaeological artefacts. Many of these people spend a long time away from home, and their work life is punctuated by leisure and tourist activities. Some of these people have homes or ‘home bases’ in more than one place. Students who take years abroad or travel to do field work are combining tourism and work. The main goal of a voyage for religious pilgrims is not work, but they may work and engage in tourist activities on the way to and from the pilgrimage. And then there are nomads whose traditional way of gaining a livelihood includes mobility.

The dichotomy working traveller/work-free traveller is misleading, and many forms of travel have aspects of both. So what makes a ‘migrant’ different?

This other kind of traveller

Some people distinguish between all the above types and ‘migrants’, on the grounds that the latter ‘settle’. According to this distinction, migrants move from their home to make another one in someone else’s country. They are not positioned as travellers or tourists, since they are looking not only to spend money but earn it. The word migrant is nearly always used about the working class, not about middle-class professionals and not about people from the first-world, even if they also have left home and moved to another country. Instead, the word rings of a subaltern status. Read the rest of this entry »


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India mandated the rehabilitation of sex workers last year – in case they want to be rehabilitated. The story below tells how the concept has become a subject of dispute. Two activist authorities give reasons why vocational training is problematic:

In many cases, women get into prostitution after trying out other options like domestic work, as sex work is more remunerative.

Rehabilitation cannot be on moral grounds alone. Recommendations made by the court or the panel should have a long-term financial benefit as well as ways to involve the family and other members of the society to give prostitutes social security.

Someone else says some women have been glad to work at MacDonalds instead. This is of course considered morally superior to prostitution, but what about dancing?

Girls who danced in the bars of Mumbai . . . found a means of earning a livelihood that was more paying than sex work… But even this was banned on moral grounds whereas what was needed was to make these places more safe for women.

And Dignity for All

Saheli Mitra, 1 February 2012, The Telegraph (India)

In September 1999 a sex worker in Calcutta was murdered by a prospective client after she refused to have sex with him. When the case (Budhadev Karmaskar vs the State of West Bengal) went to the Supreme Court, the latter passed a landmark judgment, stressing that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to live with dignity, includes a prostitute’s right to lead a life of dignity as well. To ensure that right, last July the Supreme Court set up a five-member panel to work towards providing sex workers with alternative means of livelihood. It was supposed to come up with a list of impoverished sex workers who wished to be rehabilitated as the apex court did not wish to coerce them into changing their profession. Initially, the panel was supposed to concentrate on the four metros and was to involve the local NGOs in this effort.

However, since then little progress seems to have been made in this regard. So much so that last week a bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and Gyan Sudha Mishra of the Supreme Court asked senior advocate Pradeep Ghosh, who heads the panel, to submit another report on the work done so far. The bench said it would like to monitor the rehabilitation process by the Centre and the states so as to ensure that the exercise was not just an eyewash. “We routinely have conferences and seminars on these issues and the matter ends there. No concrete measures are taken to end the malaise. We want to make sure that something is done that satisfies our conscience. It should not be a mere eyewash,” the bench said. . .

The Centre has already paid Rs 10 lakh to the panel to kickstart the work. But though the state governments too have been directed to pay amounts ranging from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, depending on the number of sex workers in their states, very few have made the payment so far. In fact, reacting to the panel’s complaint that state governments were sitting on the money to be paid, the Supreme Court has directed all of them to pay up and submit a list of the number of prostitutes they want to rehabilitate.

But though the Supreme Court’s initiative is a noble one, many feel that it may finally come to nought as attempts to rehabilitate prostitutes through vocational training have failed in most cases.

As Mumbai-based lawyer and human rights activist Flavia Agnes points out, “It has been amply proved that vocational training has not solved the issue of sex work or trafficking. In fact, in many cases, women get into prostitution after trying out other options like domestic work as sex work is more remunerative. Would any of us work at a job which pays one tenth of our current earnings? Then how can we expect a sex worker to be happy with this choice,” she asks.

Women’s activist Saswati Ghosh believes the whole approach to the rehabilitation of sex workers is wrong-headed and paternalistic. “Rehabilitation cannot be on moral grounds alone. Recommendations made by the court or the panel should have a long-term financial benefit as well as ways to involve the family and other members of the society to give prostitutes social security,” she says.

Agnes gives the example of girls who danced in the bars of Mumbai. Many of them had found a means of earning a livelihood that was more paying than sex work. “This was a viable alternative that women had found for themselves. But even this was banned on moral grounds whereas what was needed was to make these places more safe for women.”

However, human rights lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja points out that the apex court judgment does take into account the need for giving sex workers a financially viable alternative livelihood. “It says governments should make arrangements to provide a market for the trade in which the women are trained. So the panel’s work will not be over with merely training the woman. It has to ensure that she earns enough to support herself and her family.” And there are instances where this approach has worked, he says. A recent survey revealed that prostitutes placed in MacDonalds, Dominos, food courts, etc. by Mumbai-based NGO Prerana have not returned to the flesh trade. “Some of them are in touch with Prerana and are doing well,” he says. . .

So one solution does not fit all, but the requirement that alternative jobs be financially viable is a bit vague. Wages and working conditions in fast-food outlets are not going to interest a great number of people, whatever their present jobs are. The failure to figure out what sex workers actually want is reflected in numerous stories of rejected Rescues.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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