Safeguarding the Rights of Prostituted Women On the Frontlines of a Global Grassroots Movement

By Lakshmi Anantnarayan

The great divide in the women’s movement on the subject of prostitution has been well-documented and even sensationalized by the media. What we seldom hear about is the common ground we all share – a deep understanding of the abuse and discrimination that women in prostitution face everyday by the law enforcement system and by society. Although we hold differing ideologies about the methods used to address prostitution, our goal to secure a life free of violence for women is the same.

Women in prostitution face high levels of violence and harassment perpetuated by several third-party actors: brothel owners, buyers, pimps and procurers, and even by law enforcement. Reports indicate that many prostituted women have been abused as children, and have endured grave psychological trauma. Vulnerable women are particularly at risk of being sold or enticed into the sex trade, including women of color, or women who are generally disenfranchised economically, socially and emotionally. Many women end up in prostitution because of a lack of life skills, education, and opportunities for employment. Once in the trade, in addition to violence, these women face heightened health risks such as HIV/AIDS and STDs.

Many women’s groups — abolitionists and “pro-sex work” organizations alike — are calling for the decriminalization of women in prostitution. Governments and law enforcement must recognize the vulnerability of prostituted women and must not treat them as criminals. Where we don’t agree, however, is on the decriminalization of the entire industry of prostitution, which we abolitionists believe increases the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry.

So what do we need to protect women in prostitution? Strong laws that prosecute the chain of demand for prostitution, including traffickers, pimps and “johns” (or buyers), sensitization of law enforcement; education and development of alternative income opportunities for prostituted women, and greater support of grassroots groups that safeguard the civil, political, economic and health rights of prostituted women.

Apne Aap Women Worldwide and Prajwala in India, for example, provide legal protection for prostituted women, most of whom come from the “lower” caste. The groups are currently lobbying for the end of criminalization of prostituted women under India’s anti-trafficking law and for penalization of the “buyers” of commercial sex. In South Korea, the Center for Women’s Human Rights advocated for the Act on Prevention of Prostitution and Protection of Victims, which provides for the reintegration of survivors of the commercial sex trade into mainstream society.

Buklod Center in the Philippines and “Marta,” a group from Latvia, conducts sensitization trainings for police and local government to educate them in identifying survivors. Grassroots organizations often reach out to law enforcement to address societal stigma and deep-seated biases about prostituted women as “offenders” or “immoral,” even in countries like South Korea where the law has decriminalized women in prostitution.

Groups as diverse as AFESIP in Cambodia, Maiti NepalMovimiento El Pozo in Peru and Prajwala in India provide psycho-social counseling, legal aid, shelters and transition homes to women who have been trafficked into prostitution. Stigamot, an Icelandic group, provides an emergency unit for victims, while “Marta” from Latvia runs a hotline.

Many women in prostitution seek a way out by pursuing alternative means of employment. Organizations like Buklod Center clarify that through their economic empowerment program they “do not force women to exit prostitution, but give education to the women and their children so that they have more options in life.” Maiti Nepal has an innovative program to train survivors of sex trafficking to work with border police in identifying women and girls who are being trafficked.

While all sides promote the use of condoms in brothels, abolitionists’ condom distribution campaigns are rooted in a framework of gender-based discrimination and violence. HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns must recognize the difficult reality that prostituted women are often vulnerable in their ability to negotiate condom use with their “clients.” Consequently, many grassroots groups working to end commercial sexual exploitation, such as AFESIP and Prajwala, also raise awareness about HIV/AIDS prevention within a framework of harm elimination, not just harm reduction. Maiti Nepal has its own hospital to treat sex-trafficked women and girls with HIV/AIDS.

So yes, we have our differences. But the central concern for all of us is to safeguard the rights of women, whether in prostitution or not. We need to step back and refocus our work on ending gender-based violence and discrimination wherever it exists, even in the darkest corners of red light districts.

Lakshmi Anantnarayan, an activist in the women’s movement in India and the U.S. is the Communications Director of Equality Now, an international human rights organization working to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world. All the organizations mentioned in this article are grantees of Equality Now’s Fund for Grassroots Activism to End Sex Trafficking.

Also See: Of Victims and Vixens: The Feminist Clash Over Prostitution by Angela Bonavoglia in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

Also See: Feminist Divisions Call Real World Repercussions by Juhu Thukral.


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