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California’s Prop 35: A Misguided Ballot Initiative Targeting the Wrong People for the Wrong Reasons

7:11 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Banner: No Prop 35, Sex Workers are NOT Sex Offenders

No on Prop 35 Banner

California voters hold the power this Election Day to decide if many thousands of people convicted of prostitution-related offenses in their state must now register as sex offenders. These are their neighbors, their friends, their family — whether they know it or not — and many are women: trans- and cisgender women, poor and working class women, and disproportionately, they are women of color.

This attack on women already made vulnerable to violence and poverty is just one of the possible consequences of Proposition 35, a ballot initiative marketed to voters as a tough law to fight trafficking but is instead a “tough on crime” measure backed with millions of dollars from one influential donor, written by a community activist with little experience in the issue. If it passes? Advocates for survivors of trafficking, civil rights attorneys, and sex workers fear that rather than protect Californians, it will expose their communities to increased police surveillance, arrest, and the possibility of being labeled a “sex offender” for the rest of their lives.

Trafficking is a hot-button issue, where even defining what is meant by the term is contentious and deeply politicized — but at a minimum, it describes forced labor, where the force may be physical or psychological in nature. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 22 million people may be involved in forced labor worldwide, the majority of which does not involve forced labor in the sex trade. In the United States, anti-trafficking law developed over the last ten years has advanced definitions of trafficking. In addition to Federal law, states have passed their own trafficking laws, which overlap with existing laws against forced labor, child labor, minor prostitution, or prostitution in general.

A good deal of advocacy around trafficking is concerned with proposing new laws, with several organizations — such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International — focused on introducing copycat legislation state-after-state, focused on increasing criminal penalties associated with trafficking and moving resources to law enforcement. There is little evidence that strengthening criminal penalties and relying primarily on law enforcement are strategies to end forced labor; in fact, advocates who work with survivors of trafficking, as well as people involved in the sex trade and sex worker rights’ advocates, have documented the limitations and dangers of a “tough on crime” approach on trafficking. Still, the “tough on crime” approach has become dominant in what some anti-trafficking advocates now call “the war on trafficking.”

Treating Those In the Sex Trade as Sex Offenders

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U.S. Policy and the Unjust Approach to Human Trafficking of the International Justice Mission

11:25 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Gira Grant for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is part of a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check analyzing U.S. trafficking policy as outlined by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Melissa Gira Grant

Journalist & sex worker activist Melissa Gira Grant (Photo: Re: publica 2012 / Flickr)

When you picture a human rights defender, are they carrying handcuffs? Are they removing you from your home or workplace and directing you into a police van? This is, unfortunately, the face of some of the “human rights defenders” being funded by the United States government through “anti-trafficking” initiatives around the globe.

And this is the unfortunate picture President Obama invoked — in all likelihood, without intending to — in his remarks last Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. In the address, before heads of state, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and civil society representatives, the president elaborated his most detailed position on the United States’ commitment to ending human trafficking. He spoke at length about the issue of forced labor, whether performed by garment workers, agricultural workers, or child laborers. Obama also praised the work of faith-based NGOs, which would not itself be a problem but for the fact that many of the faith-based groups receiving U.S. funding bring their evangelism along with law enforcement into their anti-trafficking work, and in particular the work they do focusing on the sex trade.

We are especially honored to be joined today by advocates who dedicate their lives — and, at times, risk their lives — to liberate victims and help them recover,” the President said. “This includes men and women of faith, who, like the great abolitionists before them, are truly doing the Lord’s work — evangelicals, the Catholic Church, the International Justice Mission…

This is the same International Justice Mission whose reliance on headline-grabbing brothel raids conducted with police to “rescue” sex workers have drawn criticism from human rights advocates around the world.

As journalist Noy Thrupkaew reported for The Nation, International Justice Mission (IJM) became a global force after receiving millions of dollars in federal grants, made available for the first time under the Bush administration during its drive to shift large sums of U.S. international aid funding to fundamentalist evangelical Christian and Catholic groups. Also driving their growth was an expansion of federal trafficking law enabling the United States to suspend aid to countries that did not comply with US counter-trafficking efforts.

