Sitting in a warm room in Phnom Penh with several other women from the Asia Pacific region, Kamalabai Pani, a sex worker and a board member of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) in India, became visibly upset when discussion turned to the efforts of U.S.-led feminist groups to discredit several United Nations bodies’ recommendations to decriminalize sex work in support of HIV prevention. These recommendations have been welcomed by sex worker-led groups as they believe criminalization endangers not only condom use but their very livelihoods.
In their writings and speeches, Western feminist groups have used the tactic of labeling sex worker collectives—essentially a form of trade union—as “promoters of prostitution” and “traffickers.” This lack of logic infuriates sex worker union advocates and the impact on sex workers’ lives is far more severe.
A warm woman with a demeanor of quiet strength, Pani spoke with anger recalling the raid on the VAMP community on May 20th, 2005. “These guys came to our brothel area and gave out contraceptives and sweets. Then they asked us details about the girls, how much they studied and things like that. The next day, a Friday, then came the police. There were about 40 people in plain clothes, 20-30 police in six vehicles that came to the red light area of Gokulnagar. They blocked off about five lanes and the houses. They did not ask us anything, they just came in.”
This raid came on the heels of VAMP’s sister organization Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) turning down funds from USAID. SANGRAM has provided technical support to the VAMP sex worker community since 1992 and the collaboration had greatly reduced HIV rates, providing antiretroviral treatment to ill workers. The organization was listed as a best practice model by USAID. However, when the U.S. emergency response to HIV/AIDS, The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), required organizations receiving funds to sign a pledge stating that they did not support prostitution, including activities like distributing condoms in that definition, Meena Seshu, founder of SANGRAM, decided it was best to return the funds. Previously lauded for her work, suddenly she found herself a target of anti-trafficking groups in the U.S.
Her trials, while great, were less harsh than what sex workers faced. “The police asked the women ‘Are you a sex worker?’ If the women said yes, then they dragged her off by the hair. So the women were beaten and dragged to the vans. Some fell into the gutters,” said Pani.
This is common, according to the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), which documents the impacts that anti-trafficking measures have had on sex workers around the world. According to their 2006 report on India, entitled Collateral Damage, sex workers are routinely beaten by police when arrested during raids.
“All in all 30 women, four girls and 13 brothel owners were picked up and dumped into vans. None of the 30 [were] minors. All of them were adult women. So we insisted they were adults. We told them [the police], they have a right to be in sex work but they didn’t listen. Out of the four girls, two were school-going children who had come home for summer holidays and two girls were pregnant,” said Pani
“Madams with condoms were accused of trafficking. Some condoms are left with the madam for better HIV prevention if she holds them when negotiating with the client,” she said. “We explained the condoms were for HIV prevention, the brand is the government issued free condom – Nirodh, but they were picked up for ‘forcing women into prostitution.'”
The raid was timed during a school holiday. “It was May and the schools were on vacation, so two children were at home with their mothers when the mothers were taken” she added.
After the raid, the VAMP community had a battle on their hands releasing those detained. “The police kept two kids, for ten days. We tried to have teachers intervene so they could be released. The kids [once released] were traumatized, refusing to return to school,” Pani said.
As for the adults, “The 30 women were held for a month. The 13 madams were held 13 days.” Seshu provided background for the length of the detention: The police doubted the documentation submitted showing the majority of the girls were 18 and over, despite records proving they had completed school. Police forced them to undergo a second medical evaluation, stalling their release.
In the end, two of the girls detained were underage and pregnant, but they were eventually released due to illness. Their age and condition resulted in a smear campaign launched against SANGRAM. The Hindustan Times published a report on September 29, 2005 claiming that USAID had terminated funding to SANGRAM because they were traffickers and had tried to “thwart rescue efforts.”
Seshu sees raids and rescues as counter-productive to human rights, as they deny the agency of sex workers. From her previous successes working on other labor rights projects, she found community-led changes were the most effective at empowering both women and girls so they could make their own choices rather than have an ideology imposed on them.
To explain their position, SANGRAM released a statement: “Every brothel in Sangli had a minor when SANGRAM started work in 1990; today, very few brothels have minors. How has this happened? Through time, trust, and community involvement. Not through police raids, indiscriminate arrests, and physical violence.”
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi released a letter on October 6th, 2005, that said funding was terminated by “mutual consent” on the part of SANGRAM and USAID. The letter went on to explain “In reference to the article that appeared September 29, 2005 on the website HindustanTimes.com, I would like to clarify that the article does not reflect the position of the United States Government regarding SANGRAM.” The letter was signed by David Kennedy, U.S. Embassy Spokesperson.
The raid against VAMP was initiated by the U.S.-based organization Restore International, a Christian NGO under the leadership of Greg Malstead. Malstead, undeterred, continued to harass the sex worker community. During the raid in May, he had frightened and angered women by kicking open the doors to their homes to gain entrance, and as a result, they had pushed for charges to be filed against him. He returned again in June of that year, loitering in the area and alarming the community.
On October 22, 2005, he came back to the community once again, in an SUV with two other men, perhaps to initiate a raid without the support of the police. From the community’s perspective, he was a white man trying to dominate and threaten them, so they fought back.
Seshu was called in to stop Malstead from getting beaten up. Before she had arrived, several members of the VAMP community had stepped in trying to protect him from the rage of the neighborhood, which saw its actions as self-defense. Malstead was escorted away by police and, interestingly enough, did not press charges against his “attackers.”
While raids and rescues such as Malstead’s are marketed as a means to protect women from sexual exploitation, GAATW found that such measures are more often used to restrict and control marginalized people of different ethnicities and lower classes from impacting more mainstream populations. The VAMP community includes some of the controversial devadasi women, members of an occupational class of traditional temple functionaries, artists, and dancers. Devadasi are often assumed to be prostitutes, but while some devadasi do engage in sex work, sex work is not an inherent part of the devadasi’s job description. Prior to working with sex workers, Seshu said she had felt that the devadasi sex workers were being exploited. In time she changed her perspective. “I couldn’t get them to share stories of misery. They didn’t want to tell me that and as a feminist I had to respect that they knew what was best for themselves. Feminists use the victim narrative,” added Seshu, who preferred to see the devadasi as capable of making their own decisions.
Now in 2013, Pani, who is herself a devadasi, has words to pass on to the Western feminists who urge the U.N. to support the Nordic Model globally, which calls for criminalizing clients of sex workers instead of decriminalization. “If you shut the very clients who give us our sustenance, what we eat, tomorrow you are going to start arresting our children and calling them clients? The point is, how will you decide who is the client? Will this not increase HIV? Because this will push sex workers underground because they won’t have the power to negotiate anymore and condom use will go down. The contract itself [between the sex worker and the client] will become riskier. The point is, you are moving it out of a safe space and pushing it underground.”
The Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), wrote The VAMP/SANGRAM Sex Worker’s Movement in India’s Southwest, detailing how India’s anti-trafficking laws were drafted while the country was colonized under British rule, which sought to control sex workers. The report highlighted how SANGRAM and VAMP’s project aspires to break away from this colonial influence. India is grappling with another legacy from its colonial period: the criminalization of consensual same-sex activities. While this draconian law was revoked in 2009, the courts of India overturned it last week. VAMP also represents transgender and gay and bisexual sex workers. Women and men from VAMP and SANGRAM would like India to move forward without these influences from its colonial past, be they constitutional history or Western groups seeking to impose their views.