Posts Tagged ‘Raids’

The inaugural Trust Women Conference was held in London recently, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune. I was invited to speak on a panel entitled ‘how to put the anti-trafficking business out of business‘ with people who address the issue of sex trafficking including infamous abolitionist, Ruchira Gupta.

'how to put the trafficking business out of business'

‘how to put the trafficking business out of business’

In the days leading up to the  conference, Gupta had issued a series of media offensives upon sex workers which began last weekend with an attack on peer educators in the Indian press. Liz Ford, who is the Deputy Editor of The Guardian’s Global Development section and an apparent abolitionist sympathiser, appeared at the conference only to provide an outlet for Ms Gupta’s unfounded characterisations of women engaged in sex work. Ford falsely claimed in The Guardian that Ruchira Gupta is an ‘activist for sex workers‘. I presume this was a device to undermine any authority derived from my self-disclosure as a sex worker, on the panel discussion that followed these defamatory stories.

Ford published two articles based upon the same interview with Gupta, which  made horrifying and illusory allegations about sex worker activists; in particular those who attended the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata earlier this year.  She called attendees “pimps and traffickers” . Gupta spoke using the usual alarmist and disempowering rhetoric that abolitionists tend to employ, invoking terms such as “brutalised”; “raped”; “invaded”; “used-up at 30″ to describe sex work. Predictably, she suggested the need for even more punitive measures against people associated with the sex industry and more funding to combat the problem from “the grassroots”.  It’s illuminating to see what two Harvard undergraduate donors thought about Ms Gupta’s ‘grassroots intitiatives‘ in 2010 after visiting one of her sites.


The sensible shoe award for most stigmatising headline of 2012 goes to…..

Guardian journalist Liz Ford  Liz Ford of The Guardian! 

 “Life of a sex worker: disease, abortion,

  debt bondage and death – video.”

One wonders how Ford would react to publicly being labelled a ‘pimp’ or a ‘trafficker’ or whether the woman has any sense of decency at all. What an absolute, unmitigated nerve!

Still, the most shocking claim came to be when Gupta uttered the words, “the average age of a prostitute in India is between 9 and 13“. This alarming statistic was framed in the context of globalisation and the egregious effects of neoliberalisation policies which she claimed was driving demand for prostitutes that are younger and younger.  I mused about where she might have pulled that figure, other than out of thin air. I promptly concluded that she was conflating two figures that abolitionists throw around a lot: the oft-quoted and oft-debunked figure that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution is 13‘ and the research Melissa Farley did in Aotearoa (New Zealand) where she claimed that the ‘average age of entry into prostitution for Maori women was 9.’  In this instance however, Gupta was not even claiming an ‘average age of entry’.  No Siree. This was the average age of a prostitute in India!

Cover of conference booklet on trafficking and prostitution.

Cover of conference booklet on trafficking and prostitution.

What was most striking about the psychological warfare waged upon me by these two somewhat influential women, was how readily prepared they were to employ violent tactics in order to discredit and isolate me from the conference proper. They did this by colluding to proliferate untruths about sex workers; by characterising sex workers involved in the HIV response as ‘pimps and traffickers’ and the rest as people who are “deeply damaged”. Their conduct was coercive inasmuch as they have enough power within patriarchal catacombs such as the mainstream press, to be able to use it in a cynical way to issue their message. Not only did they use the press as a vehicle to spread their ideology, but it was also a systematic attempt to discredit me, as an activist in APNSW, in the mind of anyone who might have viewed those stories prior to hearing what I had to say to the conference.

The logic seems to work as follows: if you have ever worked in the sex industry and you are unwilling to announce that the experience utterly destroyed your life and robbed you of a sense of self,  you are suffering from some kind of disorder.  Let’s call it ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. You have become so accustomed to the ‘brutalization’ of having accepted money for sex, that you consider brutalization to be normal.  Spectators who haven’t suffered ‘death by Powerpoint’ by this stage, must remain alert and remember that these are not the voices of sex workers you are hearing. They are storytellers in the business of telling fictional stories.   Coincidentally it is men and women like Ms Gupta who are in possession of the solutions for the poor  funding stream that is ‘women & girls’ who are unfortunate enough to fall within their purview and be categorised as “trafficked”. And there are a lot of men in the ‘slavery expert’ business. Knights in shining armour abound.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Guardian video is when Gupta iterates that the point of the Trust Women Conference was to focus on the “demand” side of prostitution as a way to fight trafficking.  Here, she and Liz Ford are informing Guardian readers about the primary focus of the conference even prior to the scheduled panel discussion on what the most effective interventions to fight human trafficking might possibly be. The International Herald Tribune did not cover the “women for sale” day in such a pre-determined light and they organised the conference.

