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Human Trafficking |Community self-regulation of the sex industry: a bottom-up approach for fighting sex trafficking in India

Efforts by the government of India to prevent and address human trafficking are failing to improve the conditions of the sex industry in a meaningful way, in particular due to its focus on the rehabilitation of ‘rescued’ sex workers. To resist this patronising attitude toward sex work, community organisation Durbar has been working on an alternative ‘paradigm’ to counter human trafficking in Kolkata, one of India’s largest cities. Its approach rooted in community participation in the protection of sex workers is proving effective because the dignity and agency of sex workers are placed central in the organisation’s efforts, writes Jaffer Latief Najar.

Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul

“Our work related to anti-trafficking has two pillars. One is protection, the other prevention. So we are doing rescue operations as a form of protection, and after the rescue operations, we are providing them with aftercare facilities… We are doing this so that girls can be empowered [through knowledge about trafficking] and can better understand what trafficking is.”

This statement by a representative of a non-government organisation working in collaboration with the Indian government in Kolkata to combat human trafficking, particularly trafficking in the sex industry, reveals how sex workers are framed – as victims of trafficking. While human trafficking indeed remains a serious issue in Kolkata, and in the rest of India, with India’s National Crime Record Bureau registering 6,616 cases of trafficking in 2020, this approach of ‘rescuing’ victims of trafficking is doing more harm than good. This is the case particularly due to its failure to regard sex workers as agential individuals, which has led to the criminalisation of activities related to sex work, forceful rescues, physical violence, and a loss of livelihoods in a context of chronic and widespread poverty.

This focus on human trafficking has been accompanied by additional interventions like rehabilitation and ‘sensitisation’ stipulated by Indian national laws; these have been inspired by the United Nations’ framework for anti-trafficking known as the Palermo protocol of 2000.[1] As reflected in the fact that raid and rescue operations targeting human trafficking focus solely on the sex industry (see Sangram, 2018; Walters, 2018), the representative in fact describes how sex work is conflated with human trafficking; moreover, the ‘aftercare’ that follows is rooted in the idea that sex workers should exit the sex industry given the opportunity to do so (even with their own consent). According to this paternalistic approach to the governance of human trafficking, a person’s agency to consent is irrelevant.

Resisting forced ‘resue and rehabilitation’

The targeted ‘beneficiaries’ of such anti-trafficking interventions are not without agency, however, but resent and resist these interventions. For instance, a sex worker I interviewed[2] said:

“Sex workers see anti-trafficking actors as dhandabaaz (rookies) who do business in the name of looking after the welfare of sex workers and monitor [sex] trafficking… The government should think about how it should help sex workers gain and reclaim their dignity. We don’t need rehabilitation.”

To deal with the detrimental impact of anti-trafficking practices, community collectives in India have shown resistance to the government’s approach to sex work and have conceptualised alternative standards for regulating the industry. For instance, in Sonagachi in Kolkata where around 15,000 sex workers are situated, a collective of migrant sex workers called the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar) is engaged in anti-trafficking efforts based on such an alternative governance approach. Unlike the approach taken by the UN and Indian government, Durbar does not conflate human trafficking with either sex work or migration, focusing instead on individual consent and the effects of the migration process on livelihoods (e.g. violence, working situation, health issues, financial exclusion, etc.). It considers sex work a contractual service between consenting adults without any element of force or coercion, supporting decriminalisation of consenting adult sex work in India.

As a result, the organisation has implemented a community-led self-regulatory board (SRB) to keep an eye on new entrants to the Kolkata sex industry, especially when they are underage or have experienced violence. But this kind of monitoring assumes a very different character – the SRB focuses more on individual and community welfare.

One of the members of Durbar talked about how the SRB was formed:

The idea of SRB arose during a conference at Bidhannagar in Kolkata. Many people from outside the city and some representing ministries attended. We presented our work on HIV prevention and other health-related issues. But the people attending the conference said that despite these efforts, we were helping in the continued entry of minors into the industry. We then took up the challenge and worked on this. Later, we decided that we should create a platform stopping minors and adults from forcefully entering into the profession”.

The SRB involves volunteer and peer sex workers who meet newly arrived individuals, make enquiries about their intention to join the trade, their relationship with employers or the person accompanying them, and examine the role of brothel owners and landlords in the process of recruitment. If it appears in Durbar’s intervention that the person is trafficked, it assists with the person’s return, typically without the interference of state agencies or partner NGOs. The peer workers accompany the person and keep in touch with them for a certain period to avoid their return to forced labour. Durbar also offers job opportunities to such persons within the collective.

