Perception, Misconceptions and Survivors: A UN Hosted Discussion on Human Trafficking

By Kyla Bender-Baird

Last week, the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) launched a new trust fund by hosting an exciting panel featuring journalists, advocates, and that’s right, celebrities. The UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children will provide humanitarian, legal and financial aid through established channels such as governments and NGOs. “It is our collective responsibility,” said Joseph Deiss, the President of the UN General Assembly, “to address this abhorrent crime.” Earlier this year, member states adopted a global plan of action to end human trafficking. The plan is based on the three “P’s”: prevention, protection, and prosecution. Adding to this strategy, Deiss emphasized the importance of strengthening partnerships—an approach the Council firmly stands behind. According to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, 141 states are party to the UN Protocol Against Trafficking. “When we enslave women, we hold the future hostage,” said the Secretary General.

After declaring the fund officially open, Yury Fedetov, Director-General of the UNODC, introduced an all-star panel moderated by Nicholas Kristof. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, the celebrity faces of this newly opened fund, were joined by Ruchira Gupta. Gupta is the Founder President of APNE AAP Women Worldwide, an initiative to end sex trafficking, based out of Northern India.

Kristof opened the discussion by questioning the framing of human trafficking as “modern day slavery.” This is a question that was also raised on a panel I moderated this summer at NCRW’s Annual Conference.  We were discussing migrations, displacement, and sexual exploitation in the context of ending violence against women and girls through greater social investments. While Taina Bien-Aime from Equality Now (from the panel this summer) raised concerns about using the term slavery out of its historical context and projecting it onto a present day situation, Demi Moore strongly advocated for its effectiveness in gaining the hearts and minds of everyday people. “That’s what it is,” Moore said. “Trafficking is a policy’s distancing.”

Another framing issue arose around the complexity of human trafficking. Trafficking in persons includes forced labor, domestic servitude, organ trafficking, debt bondage, and sex trade. Too often discussions around trafficking focus solely on the last form—sex trade. Unfortunately, the UN panel was no exception. After an initial nod to the other forms of trafficking, the conversation quickly devolved into an over emphasis on sex trafficking. Even more disturbing was the frequent conflation of prostitution and sex trafficking. While many trafficked persons are forced into prostitution, not all sex workers have been trafficked. This dangerous conflation creates a slippery slope, especially when it comes to policy solutions. For more information, check out the Sex Workers Project and their 2009 report, Kicking Down the Door.

I was also disturbed by the use of term “victim” rather than “survivor” as panelists talked about trafficked persons. “Victim” is a disempowering term that has the tendency to further silence the voices of survivors. In fact, survivors are a critical tool in fighting trafficking, something that the panelists acknowledged even as the panel excluded the voice of survivors. UNDOC staff did point out that they had invited Rani Hong, a trafficking survivor, to close out the event. However, by the time Hong took the stage to share her amazing story, the room had dwindled from a packed house to a few stragglers. Rachel Lloyd from GEMS made a powerful intervention from the floor, drawing attention to this oversight:

We don’t need to be a token. We don’t have to tell our stories. We have solutions. Public perception needs to change around who victims and survivors are. The message today was that our voices aren’t as important as other experts.

Aside from these not-small problems, the panel discussion was quite rich. The active participation of Kristof and Kutcher underscored the importance of male allies in ending trafficking in persons. Kutcher said that we need to get the message out to boys and men that “buying sex is not cool.”

Gupta was the real rock star of the panel, in my humble opinion. She emphasized helping survivors “lead lives of dignity” by offering legal protection, job training, rights training, education, and other opportunities for independence. It is these key interventions that facilitate the “journey from victim to survivor” she said. If we really want to help trafficked persons escape this vicious cycle of abuse, we must treat them as human beings who can make their own decisions—and then give them the tools and opportunities to implement their decisions. In addition to legal and economic interventions, we need a paradigm shift. Gupta pointed to three first steps to bringing about a cultural shift around trafficking (specifically sex trafficking):

  1. We must challenge the presumed inevitability of prostitution. Kutcher echoed this position when he said that we must stop calling prostitution the “oldest profession.”
  2. We must resist the assumption that men’s sexual desire is uncontrollable. Sex is always a choice and must not be conflated with sexual exploitation.
  3. We need systemic change not short-term band aid solutions.

Quoting Gloria Steinem (who was sitting in the front row), Gupta ended by saying we should eroticize equality rather than domination and exploitation.

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