The kind of maltreatment I received from Ford and Gupta used to be solely the provenance of the ‘old boys club’.  This is a slightly more sophisticated incarnation of that; where the abuse is being perpetrated by women against one woman (but who is the only representative of millions of sex working women allowed in)…  And it is being done in the name of Feminism. The most ironic aspect of their strategic alliance is that The Guardian Global Development section is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation whose programmes for sex workers in India are the subject of constant malicious attacks by Ms Gupta and her organisation Apne Aap.  She also calls them pimps and traffickers. How fortuitous for Ms Ford that she can heave her ideological cake and eat it too. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

On the panel, Mexican journalist and winner of the Trust Women Award, Lydia Cacho spoke about ‘ending demand’ for  prostitution and the success of the program she runs in Cancun, sensitising boys between 14-18 to not become clients.   The Body Shop guy basically covered for his employer L’oreal, the second largest chemical company in the world which has been accused of greenwashing  and has a demonstrably atrocious history of animal rights abuses.  He called for ‘human trafficking-free’ labeling that guaranteed trafficked-free products.  The Not for Sale guy talked about social marketing initiatives in what appears to be an ethical (Christian?) capitalist scheme that produces soups and juices to sell to sex workers and “vulnerable women”. He stated that he had half a million dollars in pledges for this venture and a call for matched funding of that figure became one of the inputs from our session.  I stressed the need for empirical data on human trafficking and the importance of a consistent definition of terms used in relation to trafficking and the need to gain some clarity before we talk about ‘best practice’ interventions on human trafficking.

Lawyer Karen Silverman, the only panelist with whom I vaguely connected on a human level, iterated the importance of broadening the discussion on migration rights, citizenship rights and labour rights. Although she was approaching the issue from a different perspective, it was refreshing to be in the company of someone who wasn’t just focused on getting a piece of the Anti-trafficking Pie. She also highlighted the fact that many trafficked women are held in custody for long periods of time and that we need to devise strategies to address this problem.

partner NGOs: Equality Now; IJM; Polaris Project; Not for Sale.

partner NGOs: Equality Now; IJM; Polaris Project; Not for Sale.

I was the final speaker on the panel and began by explaining that the advent of the anti-trafficking industry has resulted in an increase in violence against sex workers.  I stated that the impact of criminalisation had driven sex workers underground, making them prone to violence, increased health risks and coercive treatment from others.  I went into some detail about the regularity of human rights abuses that are occurring in arbitrary detention settings in Cambodia, such as the Somaly Mam Foundation and her organisation AFESIP as reported to sex worker organisations in Cambodia. I stated that these abuses were catalogued in a Human Rights Watch Report from 2010.  I warned people consuming human trafficking narratives to be wary of statistics that are quoted and to question the quality of anecdotal information received.  I went on to speak about the recent revelation in the Cambodian press that a high profile story being regurgitated in the mass media had been proven to be untrue.  Long Pross is a young Cambodian woman who is being touted by Somaly Mam’s Voices for Change  program as a victim with an unimaginably horrendous history of being trafficked as a child and having her eye gouged out by the brothel owner. Her story has been exposed as a complete fabrication by an investigative journalist who interviewed a string of people involved, including Long Pross’ parents; the surgeon who removed her eye and the tumor she developed at age 7 ;and the Cambodian anti-trafficking Police whose records revealed that no complaint had ever been filed in relation to this woman being trafficked as a child.

I stated that Long Pross had appeared with celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Susan Sarandon on reality tours they conducted in Cambodia promoting the Somaly Mam Foundation. I stated she had appeared with Hillary Clinton and on Oprah as the “Face of Slavery” and that her testimonial had been profiled on Half the Sky.

