Dinner table conversation
It was a very informal friendly dinner table conversation - people working in humanitarian sector, journalist, development and communication sectors having an easy evening and a relaxed dinner. As always, I was quiet listening to all the conversation - where people analyse and try and solve the world problems at their dinner table. Somebody asked me what I do – I said I work on anti-trafficking. And then, it started. The conversation completely dominated by trafficking into sex sector and that how “some women try to justify violence against women by claiming women choose to be sex sector”. I groaned inward – here it goes again! Specially since this is coming from a very liberal minded people, as far as I understand believes in human rights for all. Alas, human rights and women’s rights for “some women” will never be same for some people.
Some of the phrases and conversation that struck me are what I am trying to explore with myself here. I am always amazed (not positively I must say) by how easily people use “women” and “girl” interchangeably. The journalist in the group pointed out how those “tiny tiny fraction” of women who “supposedly chose” to do sex work are trying to undermine violence that happens against millions of “girls”. Girls? By choosing to use the word “girl”, we are trying to undermine the decisions and choices made by women rendering them someone unable to make their own choices, someone who needs to be protected from themselves perhaps? We are undermining women’s intelligence, chastising them for making their own decisions.
She asked, and mind you this is fairly common argument, “who would in their right mind choose to be a “prostitute"? Do you think they enjoy it so much that they would want to prostitute themselves?” Before even getting into a deeper understanding of “choice”, that question to me felt like provoking sensational arguments. I am not going to get into that. But about “choice” – would women choose to do it?
Now, “choice” is very interesting word. It seems to imply freedom, liberation. But actually choice for anything for anybody is always within a limited ambit. Think about yourself for a moment – if you have all the choices in the world, do you think you will be where you are right now? Choices are limited within social, economical, cultural and political spheres. People choose from the limited choice they can make within the limited spheres available to them. If I have a choice, I would choose a job that would pay me enough to live the life I want to and choose to live with my husband – not see him just thrice a year! But I have to make the best choice among limited choices I have and this is what it is for me at the moment. It applies to everyone, doing every kind of work, be it labourer who choose to migrate to unknown fate, to domestic workers and yes, funnily enough, for sex workers too, whether you believe it or not. On the question of “do you think they enjoy”, I am not sure how many people can say they are in their job because they enjoy it. People who do are the lucky ones, and if some sex workers do enjoy it, I would say lucky ones too. But the point is, we try to make the best of whatever choice we have – for economical reasons, for the sake of family, for career, for million other reasons that are important to us.
My partner pointed out there is a “moral panic” surrounding sex work. One of our dinner companion emphasized there should be moral panic around sex work or “prostitution” as she put it– “why should not be there when so many women are being victimized”. Her argument is people like us, who support the rights of sex workers, say the figures of women trafficked into sex industry are inflated which she does not believe. She said we are trying to protect the rights of those “tiny tiny fraction” of women choosing to do sex work in expenses of millions of “girls” trafficked into “prostitution”. If we look at the reports of organizations, yes the percentage of trafficking into sex industry are higher than those trafficked into other forms of labour. Although, those reports also would agree there is lack of proper data collection in all forms of labour trafficking. I do not disagree people are trafficked into sex industry – I am sure it happens, although I do not believe to the extent some of us would like to believe But that is not my point here. My point is, even if there is a “tiny tiny fraction” of women choosing to do sex work for whatsoever reason, we have to recognize their right to do so. We are talking about human rights – and if we think the voices of minorities do not matter, we should stop fooling ourselves that we respect and promote human rights and want realization of rights for all women. No women should be ever trafficked into sex sector or any other form of labour. And, the rights of women in all kind of labour industry should be upheld, they should be able to have safe and decent working conditions – even those in sex industry.
As always, when issue of trafficking comes up, the issue of trafficking into sex sector so easily dominates the conversation. Not once did the issue of trafficking into other forms of labour cropped up in all this heated animated discussion. And that is my problem. Millions of workers, men and women, and often also children, are trafficked into all forms of labour from construction industries, to fisheries, to garment sectors to domestic work and many other labour sectors. But no we would not talk about it because I guess it’s not sexy enough eh? The moralistic focus on trafficking of women into sex industry have resulted into negative consequences for women in terms of violating their rights as human being, led into formulation of policies that discriminates women – and that is my problem. This focus also means there is not much understanding of trafficking of men and boys, there is not much infrastructure to support trafficked men and boys – and that is my problem.
And there is a bigger issue that we would rather not face. We do not want to think why women leave in the first place. Women find themselves in trafficked situation after being lured by promises of better opportunities, better future. Have we stopped and thought what makes it easier for traffickers to lure women with such promises? No we don’t want to do that because that would mean we would have to see the bigger picture – we will really have to talk about social, cultural, political discrimination that has forced women into submissiveness, that has created lack of opportunities for women in all spheres. If we talk about it we will have to talk about opening up opportunities for women, really talk about women’s rights. It is bigger and tougher and may be we are not ready to do it. But “rescuing women from sex trafficking” of course, we can do it. Bring them back to where they started – back to the situation they had wanted to leave in the first place. Everyone “feels good about doing good”. Has anyone asked the women what they feel and what they want?
Anti-trafficking world has been polarized by the differing positions on sex workers rights. But I believe, whatever position we have, all of us agree that women have the right to make their own decision, have right to mobility, have right not to be discriminated against, have right to choose employment oppertunities and have the right to work in better and safer working conditions. Can we move forward with that for women working in all sectors? And for that matter, for all workers including men too – to have a decent working conditions for all?