Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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Prostitution: A Word That UN Women Does Not Want to Hear


The United Nations organization tasked with advancing the status of women worldwide refrains from using the word “prostitution” in its policy work and instead prefers “sex worker.” Here, Pinki, a prostitute in India. PARUL THAPA/APNE AAP

On the eve of a speech Ruchira Gupta was to give on International Women’s Day in New York as the recipient of a Woman of Distinction award, she got a strange email. Gupta, who has collected numerous awards for her work against sex slavery in India — including an Emmy for her 1996 documentary, “The Selling of Innocents” — was asked in the message not to speak on prostitution “or put UN Women on the spot.”

The email came from the organization that had chosen Gupta for its highest award, the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY), which supports the work of UN Women and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, whose annual session was about to begin on March 9. The NGO Committee had itself used the word prostitution in its announcement of the award in January.

“I was surprised that the UN was trying to censor an NGO, and that they should tell me not to speak on prostitution, when my work was with victims of prostitution,” Gupta said in an email interview to PassBlue. She is the founder of Apne Aap (meaning “self empowerment” in Hindi), a multifaceted support group for women trafficked into sex slavery in Mumbai and other South Asian cities. Apne Aap now has international reach.

In her speech at New York’s iconic Apollo Theater, where UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa, was also on the program, Gupta ignored the request and chose to speak forcefully “to represent the voices of victims and survivors of prostitution” in her own organization and others around the world. In late 2013, UN Women, in a note on the issue of terminology, had said it would use the terms “sex work” and “sex workers” and “recognize the right of all sex workers to choose their work or leave it and to have access to other employment opportunities.”

UN Women’s decision and recommendation not to “conflate sex work, sexual exploitation and trafficking” sounds outrageous if not ludicrous to people like Gupta, who work in the squalid brothel quarters of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other cities, to which young girls from around South Asia are lured by traffickers — or sold by poor families — into a life of miserable bondage, with no chance to make choices. In her speech on International Women’s Day on March 8, Gupta said the youngest girl trafficked into bonded labor she has met was just 7 years old.

“The pimps would hand over these little girls to the brothel keepers . . . and these girls were locked up for the next five years,” she said. “Raped repeatedly by eight or ten customers every night.” By their 20s, Gupta said, their youth is gone and bodies are broken, and they are “thrown out on the sidewalk to die a very difficult death because they were no longer commercially viable.”

In January 2014, 61 South Asian victims and survivors of prostitution as well as women’s groups representing communities marginalized by caste, class and ethnicity and antitrafficking organizations helping girls and women “trapped in bonded labour and other forms of servitude” wrote to Mlambo-Ngcuka to protest the new UN Women policy of avoiding the word prostitution.

“We do not want to be called ‘sex workers’ but prostituted women and children, as we can never accept our exploitation as ‘work,’ ” the letter signers wrote. “We think that the attempts in UN documents to call us ‘sex workers’ legitimizes violence against women, especially women of discriminated caste, poor men and women and women and men from minority groups, who are the majority of the prostituted.”

They are still awaiting an answer from UN Women, Gupta said.

Censoring comment about violence against girls and women is not new in the Commission on the Status of Women or in the UN more broadly. Nafis Sadik, the outspoken executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, from 1987 to 2000, said in an interview in 2013 that there had been numerous attempts to silence her, often from pressure by governments.

Sadik was told at a session of the commission several years ago, for example, not to relate a story from Zimbabwe to illustrate the hazards women face when trying to use contraception. “This man’s wife wasn’t getting pregnant, and apparently he discovered that she was taking pills,” she said. “And he killed her because she made him look embarrassed [in front of other men]. Furthermore, that defense was being accepted in the court: that you can’t humiliate the husband.”

Groups working with victims of sexual slavery in developing countries often see a widening gap between Western women — particularly “academic feminists,” in Gupta’s view — and the women working to help the most exploited girls at street level in some of the world’s most dangerous slums, where pimps and brothel owners may be not only slave masters but also killers. Gupta had a knife held to her neck on one occasion when she was filming her award-winning documentary. Women rushed to surround her, separating her from her would-be attacker, and saved her life.