This picture of Hillary Clinton hugging Long Pross was being displayed on the overhead when I went on to add that this story had been covered by many popular media sources including Oprah and PBS who had recently screened her ‘testimonial’ on Half the Sky.

This picture of Hillary Clinton hugging Long Pross was being displayed on the overhead when my session was cut short.

 At this point the moderator Tim Large politely interjected and apologetically informed me that we were running short of time and that we would now have to turn to Q&A and develop our inputs for the Conference Call to Action. I may have broken some unwritten protocol by mentioning Half the Sky from the panel, especially as Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl Wudunn are on the advisory board for Trust Women,and also because he had spoken on the video that introduced our session.   The overarching point I was trying to make was that it is crucial for journalists to confirm every piece of information they receive before sending it to print.   I wanted to point out how easily such fabricated narratives can proliferate into the mainstream consciousness if reporters do not exercise caution.

The point at which truth-in-reporting intersects with the profit motive was illustrated quite plainly with the swift end to my presentation.  I was trying to convey the importance of the human rights aspect and emphasise that responses to trafficking must be based in truth.  There were a couple of exceptional moments during the conference when empassioned women spoke about their experiences, but I did not feel I had witnessed a lot of truth-telling in these two days. I did not appreciate the way many of the issues were framed, such as the Arab Spring with more than a hint of anti-Islamism or the focus on the atrocious behaviour of people from the Global South – Female Genital Mutilation, Forced Marriage, When culture clashes with Law.  And of course, Women for Sale. There was little mention of the role Colonisation or Western Imperialism play in the global profile.

During the reading of the Conference Declaration, I was following the official twitter feed on the big screen and saw quite a few positive tweets about my presentation including a two from the Trust Women rapporteur. They disappeared within an hour. Thankfully we have activists in the movement who are vigilant and one diligent observer from $carlet Timor managed to save a few .

 Afterwards, a high-ranking journalist approached me and expressed shock at my allegations of impropriety in relation to Half the Sky. I told her there were journalists in Cambodia working to expose the violence of the anti-trafficking industry because it has become a significant problem. She asked me if I knew that Mr Kristof was a Pulitzer prize winning journalist to which I nodded and she added that the Trust Women conference had been inspired by the stories contained in Half the Sky.  She asked me had I read it.  I said ‘no’. She promised to send me a copy. I told her I would forward the requisite articles that formed the basis of my allegations about the fabricated victim-narrative.


When Ruchira Gupta says that the traffickers are becoming wise and “outsmarting us”, I take that as acknowledgement that she recognises there is something authentic about the sex worker movement- a truth.  I think she recognises that we are building something special, having discovered our power as autonomous individuals and as part of the vibrant tapestry of resistance that forms our global solidarity movement. Responses to trafficking must be based in truth, not conflations or exaggerations or imaginings or outright lies. The UN is beginning to recognise the magnitude of the dilemma, as are many journalists and hopefully this awareness will expand into a larger context.

 It was strange to sit on a panel with someone for whom your very existence is a threat. In asserting that the sex worker movement is a self-determination movement, I am informing the likes of Gupta and her abolitionist ilk, that perhaps they are not relevant to our context. There is no place for them in our lives or as part of our stories. If sex workers can do it for themselves, those white saviours and their grateful cohorts don’t have an industry to build around us. And that’s probably the best outcome for all- especially those who have been trafficked.

It is sex workers who are subverting the patriarchy, not the gun-ho protectionists who imagine freedom to go only as far as being “equal” to men. Ours is the feminist project. Ours is a huge global movement that is led by women. And as long as sex workers are at the table engaging in the discourse, we will continue to provide inputs that cannot be ignored.

Sex workers are not the problem. We are part of the solution.

Tracey Tully, APNSW Staff.

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It’s 4 years ago this week that Carol Jenkins, one of the strongest supporters of sex workers rights and HIV programs in this region died. Carol was a close friend to many in the APNSW extended family. Her research skills are sorely missed, but more than this we miss the way her house in Bangkok was a place that brought so many different people together- from members of community organizations up to the heads of major international aid agencies. Now we only get to see most of those people in formal meetings, which is a shame. The debates and discussions over Carol’s dinner table led to some amazing collaborations and many honest discussions. The loss of this informal space, which we called “Salon Jenkins” where we met people as equals has, we believe been a huge loss to the HIV response in this region. We miss you Mildred!

