human rights

Sex work or slavery?: Why human rights discourse is no longer a tool for liberation

Testimonies from women at a global event in Delhi in January show that sexual exploitation and slavery still exist.

After nearly four decades as a human rights lawyer and teacher, I have realised that the human rights discourse is no longer a tool for emancipation and liberation but an instrument of foreign policy used by the West to control and dominate the world.

In the last two months, I have heard powerful testimonies by women from different parts of the world to break any illusion about the future of the human rights discourse as a tool for change.

In the article The Case Against Human Rights in the Guardian, the writer lamented:

“We live in an age in which most of the major human rights treaties – there are nine ‘core’ treaties – have been ratified by the vast majority of countries. Yet it seems that the human rights agenda has fallen on hard times… Europe has turned inward as it has struggled with a sovereign debt crisis, xenophobia towards its Muslim communities and disillusionment with Brussels. The United States, which used torture in the years after 9/11 and continues to kill civilians with drone strikes, has lost much of its moral authority. Even age-old scourges such as slavery continue to exist. A recent report estimates that nearly 30 million people are forced against their will to work. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

Patriarchy a human rights violation

The article was written in 2014, the same year the European Commission allowed member states of the European Union to increase their national wealth by including the turnover from prostitution in the calculation of their gross domestic product. Traffickers make an estimated $32 billion annually, and human trafficking is one of the world’s most shameful crimes, one that robs people of their dignity and basic rights, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the UN body dealing with organised crime.

An articulate but small section of feminists have argued that a prostitute has the right to choose, and that hers is a profession like any other. That is how they interpret Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees to every person “the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment”.

Some feminists have argued that prostitution is work. They call it sex work. But almost all women who have been in prostitution call it slavery. And slavery is specifically forbidden under Article 4 of the declaration: “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”

Often, feminists fail to notice the patriarchical foundation of the UN declaration and, therefore, the slogan that human rights are women’s rights may be true but women’s right to dignity takes on an entirely different meaning. Even in a liberal democratic society, human rights do not offer protection against extreme patriarchy. Rachel Moran, a survivor of trafficking from Ireland, has passionately argued in her book, “Prostitution exists everywhere on this earth because of the male demand for it, and women’s position in prostitution is simply a response to dire circumstances.” Moran has argued that prostitution is the male exploitation of female bodies, and that there is nothing empowering about such exploitation.

Grizelda Grootboom’s story

Grizelda Grootboom from South Africa tells her story in her book Exit! (Blackbird Books, 2016). She has written that when people ask her who she is, she replies “a recovered drug addict”. She has described her journey as a prostitute, the violence, the beatings, the sex games that included “holding a burning cigarette in your cookie while holding your legs up and open…we’d get burnt a lot…”, the blow jobs that left her mouth full of blisters, and the forced abortions, torture, humiliation and jail.

“What drove me to drugs and prostitution was the anger and pain I felt after being gang raped at the age of nine,” she has said. “I did not choose to be a prostitute because I liked or wanted drugs. Some activists groups advocate that prostitution should be decriminalised because girls [and boys] are forced into this exploitation. But I feel strongly that we must recognise the social conditions that exist in our communities that support this type of exploitation. There were circumstances that led to my engagement in sex work and drugs, and I met these conditions before I was trafficked.”

I heard Grootboom speak at the second World Congress Against the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls in New Delhi in January – an event organised by Apne Aap Women Worldwide, the Coalition for Abolition of Prostitution, and Vivel, in partnership with the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar. The passion with which she spoke and the barely suppressed outrage she felt when she said, “It is only the survivors of trafficking who can speak on behalf of the trafficked.”

Grootboom was supported by Jackie Lynne, a survivor from the First Nations indigenous group in Canada, who said, “Women mouthpieces for the pimp industry who say we are here by choice – I’m a survivor. It’s not a choice.”

Equal right to live under a bridge

The UN declaration on human rights enshrines the right to equality. Article 3 states: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” But the meaning of equality is quite different for the poor and for the rich. We do not always remember how unequal this world is. Some statisticians have worked it out for us.

When you shrink the world’s population down to only 100 people, you start to get an idea of just how unequal the world is. More than 70% earn $10 or less a day, while 15% make less than $2 a day. One person earns more than $90 a day. And this same person controls 50% of the wealth.

The French philosopher Anatole France explained it all with this quip: “La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain.” In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

Grizelda Grootboom, a street child from South Africa who had not read Anatole France, described the meaning of freedom and equality for children like her:

“What we street kids couldn’t understand was why so many people had flocked to Cape Town’s Grand Parade five days before Madiba’s inauguration speech in May 1994. What were they all doing on the streets, our streets, all these people from all over the world?

“There were celebrations in town every day and suddenly there were all these road blocks and we didn’t understand – it sometimes irritated us because they were messing with our escape routes, the routes we normally took when we’d stolen something from Shoprite.

“So we climbed the walls of the City Hall, and the library, and the clock tower, and sat in the shade, watching all these people.

“We heard people yelling, ‘Freedom!’

“And we robbed the visitors, stealing their money and bags. By 2 am every night, our sleeping quarters under the bridge would look like a frickin’ Chinese shop! It was an amazing time for us as we moved through the crowds.

“Our special treat was fish and chips – that was what we’d buy when we had earned more money than usual, which we did on those amazing days. If one of the guys was puzzled and asked, ‘Who is this Mandela guy?’, we’d tell him to shut up and just eat his fish and chips.

“By the end of Madiba’s inauguration speech, we had celebrated our freedom and were high on drugs.”

Wounds of colonialism, racism

The human rights discourse does not and cannot address the injustice suffered by the colonised peoples of the world because it is largely concerned with the protection of individual rights against state abuse. It does not deal with the gross injustices of entire peoples, communities or nations. Jeanine Leane, an Australian aboriginal from the Wiradjuri community in New South Wales, writes poems that speak to all victims of white man’s colonialism. This is from one titled From Black to White:

White washed everywhere.
No more red, no more blue, no more yellow, green
Purple orange or brown.
No more grey.
Only black and white now only white and black
Only good and evil, free and captive, master and slave
Rich and poor, better and worse, have and have-nots
Propertied and dispossessed, us and them
Black and White
White and Black
white supremacy, black destruction
white nation, black burial ground
white power, black oppression
white life, black death
white lies, dark secrets
black values, white problems
black dreams, whitemares
white dreams, black white-mares.

I heard Leane recite her poem at the Hyderabad Literary Festival in January. I watched an indigenous woman poet from the Philippines wipe her tears as she sat on the dais with Leane.

What counts as success

A young lawyer recently asked me for advice on how she could become a successful human rights lawyer. I said that to be a successful human rights lawyer, one must feel outrage against injustice, and one must love deeply the people for whom one is fighting – even if they do not always love you back. Many of the young lawyers in the audience thought my advice was ridiculous. I had forgotten that successful does not mean getting justice; it means becoming famous and rich. And there are indeed many possibilities for a lucrative career in human rights. But how far does it serve the needs of millions of people who suffer inequality and injustice every minute of their existence?

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer, teacher, activist and writer.

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Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on
Butterfly roof and cantilever (Image credit: Design Milk on

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Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on
Floating staircase (Image credit: Design Milk on

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Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)
Exposed concrete wall (Image Credit: Getty Images)

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