Ruchira Gupta accepting her aware at the Apollo Theater in New York.
Ruchira Gupta accepting her award at the Apollo Theater in New York, March 8, 2015.

The women working with victims and survivors of sex trafficking and bonded prostitution who signed the letter to UN Women fear that campaigns in richer nations, almost all of them in North America and northern Europe, will lead to more moves to decriminalize pimps and brothel keepers — making not only sex workers but all aspects of the sex industry legal.

This is not the only issue that has opened fissures between the richer, progressive nations or societies where women construct views of social change based on their own advanced social and legal environment or well-intentioned views of developing nations’ cultures. They do not always reflect what most poor women — the majority of women in the world — who lack power over their lives really need and want.

Twenty years ago, many Western feminists and officials in countries of the global North dealing with international aid programs criticized campaigners against female genital mutilation or child marriage in developing nations, excusing these harmful practices as “part of their culture.” There are still affluent women who have enjoyed the liberating benefits of contraception for decades who argue against promoting family planning in the developing world, believing that women want to have as many children as possible — sons in particular — because their social status or the family’s economy may depend on fertility.

Such condescending Western attitudes began to change, sometimes dramatically, after the transformative International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, an event that Gupta says has inspired her work ever since. Women in distant lands are now being heard and taking the lead on issues close to home.

Gupta and her like-minded colleagues who signed the letter to UN Women were asking to be part of the discussion on prostitution — in a global context.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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Prostitution: A Word That UN Women Does Not Want to Hear
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4 years ago

After I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on whenever a comment is added I receive 4 emails with the
same comment. Perhaps there is a way you can remove me from that service?
Appreciate it!

8 years ago

How can a seemingly intelligent and well-meaning person fail to see the difference between two different things — women who are forced into prostitution, and women who willingly, rationally chose prostitution as a profession?

It all makes sense when you realize that sex itself is a kind of economy.

Feminists oppose prostitution while claiming to defend women, just like any monopolist corporation opposes the free market while paying lip service to it. Prostitutes are competition; they undercut other women, by selling sex at a fair price – just money, no strings attached – whereas the others often try to trade sex for a total grip on a man’s life and possessions.

8 years ago

The trade in abusing women and children is the problem … What the name you call the abused is kind of irrelevant matthias.

Matthias Lehmann
8 years ago

Nice try to pretend this an issue of Western condescension. But rather than reading what I could write in response, why not talk to sex workers who are members of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Comittee in India and listen to what they might have to say about Ruchira Gupta’s views?

Example: “Instead of trying to victimise sex workers and the trade itself, Gupta should focus on preventing trafficking. Then she would get the support of all NGOs.” – Mahasweta Mukherjee (DMSC)

K Webster
8 years ago

Girls and women everywhere on this earth grow up in environments riddled with sexual exploitation. All of their lives. There is no place on this earth where any girl or woman has been able to ‘chose’ a life where her body is not the literal battle ground of systemic male dominance and oppression. Our female bodies are used as both the target and the excuse for female oppression. No girl child anywhere has had a clear path growing into womanhood where her own and other female bodies are respected, inviolate and cherished by her or by her society. A world where a female child is fully wanted as a female by society does not yet exist. No female child has lived anywhere in the world where her body or other female bodies are not used for the sexual gratification of males either in her personal life or in the lives of those around her or in advertising, movies, books, pictures, etc. No female child grows up with the reality that how she lives as a female is a decision she can make free of formidable exploitation.
It is not possible via an alteration in a name to alter reality. The context of sexism and male domination exists in every corner of the world and in every corner of our minds – our minds too have been colonized – including in the west. We in the west are engulfed in pretense while we lose control over our ability to truly ‘own’ our own bodies in everything from growing old with dignity and care to reproductive choice to basic safety from being the target of rape.
All women and girls survive sexism and the oppression of females any way they can. Never, ever fault a girl or woman for how she herself survives. Honor her survival. But never pretend that mere survival in a brutal and numbing context is actual freedom.

