Meena Saraswathi Seshu’s response on titled “Yes, sexual exploitation and slavery exist. But they are not the same as sex work” does not touch upon the points I raised in my earlier article, published on the website on February 8, “Sex work or slavery?: Why human rights discourse is no longer a tool for liberation”.

Some of these are:

  • The contradiction between human rights and women’s rights and how women’s issues cannot always be addressed in the language of human rights, since the latter does not recognise patriarchy as a human rights violation.  
  • Sex work cannot be separated from human trafficking and sexual exploitation and justified on grounds of individual personal choice or agency. Personal choice and agency are determined by social, political factors which are discounted by radical and liberal feminists.
  • The core of feminist ideology is the recognition of patriarchy as an institutionalised form of exploitation and oppression, by which men dominate other men and women. But within feminists, there are many ideological positions, including liberal feminists, radical feminists, Marxist feminists and socialist feminists.  The socialist and Marxist feminists see the trafficking trade in the context of the capitalist system and have a critique of the neo-liberal world order. 
  • None of this analysis is in disagreement with the concern for improving the work conditions of  women and men in the industry. Even the abolitionists who fought against slavery fought for better and humane working conditions for slaves till such time as slavery was abolished.  
  • Lastly, I am aware how some NGOs involved in stopping trafficking have paid little attention to the rights of women they “rescue” and are not willing to fight for their human rights against the courts and police because they work so closely with the state.  

There is a need for a far more politically nuanced understanding of the issue. In any case, the article I wrote was about the limits of the human rights discourse that is based on individual rights and does not address the question of institutionalised inequality of large numbers of people, such as the enslaved, colonised or victims of genocide.

I think it is important that both human rights activists and feminists realise how far the discourse on human rights and feminism has been appropriated by the Western states and corporations to perpetuate an increasing unequal and unjust world order. In this world, order the idea of personal choice is an illusion that needs to be smashed. And agency is limited to the choices determined by the larger political and historical factors.