This self-regulation approach is effective in identifying cases of abuse as they occur in neighbourhoods where sex work takes place, which is not the case for government interventions that may come too late. The approach has also helped community members to create a movement that counters the harmful consequences of government anti-trafficking practices. The data of a decade that I gathered from Durbar’s SRB for my present research show a declining trend of forced or trafficked cases where the organisation has intervened.

Not completely recognised by the government….

This approach of Durbar is not legally authorised by the government because India follows UN protocol guidelines and its domestic anti-trafficking intervention differs from Durbar’s focus on self-regulation. This has produced several hurdles for the members of Durbar in executing their interventions, and also limits resources. For example, a Durbar member mentioned that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) prevents it from registering the SRB, as ITPA conflates trafficking with sex work, which is opposite to the approach of Durbar’s SRB. While India’s Supreme Court acknowledged the efforts of Durbar and invited Durbar to contribute to national policies on sex work and trafficking, talks with the government about the SRB’s registration have failed. This has resulted in everyday resistance against forced rescues and exclusion from welfare schemes for migrants and entire labour sectors, leaving the community to manage their affairs by interventions like SRB with limited resources.

…yet embraced on the ground

But despite such challenges, my observations of the SRB’s operations on the ground indicate that it has significant legitimacy and acceptability among community members and thus can be viewed as an effective bottom-up approach in combating human trafficking that directly assists in minimising the harm to and abuse of its members. This bottom-up approach has also helped marginalised communities such as sex workers to further develop a movement for advocating their rights and dignity, and challenge the legislations through protests and advocacy campaigns. As a substitute to the government’s approach that does not seem to be built on an understanding of the dynamics of the sex industry, this approach that is conceived and led by community itself shows the effectiveness of participatory governance and hence reflects a learning scope for an evolving critical conceptualisation of human trafficking, hybrid arrangement of anti-trafficking governance, workers’ agency, and the framing of anti-trafficking interventions.

[1] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

[2] This interview was recorded as a part of my ongoing PhD research dedicated to understanding the marginalized perspectives on anti-trafficking interventions in India.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Jaffer Latief Najar is PhD Researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

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COVID-19 and Conflict | Why virtual sex work hasn’t helped sex workers in India survive the COVID-19 lockdown

Virtual sex work, although around for many years, has become an alternative to traditional sex work during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In India, like elsewhere, sex workers due to a strict lockdown and the limiting of their movements have turned to virtual sex work to earn a living. Yet it has not become a viable solution for many due to a number of challenges the workers face when resorting to this type of sex work, write Birendra Singh and Chitrakshi Vashisht.

"Sex workers" by mo's is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By the end of 2020, around ten million people in India had been infected with COVID-19. Only the United States has recorded a higher number of infections. To mitigate the crisis, the Government of India instituted a lockdown, forcing its over 1.4 billion residents to stay at home. Among the many affected by strict lockdown measures are sex workers, who became a high-risk group during the pandemic due to the nature of their work that requires physical interaction.

Conservative estimates suggest that there are around 38,000 sex workers in the city of Delhi alone, of whom many are residential sex workers working from their small and congested houses (also the case for brothels). This poses a twofold challenge for them during the pandemic: a heightened individual risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection and lack of any other source of income to support themselves and their families in a time when the economy came to a virtual halt.

In light of this precarious situation, and as part of the ISS’s concluding ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) project, we conducted a small study with sex workers in Delhi, including with female sex workers (FSW – cisgender women), transgender (trans) women, and hijras (a socio-cultural group in India under the transgender umbrella which in 2014 was recognized as a third gender by the Supreme court of India). Interviews took place online in the summer of 2020, and we sought to understand the effects of the virus and the pandemic on their lives and the possibilities of new technological practices such as virtual sex for this group. We conducted six interviews: two with representatives of NGOs working with sex workers, two with representatives of the All India Network of Sex Workers, and two with representatives of the Mitr Trust. Of the respondents, three earn their living through sex work. Additionally, secondary data such as media reports, articles, and online interviews were consulted for the study.

