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Collective action: seizing opportunities in opposition

This week TTRP are pleased to present a jointly authored post with SWEAT – a sex workers rights organisation based in Cape Town, South Africa. SWEAT works to ensure that sex workers’ rights are defended, that sex workers have access to health and other services and that sex workers are respected and valued members of society. The organisation takes a rights-based approach to its work and has three central programs: Advocacy and Human Rights Defence; Outreach and Development; and Research and Knowledge Management. Their goals are to: advocate for the decriminalisation of adult sex work in South Africa; to address health and human rights abuses with sex workers; and to support the development of self-representation of sex workers on a national and continental level in issues affecting them. 

TTRP and our blog guests have previously highlighted difficulties within the anti-trafficking movement, and the NGO sector more broadly, of collaboration. This lack of collaboration between stakeholders is a chorus repeated ad nauseum, but, often overlooked, are the less public, daily exchanges that take place between groups that create space for opportunity and constructive engagement.

The Cut it Out campaign in South Africa is the Salvation Army’s endeavour to curb human trafficking by ending newspaper advertising that they perceive to be linked ‘to the provision of sexual services and/or the presence of trafficked women’. In a letter template provided on the website, the organisation explains that the campaign:

…aims to see an end to human trafficking for sexual services by raising awareness as to the issue and reducing the demand by seeing an end to advertising of sexual services in all newspapers throughout South Africa. Advertising these establishments fuels the sex industry which will result in people being trafficked to fill the places required by these establishments.

The campaign, originating in the UK and mirroring similar efforts to end advertising for sex services in the US, asks members of the public to cut out any adverts they see that appear to advertise sex and send them with a letter to the Editor of that newspaper.

As a sex worker rights organisation, SWEAT disagrees with several fundamental premises underlying the Salvation Army’s campaign, arguing that the campaign may have a negative impact on sex workers, as well as those trafficked for sexual services. However, the organisation recognises that activists working to end human trafficking and exploitation often have the same overarching goals: to create public awareness on the issue and to galvanise action to fight exploitation and abuse. To facilitate collaboration, SWEAT wrote to the Salvation Army ‘in the hopes that we could work together on a campaign that would not negatively impact other vulnerable groups’, like sex workers. The organisation prepared a public response to the Salvation Army’s awareness raising initiative, but offered to halt their public response pending positive engagement with the Salvation Army. We’ve reproduced part of this prepared response below:

We at SWEAT wholeheartedly support initiatives aimed at raising awareness of and combating human trafficking, especially those encouraging community vigilance and involvement, such as this one.

We would, however, like to raise our concerns that this particular campaign, though with very good intentions, could in fact do more harm than good and further alienate the very people you are trying to assist.

Firstly, we must clarify that there is no evidence that the sex industry fuels trafficking. Rather, it is by criminalising sex work that we leave the regulation of the industry to the criminal syndicates you are trying to stamp out.

Removing such adverts from newspapers will only serve to reduce the visibility of those in the sex industry, both consenting and coerced, and push them further underground. As a result, sex workers will be harder to reach, as will access to genuine victims of trafficking. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to report human trafficking, but their current criminalised status has alienated them from the police, and leaves them in fear of reporting cases of human trafficking.

Cutting out such adverts also removes their access to safe spaces and could result in more sex workers turning to street-based work, increasing their vulnerability to exploitation, and reducing their agency to negotiate safety. In addition, you will be depriving women who depend on this income of their livelihoods, without offering any viable alternatives.

SWEAT then advocated five approaches to address human trafficking, which in their view were more likely to protect the rights of all. These included supporting the decriminalisation of sex work; job creation and economic policies that address poverty, particularly of women and single parent households; addressing sexual and gender-based violence, against women especially; facilitating legal immigration; and supporting organisations providing services to trafficked persons. They pointed out that ‘conflating the issues of sex work and human trafficking does not do justice to the particular vulnerabilities of either group’.

The Salvation Army responded to SWEAT, saying it recognised both organisations’ approaches, and respected SWEAT’s differing opinion. ‘However’, they added, ‘there would seem to be little point in these two organisations taking issue with each other publically over this matter, since both recognise that action is needed to address, at the very least, the exploitation of people. […] we believe that there is room for different approaches, however varied, such as those advocated by The Salvation Army and by SWEAT.’

However, prior to receiving the Salvation Army’s response, an article appeared on a South African Christian news portal in which the campaign and SWEAT’s objection was discussed. Contrary to The Salvation Army’s email comments, the issue had been taken public.

The question is not about the ethics of engagement – the media can and do form a part of any effective engagement. Rather, it raises important questions around the complexities of collaboration.

Moving forward: constructive collaboration

Organisations working on human trafficking are often resistant to obtaining critical feedback, and unwilling to alter their interventions based thereon. But well-intentioned campaigns aren’t always good for, or effective in, serving targeted communities or achieving stated objectives.

