An Argument for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Abstract of a red light
Abstract at a Red Light. James Loesch. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Different human rights groups support or have called for the decriminalization of sex work. Some of which include Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and Anti-Slavery International.

Picking on one, the Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in support and defense of human rights relating to personal autonomy and privacy as, “A government should not be telling consenting adults whom they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.” Joining 61 other organizations, they recently advocated for a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC. This Community Safety and Health Amendment Act intends to repeal statutes that criminalize adults who voluntarily and consensually engage in sexual exchange, while it upholds and defends the legislature which prohibits sex trafficking. The HRW affirms that adult consensual sexual activity may be covered by the concept of privacy, rejecting the idea that criminalization was a protective measure against HIV and STIs, and conveying that it was more likely to drive a vulnerable population underground.

However, the demands of these organizations and supporters of sex workers have surfaced controversy around sexuality, health, economics, and morality. Often the idea of sex work may be tied to or conflated with sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and rape. Open Society Foundation simply defines sex workers as “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work encompasses a wide range of professions and activities which include the trade of some form of sexual activity, performance, or service for a client to a number of fans for some kind of payment (including prostitution, pornography, stripping, and other forms of commercial sex). It is clearly separated from those services that utilize “the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation”. Decriminalizing sex work would call for the “removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ health and safety.” Amnesty International expands on these definitions in this report.

Many members of society view sex work as immoral or degrading to women, arguing that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, even if these workers find it profitable or empowering- even simply as the power to creatively express one’s sexuality. When we think of sex workers, we tend to assume they were forced into it or assume a desperate narrative with no other options. Then, maybe, we judge their appearance while tying it to their worth or a fantasized idea of sex workers opposed to the ordinariness we associate with other professions and community members. A simple argument says that, like any profession, there are extremely different motivations to pursue these professions and, in the end, it’s a job or choice of work with its own pros and cons for each lifestyle (affording many lifestyles). Also, anyone and any personality can be a sex worker.

People enter and remain in this work for a multitude of reasons creating each individual experience of sex work; however, many face the same response and abuse in the workplace or trade. Owning to the stigma associated with the profession, not many can come out and say they are a sex worker. They must fight to be recognized beyond the stigma or continue to repress or hide their daily lives from their community or society. Sex workers report extreme violence and harassment from clients, managers, police and society and even more cannot report these violences, facing incrimination or even incarceration. Ironically, laws on sex work undermine governments’ own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations.

Repressive policing not only further marginalizes sex workers as a whole, but it also reinforces what it promises to remove as it exposes sex workers to different abuses and exploitation by police or law enforcement officials who may arrest, harass, physically or verbally abuse, extort bribes and sexual services, or deny protection to sex workers avoiding the eyes of the law. Some sex work may be illegal because it is viewed as immoral and degrading, but people governed by these laws do not share the same moral beliefs. As police fail to act on sex workers’ reports of crimes, or blame and arrest sex workers themselves, offenders may operate with impunity while sex workers are discouraged from reporting to the police in the future. Then there is the financial toll of criminalization as repeating fines or arrests push some further into poverty. People may be forced to keep selling sex as potential employers will not hire those with a criminal record. Also, if the need for money found some sex workers in the streets, how will fines deter the work?

The work entails forming relationships with a wide range of clients at different levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, sex work offers comfort to predators, or those who mean harm, who also understand and exploit the workers paralleling relationship with police. Working in isolation, workers’ lives are threatened as they avoid the police and are denied these protections in their workplace and, off the hook, predators continue to harm more even those outside of the sex trade. Facing arrest or prosecution themselves, any client may protect themselves from blocked numbers leaving workers in the dark with no evidence of whom they are dealing with, surrendering that safety. Some laws advocate helping sex workers by removing the option of work as it criminalizes only those who buy sex. Now, to incentivize clients and income, workers may be forced to drop prices, offer more risky services, or reach out to potentially abusive third-party management.