In 2002, at the same time as the United States demanded crackdowns on commercial sex work, which the State Department has erroneously claimed drives trafficking, IJM became a recipient of federal funds. In 2003, IJM took on more dramatic operations, such as embedding a television crew from Dateline NBC with a team of IJM staff and law enforcement to raid a brothel in Svay Pak, Cambodia. IJM stated they “rescued” 37 girls, but at least 12 of them ran away from the police-guarded “safe house” in which they were detained. In the wake of the raid, USAID found that the number of minors involved in prostitution actually went up.

Though some anti-trafficking activists believe that sex work is indistinguishable from trafficking, sex worker rights’ advocates stress that sex work is work, and that working conditions in the sex sector are the issue, not sex work itself. Indeed, working conditions in the sex sector are made worse for sex workers when, in order to avoid interference and harassment from law enforcement and would-be “rescuers,” sex workers must work alone or in isolated conditions.

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To Address Human Trafficking, the United States Must Take a New Approach

11:14 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Melissa Ditmore and Juhu Thukral for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

This article is part of a two-part series commissioned by RH Reality Check analyzing U.S. trafficking policy as outlined by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Last week, on Tuesday, September 25th, President Obama gave a major speech on trafficking in persons at the Clinton Global Initiative. The timing is important: Obama referenced the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and noted its connection to human trafficking, which is often called a form of modern-day slavery. In his speech, he said:

Now, I do not use that word, ‘slavery’ lightly.  It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history.  But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality.  When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery.  When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.

On its face, the President’s speech appears to reflect a real understanding of what trafficking is — a situation in which force, fraud, or coercion at work create a climate of fear and keep enslaved and in dangerous working conditions out of fear rather than as a voluntary decision. Obama also gave detailed examples of instances where men and boys are most frequently victims of trafficking. This is powerful, since most of U.S. rhetoric on trafficking has focused on sex work and women, including erroneously, voluntary sex work; trafficking of men and boys was almost completely absent from the rhetoric of President Bush, for example. Obama also specifically addressed the horrors experienced by child soldiers, an issue that has not yet caught the public’s imagination as a key concern in the fight against human trafficking. We are hopeful this speech suggests a welcome change in the scope of U.S. anti-trafficking efforts.

But when it came to the specifics of the Obama administration’s actual priorities, the president was not so clear. As president, Obama can lead the way on anti-trafficking and anti-violence efforts, but his speech was coded in many ways to reflect that he will follow the lead of his predecessor in prioritizing relationships with anti-prostitution organizations who use anti-trafficking rhetoric to further an agenda that violates the human rights of sex workers.

Confusing  all sex work with trafficking trivializes the abuses experienced by the trafficked persons and ignores the agency of women who turn to sex work as their best among limited options. Sex workers do not want to be victimized by labels they don’t choose; they want to be agents of change in their own lives and exercise their human rights based on their own priorities. Law enforcement efforts to address trafficking in the United States, however, have to date focused on “vice raids,” leading to arrests of women, mostly poor women and women of color, many of them U.S. nationals and people who have not been trafficked, and many of whom make a living via sex work. It is a thinly veiled anti-prostitution effort.  It is no wonder that this model, echoing the use of other legislation purported to protect women, has not led to better identification of trafficked women. Indeed, a report from the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center found that women trafficked into sex work in New York City had experienced frequent arrests — up to ten arrests! — without being identified as trafficked.

Obama specifically praised faith-based organizations for their work and the White House fact sheet mentions an expanded role for faith-based groups. This is highly problematic, given that most of these groups focus only on trafficking into one labor sector — forced prostitution — and are not stalwarts on many issues of women’s rights. In addition, President Obama specifically praised the International Justice Mission (IJM), an organization that has engaged in raids on brothels. (See Melissa Gira Grant’s analysis of IJM here.)

Such “rescues” are meant to be the acts of well-meaning Good Samaritans, but they more often than not cause severe human rights abuses. These efforts tend to help a very few while causing harm to many, and distract attention and resources from the less sexy issue of abuse in other labor sectors. The United States has encouraged other governments to adopt anti-trafficking laws, and some nations have done so. Cambodia is one example, enacting a law on “the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” in 2008. This was implemented in such a way that sex workers around the country were arrested and sent to former Khmer Rouge prison camps. Human Rights Watch has documented egregious abuses in arrests and while imprisoned, including denying access to life saving medicines, beatings, rape and even deaths in custody. Furthermore, these arrests have not assisted people in situations of forced labor in other sectors.

