Gita Danuwar (above) was sold in Bombay by a cousin. After nine years, she is back in her home village near Kathmandu. Although she has HIV, Gita hoes her terrace farm while her father weeds. However, most women and children enter prostitution not because they are ‘forced’, but because they have no alternatives. Family-based sex trade is an increasingly common response to poverty and a significant source of rural income.
This is an essay not only about the situation of the trafficking of girls and women in South Asia, but about the ‘discourse’ on this issue – the consensus view of trafficking that is presented by the media, non-governmental groups, donor agencies and governments. It is the discourse which determines what is to be done about the problem, but if the discourse does not relate to reality, interventions do not work, funds are wasted, and people continue to suffer.
Today, examination of ‘discourse’ on a subject is no longer the domain of abstracted social scientists. It has also been taken up by journalists, who, in this case, are questioning the reality, the balance and the effect of what they put in print and on film regarding trafficking. A few grounded members of donor organisations are questioning whether the discourse leads to effective measures to curb trafficking. Members of local NGOs, in particular, are pushing for a more realistic understanding of trafficking, bred both from their everyday experiences and from seeing anti-trafficking activities fall flat on their face.
And, finally, governments. Like the seminar-wallahs of the ‘power-NGOs’, governments have a lot at stake in maintaining myths. However, as a clearer and more realistic picture of trafficking and prostitution emerges, they too are beginning to wonder whether the prevailing discourse on trafficking is not off the mark.
This writer has spent the last couple of years talking with NGO workers, activists, donor agency staff, government officials, journalists and filmmakers about ‘trafficking’. Actually, I have just listened, wanting to know what ‘trafficking’ meant to them and how their understanding transformed into action. Against this, I have placed the greater ‘reality’ of children and adults entering prostitution, putting together a picture as best as possible from researchers, field workers, investigative journalists and sex workers themselves.
Each country in South Asia has its own variation of the general trafficking discourse – each generalising ‘the problem’ in different ways. Nepal’s discourse is based on the forced abduction of Nepali girls to Bombay; Bangladesh’s is on the trafficking of their females to Pakistan and the Middle East. The Indian thesis focuses on in-country or domestic trafficking. Sri Lanka’s is concerned with its women going to countries outside the region, and is integrated with a larger discussion of migrant female labour. Pakistan is primarily concerned with the domestic abuse of its own women, and the trafficking discourse per se is unformed, focusing primarily on its women going to the Middle East.
Out in the international ether – the transnational media, foreign government bureaucracies and donor agency boardrooms – the matter of trafficking tends to be treated in simple and sensationalistic terms. Here, the discourse is adapted to international ignorance of the South Asian situation, coupled with the primary motivation to “sell it”. Thus, Nepali girls in Bombay, Asian “camel-boys” in the Middle East, the Devadasi dancing girls of India, and a few other mediagenic groups dominate the international view of trafficking in the Subcontinent. This small, distorted picture obscures large, vital issues concerning South Asia’s women and children.
Every South Asian country’s discourse is dominated by myths, supposedly typifying accounts of what trafficking really is. It is very important to see how far these myths correspond to what is actually happening as girls and women travel to join the sex trade.
Let us spin the Nepal myth first; it is the best known…
This is the story of a poor Tamang girl from Sindhupalchowk District, northwest of Kathmandu Valley. Her name has got to be Gita. Passive, fair-skinned Gita (they like them like that down in Bombay) emerges from her thatch-roof hut one day to buy some cooking oil for her mother. At the local shop, a swarthy stranger hands her a drugged pack of Frooti (the popular mango drink), and the next thing she knows she’s blearily looking out a dirty bus window in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. A little confused, Gita is sure they had promised to get her a job as a nanny in Delhi. Another Frooti later, she wakes up in a filthy padlocked room in Bombay.
Despite the rows of suggestively positioned girls she sees on the sidewalk below, innocent Gita has no idea what’s in store for her. When her snarling madam, the gharwali, brings in her first customer (a sickly, festering man who is convinced that sex with a virgin will cure his AIDS), she nobly refuses. In comes the goonda for her ‘training’. After being raped 15 or 20 times a day for a week, Gita gets the picture: she is supposed to be a sex worker. Finally accepting her fate, Gita begins work. She has to service 30 customers a night, is not allowed out to see Hindi movies (even though it is Bombay), and has no idea that she owes the destestable gharwali 25,000 (Indian) rupees for her purchase at 80 percent interest compounded daily.
