Beneath the euphoria surrounding the preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi is a palpable fear – not about whether work will finish in time, but about sex workers from all over the world being ‘trafficked’ into Delhi ahead of the October event. Vijay Thakur, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, recently stated, ‘Prostitutes from different foreign nations masquerading as tourists would book short tours to India. As it is difficult to restrict their entry at our end, we have recently asked the Tourism Ministry to keep a check on them.’ Similar fears gripped South Africa during the recent football World Cup, with an estimated 40,000 sex workers having reportedly been ‘trafficked’ in to work the event. As Thakur’s statement highlights, there is a significant gap between the reality of ‘trafficking’ and foreign prostitutes booking ‘short tours to India’. Yet this false conflation is not actually originating in New Delhi, but rather in Washington, DC.
Marlise Richter, a researcher on sex work at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, described the South Africa estimate as ‘completely ridiculous’. In fact, the ambiguity of these fantastical numbers is a convenient tool to fuel a moral panic that will attract international evangelical funding for anti-trafficking work, often piggybacking on HIV/AIDS in India. Huge mobilisations are afoot, with UN agencies such as United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) planning to launch a campaign in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism during the Commonwealth Games, roping in cricketers and Bollywood stars as ambassadors who will wax eloquent on the ills of trafficking.
The paranoia around sex trafficking with regard to the Commonwealth Games coincides interestingly with the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), released annually by the US State Department. For the seventh year in a row, India has been placed on the report’s ‘Tier II’ watch list, which is on the border of being damned as ‘worst offender’, i.e. Tier III. The report notes, ‘The Government of India does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so, particularly with regard to the law enforcement response to sex trafficking.’ In 2007, India would have been pushed into Tier III by the then-US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte but his boss, Condoleezza Rice, overruled him and directed to undertake a special evaluation in six months before taking action.
In that six-month period, India launched a desperate media campaign to showcase its commitment to combating trafficking. The subsequent proposal to criminalise clients (see accompanying article by Svati Shah) was also a move towards complying with the US diktat. Now, the Commonwealth Games will not only become an opportunity to showcase India’s ability to host an international sporting event, but also its ability to combat trafficking effectively in light of the TIP report’s ranking.
Ostensibly, the TIP ranking is meant to indicate how well countries are combating trafficking. In reality, it is used by Washington as a means to make countries fall in line with what current US policy believes is the best way to combat trafficking – ie, banning sex work. Countries (such as India) that do not meet US standards by putting in place strict anti-prostitution laws are threatened with funding sanctions. An uncritical reading of the TIP report might indicate India’s inability to combat trafficking, but this would ignore the exemplary anti-trafficking efforts made by groups of sex workers themselves.
The US policy on trafficking and prostitution, which is ideologically backed by neo-conservative evangelical groups in the US and the Vatican, has had devastating effects on the lives of sex workers across the Global South. This has been exacerbated due to the way that paranoia around trafficking and prostitution has become inextricably intertwined with the fear of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Anti-trafficking measures are thus meant not only to stop people from being deceived into moving across international borders and coerced into prostitution, but also to stop the ‘diseased’ prostitute from the Global South crossing borders to ‘contaminate’ countries of the Global North.
This certainly seemed to be the core concern of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, adopted in 2000. The TVPA was adopted to extend temporary ‘protection’ visas to victims of ‘severe forms of trafficking’. But whether one qualifies as a victim is determined by whether a trafficked person can prove that he or she never exercised agency at any stage of transit en route to the US. In other words, the ability to exercise agency and negotiate one’s way through the most dangerous routes to reach US shores would disqualify a trafficked woman from being granted asylum, because she would not be considered ‘enough’ of a victim.
This border-control legislation, masquerading as a law to protect the rights of trafficked ‘victims’, was followed up by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, by the administration of George W Bush. PEPFAR is the largest financial commitment in history by one country to combat a single disease, and is implemented through US legislation known as the Global AIDS Act. Both PEPFAR and the Global AIDS Act were re-authorised in 2008 for USD 48 billion over five years (2009 to 2013), with the goals of preventing 12 million new infections, treating four million people living with AIDS and caring for 12 million people, including five million orphans and vulnerable children.
The grand design and monetary might notwithstanding, PEPFAR is underwritten by a deeply conservative sexual morality. PEPFAR’s original prescription for containing AIDS was its infamous ABC policy – Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use Condoms – in descending order of deemed importance. It was required that 33 percent of all PEPFAR funding for AIDS prevention would be spent on abstinence-until-marriage and ‘faithfulness’ programmes. Although this condition was removed in 2008, it was replaced with a new reporting requirement that continues to emphasise abstinence and fidelity to the exclusion of comprehensive approaches, such as those that include education about male and female condoms. As the website PEPFARWatch.org notes, ‘This can cause a chilling effect for organizations receiving PEPFAR funding, who may censor their prevention activities and fall short of providing comprehensive HIV prevention services to women, men and young people.’
When the Global AIDS Act was passed by US Congress, prostitution and sex trafficking were specifically named as among the reasons behind the spread of the AIDS virus. Nicole Masenior and Chris Beyrer, from the Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University, put it bluntly: ‘This legislation advanced a new policy goal for the US: the global eradication of prostitution.’ Indeed, since 2003 such a project has been implemented by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which forces any funded organisation working on HIV/AIDS to sign a certificate of compliance called the ‘Prohibition on the Promotion and Advocacy of the Legalization or Practice of Prostitution or Sex Trafficking’. This includes groups that are trying to arrest the spread of HIV by working directly with sex workers, to combat their vulnerability and create access to information and health care.
Such conditions have gravely affected efforts initiated by sex workers themselves. For instance, in 2005, when Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), a sex workers’ collective in Maharashtra, returned a USD 12,000 grant from USAID because its members did not want to be bound by these restrictions, they were accused of engaging in child trafficking. Thus far, Brazil has been the only country to officially oppose the US’s ongoing campaign. And although the pledge requirement has been challenged in US court where it received a court injunction, this affects only implementation within the US.
It is a pity that US funding and anti-trafficking policies, in their attempt to combat trafficking and arrest the spread of HIV/AIDS, have alienated and disadvantaged sex workers in the Global South, instead of making them equal stakeholders. Now, countries such as India, in an attempt to showcase their own anti-trafficking prowess, are falling into the same trap.
~ Oishik Sircar is a human-rights lawyer and researcher; and Debolina Dutta is a human-rights lawyer and independent researcher in Kolkata.