Trafficking of women and children across and within nations is said to have escalated dramatically in the last decade. At the same time, we are told how much political commitment to, and funding for, antitrafficking interventions, preventive and punitive legislation has grown. For both propositions to be true there must be something wrong, either in the definition of trafficking, or in the ways it is being tackled.
Despite the media headlines on desperate Third World men dying in their hundreds in closed containers that haul them across international borders, there remains a steadfast conviction that those who are trafficked are predominantly women and children. After all, the most persistent of all trafficking myths asserts that the destination of all trafficking is prostitution, all prostitutes are women and as no woman can deliberately choose to be a prostitute, all of them are trafficked. The principal causes of trafficking are commonly believed to be the so-called “push factors” of poverty and gender inequality. Moreover, it is supposed that organised gangs of traffickers carefully orchestrate all trafficking that takes place, both internationally and within national borders. Then it is assumed that those who are trafficked remain in a situation of everlasting powerlessness, unless rescued by external agents, preferably anti-trafficking non-governmental organisations (NGOs) … and the list goes on.
The problem with such positions and conceptions is not just that they are misleading. More importantly, they fail to examine the experiences of those who are trafficked into a range of labour markets every year and deny them any possibility of autonomy or agency, forever banishing them to a silent world of eternal and relentless victimhood. To understand the realities of trafficking from the point of view of those who are trafficked, this article will recount the stories of some women who now work in the sex trade. It will also briefly examine the ways in which Durbar,an organised forum of sex workers based in West Bengal, India has intervened into the debate on trafficking and has offered alternative ways of thinking about and acting on the issue.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) ‘Streetwalkers Show the Way’: Refraining the Debate on Trafficking from Sex Workers’ Perspective