Now the saviours appear. An inspired NGO leader, aided by cops with humanitarian conscience, beats down the door of the brothel and finds Gita hidden away behind a pile of tins. After a pleasant holiday in a government remand home, she is repatriated to Kathmandu. But alas, she can´t go home any more because she is found to be HIV positive. Luckily, for Gita, there is a room in a shelter run by a charity, where she learns to embroider placemats and live her last days in dignity.
This is the basic Nepal myth. To be sure, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genuine Gitas out there, and their suffering is immeasurable. But does Gita represent the majority? Or is she part of a small fraction of the girls, boys and women subjected to prostitution, but who entered in less dramatic circumstances?
In Sri Lanka, the dominant trafficking myth has the poor Buddhist/Hindu/Christian girl spirited off to the Middle East to work as a domestic servant for a grouchy man wearing bedsheets. After being sexually abused by the sons of the house, she loses her job, cannot pay off her debt to the evil agent, and ends up working in a bar in Qatar. (By the way, her 5-year-old brother is a camel boy, and we will not discuss what is done to him.)
In Bangladesh, it is the village maiden dragged across a hundred frontiers, raped by men in a variety of uniforms, who ends up a labourer in a Karachi fish factory for a few weeks before she is married off to a peasant in deepest Balochistan.
Again, all these myths are founded on a reality that cannot be ignored. But it is necessary to question whether in their excruciating detail they obscure a larger reality. Do the myths even obstruct effective action against trafficking? Overall, does the diversionary power of the present trafficking discourse mean that many more children and women are undocumented, uncounted, discounted? If so, it is time to change our understanding of trafficking in South Asia, to recognise these others – the unrecognised majority of those in pain – and to do something about their condition.
What are the facts of trafficking? The truth is – after a decade of seminars, media investigations, research and committee reports – we really don’t know. In some cases, we know where the trafficked girls come from, but not in all cases, especially in India and Nepal. We have not the vaguest idea of the numbers of girls trafficked. We do not know much about where they go, whether to large metros or industrial towns, or to what kinds of prostitution establishments. And we do not know who is responsible. In the last couple of years there has been some bona fide research and investigative journalism on the subject, but the picture is as yet blurry. Worst of all, we do not even know what the word ‘trafficking’ means any more. Maybe it is time to throw the word away.
It can be safely said that the girl-children of myth – those who are physically coerced or duped into prostitution across international borders without prior knowledge or willingness – are a small, very small, minority of all who enter prostitution. This activity alone is what the discourse generally calls ‘trafficking’.
First of all, we must distinguish ‘international’ trafficking from ‘in-country’ or ‘domestic’ trafficking. Although it takes little skill to determine that vast majority of women and children are trafficked within their countries’ borders (sometimes just down the hill to the truckstop), in-country trafficking remains a small part of what people understand by “trafficking”. In the Government of India’s recent “Report and Plan of Action of the Committee on Prostitution”, while it is clearly stated that “most of the human trafficking is done within the country from one State or region to another”, the committee immediately develops amnesia and restricts itself to prescribing recommendations to halt international trafficking.
The definition should be made more encompassing. Children unwillingly and unknowingly abducted, drugged, duped or otherwise dragged to the brothels could be called victims of ‘hard’ or ‘coercive’ trafficking. Set against this are the children whose families send them to the brothels as wage-earners – this could be called ‘soft’ or ‘family-based’ trafficking.
Soft trafficking may occur because it is an established means of providing income to poor households, as well as of getting rid of a dowry burden. In northern Thailand, perhaps 80 percent of the girls send money home to their families. There is evidence that many, probably the majority, of the girls working in Indian and Bangladeshi brothels send money home. The family and community, thus, are complicit.
In the sex establishments of Bombay, one comes across enough indications of soft trafficking. Many, perhaps most, of the brothels and beer bars contain girls from the same state, the same region, often the same village. You can find Meghalayan or Tamil beer bars where many of the girls have known each other since childhood. You can find Nepali brothels where all the girls are from the same village in Sindhupalchowk district, well known for its export of prostitutes (see story on page 24).
It is known that recruitment of new girls is often done by older prostitutes returning to their home villages. They are not dragging strangers off the streets to Bombay, instead they are bringing over their own family members or neighbours. This is hardly a South Asian phenomenon – in Thailand, the Philippines, China, Cambodia and every country of the East, too, girls from the same village are routinely found working together in brothels.
