Nothing About Us, Without Us

Nothing About Us, Without Us

by Ann Jordan

Between March and June, scores of women in Cambodia were rounded up and held in detention where they report being robbed, beaten and gang raped by guards who were not wearing condoms. Two hundred members of their unions took to the streets to protest this abuse. This state-sponsored violence occurred as the Cambodian government responded to U.S. demands to criminalize prostitution as a means to stop human trafficking.

©Cat Barton_ Chanting “save us from saviours,” sex workers protest gross police mistreatment during the latest crackdown on commercial sex workers in Cambodia.

Although the crackdown on brothels has freed some children and trafficked persons from their enslavement, the raids have been extremely abusive to adult sex workers who are not trafficked and have accomplished nothing to end trafficking or prostitution.

Unfortunately, even some feminists support this approach without regard to the voices of the women working in the sex sector. Proponents of stiff anti-prostitution laws rely upon unexamined assumptions, not sound research using valid methodology and data. The only bases they articulate in support of such laws are either a moralistic opposition to prostitution or unsupported beliefs. The main argument is the unproven and strongly-held belief that prostitution can be stopped with criminal laws — that a criminal law can “end the male demand” for commercial sex by imprisoning clients and forcing women who no longer have an income to magically find a living wage job.

Abolitionist Approaches Harm Women and Families

For many years, sex workers have repeatedly warned that the anti-trafficking movement would eventually become an abolitionist anti-prostitution movement, harming women and their families. They warned that groups seeking to abolish prostitution would quickly use the anti-trafficking movement as a vehicle to silence the voices of adults working voluntarily in the sex sector. Most anti-trafficking activists, on the other hand, believed that the movement would remain focused on ending all forms of forced labor.

Events have since proven that the anti-trafficking activists were very naive.

As predicted by sex workers, the abolitionist movement, with substantial support and funding from the Bush administration, has resulted in draconian measures in many parts of the world aimed at preventing anyone from working in the sex sector, legally or not. The focus of many laws is now on controlling the bodies and rights of women to travel, marry and work in order to “protect” them from making “bad” decisions. For example, Cambodia has proposed preventing women from marrying foreigners in order to “protect” them from being trafficked and, likewise, other countries have proposed laws to prevent women from working abroad as domestic workers. Sri Lanka proposed a ban on mothers of children under five from migrating for work.

Anti-trafficking: Cambodia the reality

Cambodia is a typical case of good intentions gone wrong. In 2007, the U.S. government called upon Cambodia to enact an anti-trafficking law. Cambodia enacted a law in March 2008 and began a crackdown on prostitution. The new law, like those in a number of other countries, includes anti-prostitution measures that were drafted without any consultation with Cambodian sex work organizations.

Sex workers are self-reporting what’s happening. They state that fewer sex workers carry condoms since they are considered “evidence” of prostitution. Sex workers in detention who are HIV+ are being denied anti-retroviral drugs. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers fears that “national HIV prevention programs for sex workers have completely broken down.” This, too, was predictable. In late March 2008, the UN Commission on AIDS in Asia issued a report arguing against “‘crack-downs’ on red-light areas and arrest of sex workers” as these types of initiatives “can be counterproductive and can keep large numbers of at-risk groups and people living with HIV from accessing even the limited services being provided.”

Failing to Understand the Causes

South Korea is an example of what may occur in Cambodia. In 2004, in response to Bush administration pressure, South Korea passed an anti-prostitution law. Extensive brothel closings led to the arrest and harassment of sex workers who responded by engaging in mass protests. Since then, the sex industry has moved underground and into residential areas, phone sex, massage parlors, escort services and the Internet. Prostitution is now more risky and dangerous because it is clandestine. Some women are migrating to other countries for work, which puts them at risk of being trafficked; others reportedly have committed suicide and many are forced to remain in the business to pay off huge debts.

Women who sell sex do so for a reason – primarily, employment discrimination or lack of job skills, education, language skills or a visa. They still need to support their families and crackdowns have only made it more difficult. Criminal law-driven approaches do not acknowledge these fundamental realities.

Too often, when discussing prostitution, “experts” and politicians state that sex workers are unable to speak for themselves and so they assume the right and even the duty to “speak for” them. Around the world, sex worker organizations are speaking up, and often, in voices that directly conflict with the views of experts. If, for example, the Korean government had listened to the concerns of sex workers, it might have learned about the difficulty that women, even college-educated women, have finding jobs after age 25, and the possibility that fewer women would opt for sex work if the government were to adopt and enforce laws against gender discrimination.

Women who work in the sex sector need to be at the table as equals. Policy makers, feminists and activists who have personal or moral objections to prostitution must put aside those prejudices and start listening to the voices of this stigmatized and marginalized population. Sex workers’ demand that all laws, policies and programs adhere to the principle of “nothing about us, without us.” Working together respectfully, we can reach common goals of ending the worst forms of child labor, human trafficking and abuses against sex workers.

Ann Jordan is a consultant and former Director of the Initiative Against Trafficking in Persons at Global Rights.