In his speech and in the fact sheet, Obama mentioned increased resources, tools, and trainings, much of it targeted to law enforcement. But he did not say how this is any different from current federal efforts that are largely focused on law enforcement efforts to prosecute trafficking. Furthermore, the fact that in the United States, most trafficking survivors will need to help law enforcement in order to be recognized as victims of trafficking has not lead to greater cooperation. And despite funding for law enforcement task forces that have relied on vice arrests, victims have come forward in small numbers, fewer have been recognized by the U.S. government, and there are even fewer prosecutions and convictions. A better alternative would be to focus on ensuring labor rights in all sectors and on making services accessible for trafficked persons with less reliance on workplace arrests or cooperation with law enforcement.

To his credit, the president mentioned new efforts focused on getting businesses to examine supply chains for trafficking in their own industries. But one industry he mentions is the travel industry — again, without specifics, language around the “travel industry” is usually coded to mean that activities will focus on squelching sex work, as opposed to abusive practices against maids and other low-wage staff who work in hotels.

As part of this package, the White House released an executive order strengthening protections against trafficking in persons in federal contracts. Many elements of executive order appear to relate to all industries where trafficking happens. But the document regularly addresses “trafficking in persons, the procurement of commercial sex acts, or the use of forced labor” — equating commercial sex acts with trafficking and forced labor. So it is not clear at all — does the president know what trafficking in persons is, or is he still learning? Or is he walking a fine and dangerous political line? The implications here are important, for workers’ rights as well as for the sex workers described above. Corporations have been major users of trafficked labor and their practices often go right up to the line of being considered trafficking, by using agents to outsource contracts and claiming ignorance about conditions for the workers, even when the amounts for hours billed do not meet minimum wage.

At least by focusing on federal contracts, this administration is addressing in an important way the realities of abuses of labor in all sectors. There are important precedents that lead to this order. While it may be hard to believe, there have been federal contractors embroiled in trafficking scandals. During U.S. interventions in the former Yugoslavia, DynCorps, a military contractor, was involved in trafficking young women into what the women thought would be jobs in hotels, only to be raped and suffer  other abuses. A book written by one of the women fired when she exposed trafficking by DynCorps was made into the movie “The Whistleblower.” Today, foreign workers on U.S. military bases abroad have endured conditions that meet the definition of human trafficking. 

We commend the president for acknowledging the breadth of trafficking and human rights violations across sectors and the associated labor abuses that frequently occur, and for recognizing that trafficking occurs even in federal contracts, which have many layers of supervision and reporting. But advocates and people who provide services to trafficked persons continue to push him and demand that he recognize trafficking for what it is and not get mixed up in the politics of advocates who are not as focused on addressing the climate of fear endured by so many workers around the world. Enforcement of fair and equitable working conditions in all sectors, with a focus on economic opportunity for all, would go a long way toward ending trafficking in persons.

Why Sex Workers Must Be Part of the Global Human Rights Agenda

1:19 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Messinger for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Nevada Brother Sign: Angel's Ladie

Nevada Brothel sign (Photo: Joe Tordiff / Flickr)

A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker for the very first time. A 37-year-old mother of three, she very succinctly told me about her life: “These were my options: I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day while working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts, or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?”

Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral, “dirty” and coercive. Selling sex for money has always been loaded with stigma — and it still is today.

Now I am the president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an international organization that supports the human rights of marginalized people in the developing world, including sex workers. In recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves. Their stories are human stories, and their struggles are human struggles. Many sex workers that AJWS supports are mothers doing what they need to do to support their families, just like the woman I met in Thailand.

In some ways, these women are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. But our lives are radically different in one fundamental way. These women are denied the basic human rights I’ve always had: protection from violence, access to healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a living however I choose.

Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work. In both developed and developing countries, discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Religious groups, police officers and non-governmental organizations routinely carry out violent raids on adult brothels. This violence is often justified as a “rescue operation” and legitimated by anti-prostitution laws. In Cambodia, for example, many adult sex workers are “rescued” against their will. They are retrained for jobs in low-wage garment factories or repatriated into their villages without access to the income they need to survive or to support their families.

