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.
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.
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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.