Virtual sex work is emerging as a new typology of sex work whereby sex workers use electronic devices such as computers or (mobile) phones to provide sex services through text, audio, and video. Especially during the pandemic, a shift in sex-work practices from physical sex to virtual sex could be observed, while some claimed a potential transformation in sexuality in which virtual sex practices could have played a critical role. However, our study brings to light the critical factors associated with this practice itself that makes its feasibility as alternative livelihood for sex workers in Delhi questionable.

Challenges facing sex workers

The sex workers we spoke to belonged to the lower socio-economic tiers of society and were migrants. Most sex workers reside in congested, unauthorized housing clusters, slums, or small, rented rooms with their friends or families in Delhi. Often, men in families of FSWs suffer from alcoholism and drug abuse, while both FSWs and trans women face intimate partner violence. Due to the stigma attached to sex work and gender non-conformity (for trans women/and hijras), most are abandoned by their biological families. Amina’s story is no different. Now 19, she was thrown out by her parents when she was 16 years old. She particularly recalls: “My sister gave me 100 rupees (less than 2 euros) and asked me to buy poison and die.”

Many FSWs live dual/hidden lives, while some work as a domestic help, security guard, or in small manufacturing companies on outskirts of Delhi, using these additional jobs only as a ‘cover’ for their sex work. Trans women and/or hijras are marginalized even among FSWs since they are not considered ‘real’ women. Due to their gender/sexual expression, opportunities for decent work are often closed to them and they are forced to choose sex work, begging, and/or traditional hijra ways (singing and dancing at ritual functions) of living.

The use of virtual sex technology to keep working

A strict lockdown and fear of being infected halted sex work, with dire implications for sex workers. Some we spoke to stayed hungry for up to three days, while some FSWs lacked enough money to buy milk for their children. Hence, although not an entirely new option for some, virtual sex became the only option during the crisis. However, through it sex workers could earn only a small fraction of the income they could have earned through non-virtual sex work.

They faced many problems. To begin with, the lack of private space to interact when making audio or video calls was difficult for sex workers, as well as for their clients, because during the crisis everyone was staying at home. Especially poor and uneducated sex workers lacked the basic digital literacy to use the phone and/or the Internet, as well as the confidence and skills necessary to perform virtual sex work. Their socioeconomic background, precarious living conditions, and the stigmatization of sex work never allowed them to acquire these skills and pride in their work. Moreover, for some to meet the cost of an Internet connection or smartphone itself was impossible.

Safety in receiving payment by the clients was also among the big challenges that this community faced. Sharing phone numbers with strangers resulted in adverse consequences. Many men threatened sex workers, stating that if they did not provide them with a free service, they would ‘expose’ their identity to their neighbours and families. Additionally, many clients refused to pay in advance for the services. Many times, they would disconnect the call and block the sex worker’s account or phone number just after receiving the service virtually, while sometimes men would delay payment rather than denying it altogether and later block the number of the sex worker. Some clients also threatened to distribute their phone number to strangers who would make their life even more difficult. For most of the sex workers, the biggest problem with virtual sex was ‘no guarantee of payment’.

Not (yet) a viable alternative

Virtual sex as an innovative practice during the COVID-19 crisis didn’t work for the majority of the sex workers we interviewed because of the lack of digital literacy, access to good-quality phones or personal computers and Internet connections, privacy, and the empathy of society. Receiving safe and secure payment was also one of their biggest challenges. In the Indian context, virtual sex practices thus cannot be treated as a substitute for ‘regular’ sex work, although it has captured remarkable attention as a ‘new’ type of sex work.

About the authors

Birendra Singh is a Science Technology and Society (STS) studies researcher. He holds a Master of Technology (M.Tech) and a research Master (M.Phil) in the realm of science policy. His research interest includes, frugal and grassroots innovation emerging from marginalized spaces, politics of knowledge and social institutions. At ISS/EUR, his PhD project is aspiring to conceptualize knowledge and learning dynamics of the bottom-up frugal innovations. For more info click here.

Chitrakshi Vashisht has over eight years of work experience in development sector in the field of gender, sexuality, education, adult literacy, SRH (particularly in HIV/AIDS) in India where she worked with several grassroots level NGOs/CBOs strenuously working for the rights of women, men and transgender (including but not limited to hijra and kothi) persons. Her research interests are in the areas of policy, gender, sexuality, identity, culture, and intimate partner violence. She holds an M.Sc. in Gender and Development Studies from Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand, a Masters in Social Work from India and is presently pursuing her PhD from ISS.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.