Little is written about the aftermath of these “rescue operations.” Whether trafficked or not, women are often detained for months and, sometimes, for more than a year. Often, they return to sex work because it best meets their financial needs.

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We Can’t Turn the Tide on HIV Without the Participation of Sex Workers

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Morgan Thomas for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

In May, as we were getting neck-deep in organizing the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, we heard that sex workers in Greece were being forcibly tested for HIV and arrested if they tested positive. To begin with, it is a human rights violation to forcibly test anyone for anything without their consent, including sex workers. On top of that, to arrest someone who has a medical condition that needs treatment – what would you call that if not a gross violation of individual rights? As a health worker then said, “Public health cannot be protected by penalizing patients.”

The Greek episode goes well beyond the usual level of rights violations that sex workers routinely face. In a bizarre replay of ‘blaming the victim’, the women who tested positive were charged with ‘intentionally causing serious bodily harm,’ even though many didn’t know they were HIV-positive since they didn’t have access to public health care or voluntary testing facilities. How could they have knowingly spread an infection they didn’t know they had?

As if that was not bad enough, the names and photographs of those who tested positive were published on the Greek police’s website. Their HIV status was made public in a manner that blatantly ignored their rights to confidentiality or privacy, reinforcing their stigmatization and exposing them to violence. The first woman to be thus “named and shamed” was a 22-year-old Russian sex worker whose picture appeared in newspapers and on billboards. “You can’t broadcast a person’s medical condition without their permission,” she told a journalist at the time.

What is the message from such misguided initiatives? One, that sex workers don’t count and are not recognised before the law as human beings. That even though we are citizens, human beings, we continue to be denied our citizenship rights, our human rights, and our workers’ rights. Two, that we count even less when we are not citizens – for instance, when we are undocumented migrants who left our countries in search of a living. Migrant sex workers have even fewer rights than other sex workers, and are often deported if found to be HIV-positive. It is this daily violation of our rights that makes us more vulnerable to HIV by denying us safe places to work and live and exposing us to abuse and discrimination.

At the Sex Worker Freedom Festival that kicks off in Kolkata this weekend, we will focus on the rights and freedoms we are all entitled to:

  • Freedom of movement and to migrate
  • Freedom to access quality health services
  • Freedom to work and choose occupation
  • Freedom to associate and unionize
  • Freedom to be protected by the law
  • Freedom from abuse and violence
  • Freedom from stigma and discrimination

We will loudly advocate for the recognition of sex work as work, we will oppose the criminalization of sex work, and support the freedom of sex workers to self-organization and self-determination. In the absence of all these freedoms, HIV prevention policies, programs and efforts will remain ineffective.

Our festival begins at the same time as the International AIDS Conference – on Sunday. It is ironical that the AIDS conference’s slogan is “Turning the Tide Together” when two of the key populations most affected by HIV, sex workers and those with a history of drug use, are denied entry to the US and cannot therefore be present – we are an essential part of the solution. In protest against the discriminatory US policy we are organizing the largest-ever global gathering, with more than 120 sex workers from 42 countries and 400 Indian sex workers, to raise our voices in protest at the inequity of holding the International Conference in a country that we cannot enter.

Police Abuse of Sex Workers: A Global Reality, Widely Ignored

11:46 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Photobucket

Written by Chi Mgbako for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

December 17th is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

When we think of violence against sex workers, we conjure up images of dangerous clients and serial killers who target prostitutes.  Indeed, the origins of the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, observed on December 17, lay in the decades-long serial murder of sex workers by the Green River Killer.  While these are heartbreakingly real forms of violence against sex workers, one area that receives scant public attention despite its entrenched global reality is police abuse of sex workers.

The illegal status of sex work in most countries has not eradicated prostitution.  Instead, criminalization has increased sex workers’ vulnerability to human rights abuses and created fertile ground for police exploitation, especially of street-based sex workers.

For example, in South Africa, where sex work has been illegal since the former apartheid regime criminalized it in 1957, police officers often fine sex workers inordinate sums of money and pocket the cash, resulting in a pattern of economic extortion of sex workers by state agents.  For some sex workers, the cost of a police bribe to evade arrest can equal an entire night’s worth of work.  In other instances, police have exhibited shameless levels of exploitation: In one reported example, a police officer in Cape Town demanded a sex worker give him money in lieu of arrest; when the sex worker told him she possessed only a meager 10 South African rand, or the equivalent of $1.25, the police officer even pocketed that pittance. Read the rest of this entry →

Second “Explosive(!)” “Shocking(!)” Live Action Video Reveals… Health Workers Providing Care!