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Last month APNSW members decided to paint a mural to represent the problems sex workers have with GFATM programmes but also to give ideas for how they can be fixed so that GFATM money is used responsibly and ethically on programmes addressing sex work and HIV.

Left side of the banner is the way programmes run now.
The sex worker (organisation) is a puppet. It shows her collecting all the paper work for GF programmes as her main activity. she is also treated as a target and carries an STI Test book, which records the results of the compulsory STI and HIV tests funded by the Global Fund.

Further to the left, is the Evil Elf, which represents the INGOs and UN organizations who are involved in all of this programming but just end up stealing sex workers power and (mis)appropriating the money for sex worker HIV Programmes

Behind the Elf is a road delivering GF money, but bags of it are falling off to all the wrong places.
There is an intersection with a sign post, but the remaining money goes to token pecs and compulsory testing and no money gets to the projects run by sex workers.

On right hand side is how things can be if sex workers are allowed to run our own programmes rather than being passive recipients and targets.

If GF will,allow us to,cut the puppet strings then the puppet turns into a multi armed angel,winged goddess who can deliver Value For Money- something we as sex workers know about and deliver to our clients daily!

So if,community is empowered and directly funded we can deliver for the people.
Small amounts of money used to nurture the grass roots lead,to huge outcomes growing.
If we work on principles based on the right to health then we can work,together instead of having to fight with all,the agencies and organizations who should be working with us.

In about 10 different languages a few key messages are written by sex workers from those countries.

Sex work is work
My body is mine, not the governments
My body is my business
No compulsory testing
Sex workers have human rights.

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From October 12-16, 2010 in Pattaya, Thailand, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), UNAIDS, and UNFPA collaborated on a consultation on HIV/AIDS and sex work in Asia. The meeting brought together UN and Global Fund for HIV TB and Malaria representatives, non-governmental organisations, and government officials along with sex worker groups and projects from Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Thailand, Fiji, Papua, New Guinea, Cambodia, and China.

The meeting created space for NGO workers, and policy makers and sex workers to share information about human rights, health, and law.

Throughout the consultation particular issues arose. These are some of them

  • The proportion of funding for effective HIV programming with male female and transgender sex workers, is not adequate or proportionate to the role of commercial sex in HIV epidemics in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Interventions that are initiated and sustained by sex worker communities are crucial.
  • Lack of access to HIV medications and support for positive sex workers remains inadequate in many places.
  • Discrimination and abuse of HIV positive sex workers must be addresses.
  • The criminal law is a major barrier to good HIV programming, but so too are other laws and conventions that commit governments to eliminating trafficking and sexual exploitation.
  • The conflation of trafficking and sex work and the redefinition of sex work as sexual exploitation or entertainment is eroding countries capacity to provide effective HIV Services.
  • Violence is the most important issue overall and violence by police outweighs all other violence as a priority for sex workers throughout the region.
  • Mandatory and coerced HIV testing remains a problem throughout the region. It must be stopped.
  • Condom confiscation by police is a widespread problem.

Sex workers drafted a UN style declaration at the meeting called the Pattaya Draft Declaration that outlines what sex workers want. Like a UN document it will be circulated for discussion before it becomes a final declaration.

The consultation was remarkable for its ambitions. To ask police, sex workers, government and UN officials to discuss approaches to HIV in Asia and the Pacific is a big call. Some countries were more successful at this than others and there were many problems to remind us of the power differentials between us all. Some police and government were very hostile and there were various moments that illustrated the kinds of discrimination against sex workers that were being identified at the meeting as a significant barrier to HIV prevention and care. However overall the opportunity for bridge building with the UN and sex worker activists in the region was invaluable and APNSW is confident it will lead to better policy. We also hope sex workers’ chance to interact with the Global Fund will be the start of a process to make better use of that money by ensuring that more of it goes to sex workers at community level to run rights based effective programs.