Vegan Vixen
8 years ago

Though I often use the term sex work, I also have a problem with treating the terms prostitution or prostitute like dirty words that we shouldn’t say. Also, I don’t refer to sexual slavery as sex work. Rather, I refer to sex work as the consensual exchange of commerical sex acts for payment, as well as companionship and entertainment. Anybody who refuses to differentiate between forced and consensual prostitution is saying that sex workers who do consent are too stupid to make decisions for what we do with our own bodies and that our consent makes no difference. Well, yes our consent does matter.

It’s also extremely oppressive to twist around the meaning of the term sex work. Anybody who villifies this term is saying that sex workers should not be able to create our own language. I say this because the term sex work was coined by a sex worker named Carol Leigh. To anybody who says that this term glosses over violence, Carol is very open about having been raped at knife point by two men while doing sex work and not feeling like she could report this under existing anti-prostitution laws. There are also trafficking survivors who distinguish between forced and consensual prostitution.

Yet, I respect that not everybody who provides services, entertainment, or companionship in the sex industry identifies by this term. Just don’t twist around the meaning and respect the right of those of us who identify by this term to use it. No matter what term we use, there are people who may have problems with it.

8 years ago

“….When you say that you “rescued” someone, that statement is about empowering and aggrandizing yourself while disempowering the person you think you rescued. This is because “rescuing” creates an uneven power dynamic where the “rescuer” (read: hero) has all of the power in the relationship and the “rescuee” (read: helpless victim) has no agency or role in the exit of his or her abusive.”

” Since when does persecuting and abusing sex workers stop human trafficking. ”

Services to prevent? Services which are voluntary? ZERO. Services to help people get back on their feet after arrest? When you find them, let us know.

8 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with the word “prostitute”.

8 years ago

I believe the description that fits better is “sex hostage” given that the description of the word prostitution does NOT have the word “forced” in it, anywhere I can see??
As others have said, there are a ‘minority’ who make a ‘choice’ to ‘work’ in this industry.
“Prostitution” does NOT suit any of the other ‘victims’ … but “sex hostage” does!!

pros·ti·tute (prŏs′tĭ-to͞ot′, -tyo͞ot′)
1. A person who engages in prostitution.
2. A person considered as having compromised principles for personal gain.

1. To offer (oneself or another) for sexual activity in exchange for money.
2. To devote (oneself or one’s talent, for example) to an unworthy purpose, especially for personal gain.

Diane Martin
Diane Martin
8 years ago

Yes, let’s focus on the semantics of 1 word in the title instead of this important article addressing issues affecting thousands of exploited women and girls. The UN needs to wake up and lose the language of the sex trade.

Luisa K
Luisa K
8 years ago

During the negotiations of the CSW’s agreed conclusions in 2001, which were supposed to deal with the issue of HIV/AIDS (in preparation for the General Assembly’s Special Session on HIV/AIDS later the same year), we were asked not to talk about “treatment” or “access to treatment” by developing countries, specially Africans, on the basis that the national health system in Africa, Asia and other regions were too weak to be able to absorb the challenges of putting so many of their citizens affected by HIV and AIDS in antiretroviral treatment. The other argument was the issue of affordability, as treatment was highly expensive and pharmaceutical companies were in no mood to lower their costs to benefit millions of people in need. Hence, we as delegations from the South (I happened to be a delegate from a South American country at the time) were asked not to push for the word “treatment” in the context of the agreed conclusions. The result was that no conclusions could be agreed at that time on the issue of women and HIV/AIDS.

8 years ago

I think “UN Women” here refers to the group or section of an organization, in which case it is a singular entity, and the use of “does” is ok.

Deb P
Deb P
8 years ago

Please, fix your title. It should be DO not does. I will share the article anyway.

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