Ineffective collaboration leads to missed learning opportunities. Aside from being open to constructive criticism, cognisant of research and actively collaborating with other NGOs, those advocating on behalf of any group should first and foremost work alongside those affected groups. In this particular instance, engagement with sex worker groups, and sex workers, in a broader effort to support human rights and undercut exploitation could be beneficial for organisations that may not share every aspect of a different NGO’s approach. Such collaboration would avoid negatively impacting other vulnerable groups and shed light on the local context, especially in regards to international campaigns. In this respect, information exchanges would better inform a campaign, even if these organisations are not formally co-collaborators. Trafficking is undoubtedly a complex issue. As such, any response warrants an equally complex set of information gathering and support. Holistic responses, such as those advocated by the Salvation Army, should take into account multiple perspectives, which, we would hope, would include engagement with a range of stakeholders involved in this work. For instance, Sisonke, situated in the SWEAT offices in Observatory, is a sex-worker led movement welcoming anyone looking for more information to visit them.

One additional point for consideration is whether disagreements such as these should be made public – do conflicting views increase transparency and accountability, or do they potentially undermine funding opportunities and brand identity? Perhaps the focus should be redirected to structural inhibitors for collaboration, such as funding. For instance, in the UK, discord between the Salvation Army and the Poppy Project may have created public engagement on the issues of trafficking and sex work, but also highlighted restrictive funding initiatives that constrain expertise and frustrate communication between groups.

Engaging third-party collaborators, such as the media

Public engagement can be part of an advocacy strategy – each organisation has a voice, and a responsibility to use it. But organisations may also have a vested interest in strategic collaboration that requires behind-the-scenes communication, which would not only inform partners’ campaign efforts, but actually aim to assist (or prevent harm to) targeted groups.

Media involvement prior to alongside correspondence between the Salvation Army and SWEAT could not only perpetuate misinformation as well as damage to any potential future collaboration. For example, the Salvation Army was quoted in the article as saying that the two organisations have different approaches to the sex workers ‘who we (The Salvation Army) want to see saved and whole and whom they (SWEAT) want to be allowed to be sex workers whether coerced, willing or forced’. As a result, the article implies that SWEAT support trafficking; in reality SWEAT aims to support all individuals who engage in sex work, regardless of choice or circumstance. Worryingly, the article itself further conflates the issues of trafficking and adult consensual sex work.

Discrepancies in information could be worked out via constructive collaboration and communication, between organisations and with the collective involvement of a third party, such as media. We believe in the value of working jointly on the issue of trafficking in the media – to better inform journalists as well as the public.

Implications of ineffective collaboration: for organisations and those for whom they advocate.

Although TTRP is critical of ‘end demand’ rhetoric as well as this specific call to end advertising; in this particular post a number of additional concerns come to the fore. In our opinion, the current campaign by the Salvation Army focuses on women, focuses on sex trafficking and is embedded with assumptions seemingly incorporated without regard for a strong evidence base. The campaign assumes reduced advertising will lead to a reduced demand for sex work alongside a concurrent reduction in sex trafficking. This ignores research by organisations such as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), which refutes the ‘supply and demand’ view of trafficking in persons and calls for a more nuanced understanding of a complex issue. Similarly, research conducted into the supply and demand for sex work over the 2010 World Cup, which sourced informants from newspaper and online advertising for sexual services, found that the games did not result in a higher demand for sex work or an increase in trafficking advertisements.

The effects of misinformed campaigns can be dire. In an address made on 24 February 2013, JVR Prasado Rao, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy on HIV/Aids for Asia Pacific spoke on separating consent from exploitation, explaining the threats facing sex workers and traffic victims alike by governments’ and organisations’ failure to distinguish between the two. Similarly, an HIV Law Commission report from 2011 detailed the serious implications of conflating sex work and trafficking on HIV prevention and control. What has been shown, and advocated by SWEAT, is that such a campaign may indeed increase harm and exploitation, including to genuine trafficking victims.

Critically, assumptions embedded in the campaign also feed into the stated purpose of ‘awareness-raising’; but what is the impact of this information and how does the Salvation Army intend to measure differences in public knowledge, especially if it is relying on the public to make judgments about what constitutes a) a sexual service and b) sex trafficking? Particularly, if the stated goals are to educate the public on ending sexual services and/or trafficking – two very different concepts, as shown above.

Effective collaboration.

As the HIV Law Commission report explains, the current international anti-trafficking legal framework – the Palermo Protocol – was developed out of the context of governmental and institutionalised feminist concerns about sex work and trafficking. Their differing perspectives were used as a departure point, informed by thorough research, and through collaboration resulted in anti-trafficking legislation.

While the Salvation Army in South Africa have agreed to meet with SWEAT, they are continuing with their advertising campaign. SWEAT hopes that in the future, anti-trafficking organisations will take greater cognisance of the value inherent in the varied voices in the fight against trafficking, and the fight for other human rights.

Far from being voiceless, sex workers have a lot to say about the conditions under which they work; the abuse they face at the hands of police, clients and community members; and stigma that drives this abuse – the problem is that many are not willing to listen.

At the heart of it, anti-trafficking organisations do a disservice to themselves, trafficking victims and other vulnerable groups if they ignore existing research and avoid collaboration with groups that may have opposing views. If the goal is to eradicate trafficking; surely diverse and united voices would make a greater positive impact?

SWEAT/Sisonke can be contacted at info@sweat.org.za or on +27 (0) 21 448 7875.

1 Comment

  1. […] Private Members Bill, while Mike Dottridge discussed the use of the term “modern slavery”. TTRP co-authored a post with SWEAT, a South African sex worker advocacy organisation, on constructive collaboration between […]

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