Trafficking with the complicity of the family and the girl’s fore-knowledge, may also be the result of family indebtedness – to the local moneylender or from an established bonded-labour situation. In Thailand, where there is better data available, it was recently reported that about 40 percent of girls selling sex in the north of the country were in prostitution to pay off their family debts. Family indebtedness is routine throughout the Subcontinent (with the state of Bihar at its centre), and it can be safely said that debt obligation plays a significant role in the soft trafficking of children here. What is interesting is that the question of family indebtedness does not form any part of the present trafficking discourse in any of the regional countries.
Evidence suggests that the various forms of soft trafficking are not only prevalent, but that they involve many more girls and women than hard trafficking. It is also clear that soft trafficking has become a widely accepted cultural practice and that more and more families knowingly and willingly send their children to brothels in response to their own poverty. This is not even a new phenomenon – many South Asian communities have been doing this for generations – but it is rapidly expanding as the poor get poorer. At the same time, it is making a crucial contribution to impoverished rural economies.
Evidence also suggests that many of the females who enter sex work are not trafficked into it – they enter because they have no alternative. What about a girl or woman who goes overseas as a migrant household worker, perhaps gets sexually abused by her employer, flees her job and resorts to sex work in desperation? Or the woman who is abandoned by her husband and who must get into sex work to feed her children? Or a young woman whose parents have died or abandoned her, a street child? Selling sex may be her only way to survive. These women and girls are not trafficked – they certainly do not enter prostitution ‘voluntarily’, but somehow they are excluded from the prevalent trafficking discourse.
Thus, at present, the discussion of trafficked women limits itself to the victims of hard trafficking. As a result, the media focuses on these victims, donors direct their funds at these victims, and governments wax eloquent about these victims – to the exclusion of the majority of women in the sex trade. Why?
If a discourse – in this case, why and how children enter prostitution – is not in sync with the real world, why not just change it, one may ask. It’s not that easy. Once embedded in the public and professional mind, the understanding of what trafficking is and is not is very hard to eradicate. There are a number of reasons for this.
For one, there is a strong tendency among all parties to simplify. The media want a strong yet simple story, one that readers and viewers can connect with. Many NGOs want to keep it simple because it facilitates their work – it is much easier to set up token prevention camps in the Nepal hills than to confront angry villagers whose income is derived from selling their girls. Donor agencies simplify the issues because of cultural ignorance (the project chief will have spent the last three years in Rwanda), and because they themselves must advocate and generate funds on an international platform (which, like the international media, wants spicy masala).
The prevalent perception of trafficking is also explained by inadequate research. In all South Asian countries, scholars are handicapped by an extremely difficult subject and the lack of skills to break it open. This is compounded by pressure to conduct research quickly, save money, and get the facts to fit donor and government agendas. For example, much of the knowledge of how Nepali girls are trafficked to Bombay is based on one-shot interviews with sex workers. Did you ever wonder why there are only three or four versions of the same story (the drugged Frooti, they promised me a job in the city, I got lost on my way to the market, and so on)?
Every social worker knows that prostitutes are trained by their madams to tell these stories, and that they will protect their own families long before they will confess to a researcher how they really entered prostitution. They are hardly going to say, “Yes, my parents sent me down here to work in aunt Kamala’s brothel, and my cousin Meena is there in the next room with a client?” So, the discourse accepts the lies, and denies, in this case, the existence of family-based trafficking.
The media, governments and donor agencies all demand numbers – of a group that is almost impossible to count. Researchers twitch at the thought of providing numbers and rightfully try to avoid giving them. However, the media, at least, cannot do without numbers, and so you see, for example, the same number of Bangladeshi women in Pakistan or the same number of Sri Lankan women in the Gulf repeated for years. No one knows where the numbers came from, and if a journalist adds or drops a zero, nobody notices. It’s a number, a big one, and that’s enough.
But suppose the correct facts are there (and in many instances, there are). Suppose a realistic picture of trafficking could be presented simply (and it can be). Suppose, ignoring uncountable numbers, we could determine proportions, that is, what groups or locations are hurt the most, what kinds of trafficking prevail (and we can almost do that today), and so on. Supposing these, why is a false discourse still perpetuated? Why do we continue to ignore the majority of the victims, and continue to make token interventions based exclusively on the notion of hard trafficking?
Why is this discourse perpetuated? Because all the players (except for the prostitutes) have a stake in it. Paisa and power is what keeps the system operating, and this is what people want to hear, especially in contrast with children’s suffering.
Media makes myths
The media has an immense investment in keeping the Gita myth alive. As innumerable articles and films attest, the Gita story sells, it wins awards. The story of a girl from a non-descript Deccan village who goes with her cousin to work in a Bombay beer bar, on the other hand, does not sell. I have tried it. Last year, I wrote a story for the venerable Sunday Times of London about Nepali villagers who have maintained family brothels in Bombay for generations. The Times rewrote the story, using very few of my words, into the Gita myth. They labelled it “Supermarket Brothels” or something like that, said the number of Nepali girls in Bombay was 400,000 (what’s an extra zero?) and to my embarrassment put my byline on it. That’s what sells.