The Pattaya Draft Declaration on Sex Work in Asia and the Pacific


IRIN News has a piece about the effect of criminalization and condoms being used as evidence of prostitution on the spread of HIV


AlertNet/Reuters has an article on the failure of national and UN agency programmes to effectively reach sex workers


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“Brothel Raids and forced rescues of sex workers are an ongoing issue across Asia.
In this article Pornpit Pukmai of Empower Foundation writes about recent raids in Phuket, Thailand”

Once again we see the news of raids and arrests with or without entrapment games and the media taken along for the show. Time and time again..over and over again year after year. It seems like the perpetual symbol to show the good works of a whole range of people in positions of authority.

It’s maybe the authorities and politicians way of declaring “See I have these problems in my area all sorted and under control” or maybe to take the public’s mind off other issues, to answer the USA or their own superiors, to fit in with the propaganda against migrants, or to promote the anti-trafficking law, or the drug law or to get a good TIP Report or.. or ..or….

It seems that we sex workers are the most popular group to become scapegoats for any department wanting to show their good works on any issue. Take for example the crackdown on the registration of migrant workers that takes place at the beginning of every year when old permits expire and new ones must be made. This occurs at the same time as the inspection for the registration and paying taxes for Entertainment Places so why not kill two birds with one stone and carry out both? Better yet, while they’re about it they may as well test our urine for drugs to follow the drug law, check our music for copyright infringements, and of course make a few arrests for prostitution. Our workplaces become one stop centre for authorities wanting to produce a good record with very little trouble.

The Phuket Governor was reported to say, in part, he organised the recent raids as the businesses were bothering the tourists. But did the raids really make the tourist’s holiday better? After all sex workers are one of the main reasons tourists come to Thailand from all over the world following the governments own tourism promotion.

How do raids, crackdowns and arrests for prostitution improve the situation? Do the video and pictures of armed police and army intimidating partly dressed tiny women add to the dignity of the police and armed forces? Will raids and arrests bring an instant end to our profession? If it did, what high paid jobs has the government prepared for the hundreds of thousands of us to work in immediately? Our families and communities depend on our incomes. What would the government do? This is without considering all the migrant sex workers who will need work. Furthermore what would happen to the 7% GPD we earn for Thailand?

Arresting sex workers is easy, we make very good scapegoats as most often we cannot assert our rights and speak out. When will those in authority finally recognize that accepting our work is work is the only way to solve the problems in our industry? Instead they prefer to profit from fining us … think about how much money is taken from us year after year…how much is earned in our name … how many eat from the fruits of our labour? Are migrant sex workers especially good to arrest because we have a price on our heads? The law provides for awarding cash rewards to those that inform on and for those who arrest undocumented migrants.

When laws are given more importance than human rights then we cannot access our rights. Laws become a barrier to the achievement of human rights, especially for undocumented migrant sex workers in Thailand. The laws do not protect us the laws only punish us and leave us open to exploitation. How do we assert our rights when the laws against us are so numerous and so strong? Sex workers, both migrant and non-migrant, do not want to break any law but we cannot accept to sacrifice our human rights especially in favour of unjust laws that are used against us for promotion and exploitation

Deportation…is that really an answer? We all know migrants from Burma must and will return again. There are now said to be around 4 million migrants from Burma in Thailand. Can they all be arrested and deported? Is it practical to arrest 20 or 30 at a time or is it a show? Is raid and deportation going to solve any of the problems?

When Thailand began to allow undocumented migrants to register and work legally the government did not include our work, Entertainment Work, in the categories for registration. This is despite the numbers of migrant workers in the industry; despite the support to work from Thai sex workers and employers; despite the fact there are enough customers for all and despite the fact we work in legally registered establishments. Instead of allowing migrant sex workers to obey the law and access our rights, the government keeps migrant sex workers as undocumented and outside the law; ready and available for arrest whenever needed!

Have authorities ever considered having employers cooperate in taking responsibility for their workers? Just registering the establishment, as a legal entertainment place is enough is it? If the requirement to register their workers with Social Security was enforced, and if migrant workers could gain work permits then no one is outside the law like out laws anymore…the business and the workers become just like other workers.

Is anyone serious about improving the situation or do we want to keep up this wonderful tradition of going through the raid and arrest ceremony on special occasions or whenever there is a need to demonstrate that “I am the one who can get things organized and sort out these problems in my town”?

Pornpit Puckmai
Empower Foundation
Enquiries: empower@cm.ksc.co.th

28/01/ 2010

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