9:06 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Jodi Jacobson for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

See all our articles on this issue at this link.

Lila Rose and Live Action Films have released a second video in their promised expose of Planned Parenthood.

And the only thing shocking about this video is that Rose and her cohorts think there is something shocking about it.

It exposes…..wait for it……a health care worker providing information about health care.

It’s the most shocking thing I’ve encountered since the mailman delivered my mail today.

In the video and in the transcript, the clinic worker is seen and heard calmly doing her job. She is assisting her clients and answering their questions about testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, about contraceptive methods and unintended pregnancy.  No minor is present in the room.  When asked about abortion, she calmly discusses the options a minor in need of abortion might have, such as judicial bypass, which lest anyone be confused, is the perfectly legal recourse provided to minors who face an unintended and untenable pregnancy and who can not for whatever reasons secure their parents’ “permission” to procure an abortion.  Parental consent laws are widespread but have been shown in study after study to be useless in their supposed efforts to dissuade minors in need from seeking abortion.  Moreover, as extensively noted by the Department of Justice, minors involved in sex work or who have been trafficked into sex work often are abandoned by their families, so they are not likely to be seeking out their parents’ permission for much.

These children “generally come from homes where they have been abused, or from families that have abandoned them. They often become involved in prostitution as a way to support themselves financially or to get the things they want or need.”

After the visit, this clinic worker and her colleagues in other sites where the “sex traffickers” sought services reported these visits to their supervisors, who in turn reported to Planned Parenthood Federation’s head office which, in turn reported this to the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

So they did things exactly right. Sought to meet the immediate health needs of the patient while in turn reporting suspicious activity to the police.

In a statement, Planned Parenthood Federation of America said:

Today, Live Action, an anti-abortion groups led by Lila Rose, a self-described
“extremist”1, who has called for abortions to take place in public2 and has vowed to “take down” Planned Parenthood, released videotapes secretly taped at Planned Parenthood Health Centers in Virginia.

In a recent round of secret videotaping in January 2011, at least four health centers in Virginia received visits in a short period of time from persons claiming to be involved in the sex trade, involving vulnerable minors. Local authorities, as well as federal authorities, were alerted to these visits. In this morning’s publicized tape, the Planned Parenthood staff member reacted professionally to a highly unusual person posing as a patient. After the encounter, the staff member immediately notified her supervisor, who subsequently notified members of Planned Parenthood’s national security team, who are working with the FBI, which is investigating these visits.

Come to think of it, this might be even less shocking than the fact that a half inch of snow can close schools across Montgomery County, Maryland.

That a health care worker at a Planned Parenthood would be offering clear, concise and evidence-based information on testing and treatment of infections, contraception and abortion is kinda the antithesis of shocking, really, because in case Lila missed it, these are the services that sexual and reproductive health clinics provide.

The fact that a health worker would be doing so in a manner that earns the trust of the client is not only normal, but a central ethic of health care and medicine.

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Report: Sex Workers Face Widespread Abuses of Civil and Human Rights

7:06 am in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Penelope Saunders for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

This Friday, November 5, 2010, the United States will be reviewed as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The UPR is a relatively new way of addressing human rights in the UN system that came into being in 2008. During the review of the U.S. on Friday, other countries will ask questions about this country’s overall human rights record and propose recommendations that the United States will need to respond to over the next three months. The session can be viewed online as a webcast. This review is a historic occasion because the U.S. typically has a limited engagement with international human rights treaties and mechanisms.

Advocates for the rights of sex workers used the upcoming review of the United States to prepare the first comprehensive national statement on the rights challenges faced by people in the sex trade and people who are affected by anti-prostitution policies more generally (download a PDF of the 5 page report here). The report illustrates the ways in which stigmatization and criminalization of sex workers in the United States result in widespread abuses of civil and human rights, including the right to be free from discrimination; freedom from torture; the right to healthcare; and the right to equal protection under the law. Read more