NGOs have an investment. Excepting some fine urban radicals and the many superb, invisible grassroots NGOs who tend to be pushed away from the feeding trough, the lime-lighters rake it in with the dramatic Gita myth. After all, the myth has an immediate appeal to simple-minded donors, and interventions can be token: simulate results by conducting village meetings (just count the onlookers, all have been “made aware”), conduct trainings, publish brochures for the illiterate, and assemble a few sad girls in a cottage weaving mats. Donor representatives tend to love it, especially if they can come and gawk at the girls.
What about the donors themselves? Well, ‘development’ is an industry and any industry will want the most output for the least input. Should donor agencies decide to fund activities against family-based soft trafficking instead of hard trafficking, they would have a difficult time writing those donor reports highlighting `interventions’ and achievements. Genuine interventions are always extremely difficult, they will take years, and will fail again and again before they succeed. Donors cannot handle that. Like auto companies, they have to show quick profits, the profits being numbers of kids saved. For these reasons, interventions to save the children whose families sell them, to protect migrant women labourers, or to stem the immense amount of boy-prostitution in India and Pakistan, are just not good for business.
Like everyone else, governments like the prevalent trafficking myths because they can be sold easily. Trafficked Gita makes for good sound bite on the podium, and the myth of the “evil trafficker” lays the blame on the other guy – for Nepal, it’s India; for Bangladesh, Pakistan; for Sri Lanka, the Gulf states. Governments tend to reinforce the present discourse because it diverts attention from the underlying causes of prostitution that the governments are unable to address: rural and urban poverty, caste and gender discrimination, debt servitude, domestic sexual abuse, and unguided urban growth. Lastly, no politician is going to accuse his constituents of sending their own kids to the brothels.
When the discourse is not challenged, not revised, the results are serious and the damage far-reaching. Meanwhile, hard trafficking continues unabated. Because the response is misplaced and ineffective, the traffickers easily run circles around the plodding NGOs and inactive governments.
The prevailing discussion simplifies the concept of trafficking so as to place the blame on “criminal networks” run by evil mafiosi. Contrarily, what we know is that trafficking activities are primarily small, informal and decentralised. The big shots, cops and politicians may get a piece of the brothel profits after the girls are installed, but large networks probably account for only a small percentage of trafficked women and children.
Unrecognised in the discussions, and thus ignored by most interventionists, in-country trafficking and soft trafficking continue to expand. Families, community members and money-lenders who profit from the sale of children are not touched (except when they are occasionally forced to listen to village lectures by NGO workers on the evils of trafficking).
In a word, the present discourse and the resulting interventions leave out most of the persons who are trafficked. Besides the likely majority that is willingly or unwillingly sold with family complicity, the discourse ignores females who are not children – as if adulthood suddenly makes a person willing. It also ignores children from geographical areas that are not targeted by interventionists, such as the 90 percent of Nepali children who do not live in Nepal’s few “danger districts” such as Sindhupalchowk and Rasuwa. The discourse is also sexist – outside of Sri Lanka, with the exception of a few camel-boys, male children are excluded from the picture.
The present trafficking discussion and its attendant myths interfere with effective interventions, including the removal of children from brothels. Sex workers are strongly against hard trafficking and child prostitution, and are potentially key figures in preventing both from spreading. Bungling media-drenched ‘rescues’ antagonise brothel communities, killing possible support from gharwalis, prostitutes and clients, increasing police pressure on already abused sex workers, and making research and AIDS interventions more difficult.
The accepted thesis obscures vital issues that do not fit within the narrow purview of ‘trafficking’. The link between familial indebtedness in the village and the sending of girls to the brothels is well recognised in Thailand; in South Asia, with the exception of Bangladesh and the eastern states of India, it is never discussed.
Sri Lanka leads the challenge to the discourse on migrant labour: that sexual exploitation must be considered part of a wider range of exploitation of migrant workers; and that the word ‘trafficking’ should be more broadly applied, particularly to those exploited by usury or forced to work under horrible conditions.
Gita-style trafficking is ‘democratic’ – by its definition, any little girl is a potential victim. The fact is that any little girl is not. The simplified discourse ignores the social and economic oppression that results, for example, in the majority of Indian prostitutes being from tribal or scheduled castes.
The “anyone is a victim” image of trafficking suits governments well, because it obscures the extreme desperation of the rural poor – a desperation in which girls are knowingly sacrificed to be brothel wage-earners so that the family can eat or pay off the moneylender. It hides the fact that prostitution is increasingly becoming a vital and indispensable part of the South Asian rural economy.
Perhaps the greatest victims of the prevailing understanding of the sex trade are the girls and women who are not ‘trafficked’. The Western discourse on “willingness to enter prostitution” cannot be applied to South Asia. Virtually no female in South Asia would choose a life of prostitution if there were alternatives.
The meagre discussion on trafficking in the Subcontinent ignores the vast majority of persons who end up selling their bodies: women or girls with children and no husbands; those who must feed parents or siblings; those fleeing sexual abuse and violence at home; and children separated from their families, floating alone in an urban environment.
In a sense, all these individuals have been socially trafficked. Compounding the pain of these ‘voluntary’ prostitutes, the present discourse creates an opposition between prostitution and trafficking – those who have been trafficked are innocent victims, the rest are whores. It brushes aside the fact that few prostitutes can escape from sex work, and minimises their needs for health and security, as well as the needs of their children, so often in danger of entering prostitution as well. Harm reduction gets almost no space within the present discourse.
The evil trafficker myth slides easily into the evil prostitute myth; preventing trafficking is one thing, but annihilating prostitution is another. The discourse encourages government and NGO actions that inflict more distress on women and girls who have already suffered enough. This could be ‘illegalisation’, pure punishment, such as the knee-jerk anti-prostitution legislation that some Nepali NGOs are trying to peddle. Or it could be the other extreme, legalisation (read regulation), in which sex workers are inflicted with government and NGO interference in the form of enforced health checks, confinement to “brothel districts”, police registration, and so on. The existing discourse fans the emotions of both puritans and liberationists, urging them to action when the sex worker just wants to be left alone.
Absent from the discourse is the upper half of the prostitution equation: the client. If mentioned at all, the client is faceless, even if generally foul. On the one hand, when a girl returns to Kerala or Nepal from Bombay with AIDS, the blame is once again put on her for bringing AIDS home. Those primarily responsible for HIV movement, migrant mobile males, are off the hook. On the other hand, the discourse masks the real identities of the clients – stereotyping them as greasy old men with STDs or as ignorant, sex-starved construction workers.
Denying the fact that clients are just regular guys, and denying that prostitution is, in part, a male response to arranged marriage and South Asian mores take the men out of the equation – and makes enforcing measures against trafficking, child prostitution and HIV extremely difficult.
And, finally, while the prevailing discourse is predicated on pain – the genuine anguish of the child abducted into hell – it glosses over the pain of many more. It not only ignores the pain of many other children and adults who enter prostitution through less dramatic routes, but also ignores the everyday, life-long pain of the sex worker: the social rejection, the shattered dreams, the abuse at the hands of clients, the dead-end at middle age, and the emotional scars from coldly imparting what should be an act of love – sex – to thousands of men.
Although the present trafficking discourse and its regional variations are definitely flawed, the discourse must continue. There is a positive value to myth-making, for myths are one form of intervention: they communicate. Issues must be simplified because media audiences, governments and donors think in simple terms. Funds must be raised, legislation enacted and issues communicated.
Should we, then, create new myths about the workers of the sex industry and how they got there? Yes, we should. Myths need not be untrue. They can reflect reality while performing their vital function of communication. But to function effectively – here to prevent and relieve the suffering of those drawn into prostitution – they must arise from a realistic, viable discourse. The present trafficking discourse has evolved from the myths, and that’s the wrong way round.
To change the present understanding of trafficking, we have to admit to some ideas that make us uncomfortable. We have to admit that family-based prostitution is an increasingly common response to poverty and a significant source of rural income. We have to admit that the village moneylender contributes to children entering the brothels. We have to admit that most women and children enter prostitution not because they are trafficked, but because they have no alternatives.
We have got a lot of admitting to do, a lot of garbage to clear away, a lot of painful social facts to face. If interventions are predicated on garbage, their effectiveness will not rise above the level of the compost heap. If a national policy against trafficking is based on garbage, it will be a national policy of garbage.
To change the present discourse, to head it in a realistic direction, is not easy. It means that many – in the media, NGOs, governments and donor agencies – will have to bite the bullet. Fortunately, among a few activist groups throughout South Asia, a discourse is developing based on a realistic appreciation of how and why girls and women enter the sex trade. This discussion is as yet incipient, but it needs to be listened to, so that old thinking is replaced by effective action.