Woman holding poster reaing "Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces"
Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces. Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons for Flckr.

Decriminalizing and regulating the work of sex workers would allow them the right to choose their clients and negotiating power or power to cease the service when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Criminalization, or the threat of it, complicates and weakens workers’ power to negotiate terms with their clients or collaborate with others for safety. So, for example, it may increase the chance for workers to engage in sex with clients without a condom (which may be used as evidence of the crime). Although variable in different contexts, in low and middle-income countries on average, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV, compared to women of reproductive age (age 15 to 49), so their ability to negotiate condom use is important.

According to a study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone, including clients and partners. They were also twice as likely to have Sexual Transmitted Infections than those who avoided repressive policing.

In order to be protected from exploitation by third party managers and dangerous clients, to be informed on sexual transmitted infection and other health concerns or vulnerabilities, to be able to unionize and self-manage, and to be able to reach out to law enforcement, sex work should be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations that benefit workers in other labor industries. Dedicated efforts must consider the elevated or unique risks, vulnerabilities, and intersectional stigmas surrounding different sex workers, including men, transgender, and other gender identities and portions to improve health outcomes and human rights. Wider political actions are needed to address inequalities, stigma, and exclusion or marginalization that sex workers face even past the criminal justice system to health, housing, employment, education, domestic abuses, etc.

We are faced with opposing or contradictory narratives of the sex work experience, but we have chosen some to represent the entire concept especially those tailored to our own feelings of sex and commerce without concern or consideration of those even more immediately affected. The conversation of sex work needs to open up to understand and share the message to all that the labor itself is the commodity, not the laborer and it requires workers more considerate rights and regulations. If sex work is legally accepted with due rights and respect, it can become something that benefits- even especially vulnerable or marginalized- women and humanity.

What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.”

Additional Sources:

Open Society Foundations

Vox

 

 

 

What Will It Take to End Child Marriage in Your Country?

by Grace Ndanu

The silhouette of a young girl with her head hanging low in her lap
Source: Pixabay

Justice is coming! As I continue growing old I keep asking myself, why child marriage? Is it really necessary? And if not, what do I or we have to do about it? I understand that child marriage is a result of male dominance at large. I think it’s best if we bring men on board first. Working with men can be very effective in reducing child marriage if not ending it. It will help to change ideas and behaviors, especially dealing with patriarchal attitudes. Once men are on board, they can use their influence to pave the way for positive change.

Adults have groups where they get to share what they are going through. Children also need safe spaces in schools. This will help them build their confidence and trust amongst themselves and also with their teachers. I’m sure there are girls who wouldn’t have gone through early marriage if they had a chance to escape. But they didn’t. Simply they didn’t have anyone to tell regarding what their parents were planning for them. This is why they need that space, it’s the window to their success.

Corruption has deep roots in my country, Kenya. For example, I would like to know where funds meant for educating less fortunate girls go. Culture is not the only reason for early marriage, but also poverty. There are girls who sacrifice themselves to go get married in an effort to reduce a burden on their parents. It has come to my notice that the leaders or people responsible for the education funds tend to accuse these girls of bad behaviour, but they are trying their level best to do what is right. Can’t the funds holders use the funds to educate the girls instead of them using the funds for their own benefits?

Not all problems are solved through fighting. Why shouldn’t we mingle? As they explain why early marriage we have a chance to convince them how early marriage is harmful and the advantages of not doing it. At some point there will be some girls listening, them knowing the advantages of not being married off, they will always want to go for their success and thus they will always report whatever harmful plan is made for them.

I don’t know who is with me! I consider myself as the second doubting Thomas. If am not sure of what am told I will ask for a success story if not stories. The girls who escaped the scandal of early marriage should be advised to go back to their communities and villages. The parents will be so proud until they will shout for the whole community to hear and come and see. Other parents would want their daughters to come home successful and hence they may change their attitudes towards early marriage. On the other hand there will be role models for little girls and the whole society.

Barriers to the Mental Health Care of Sex Trafficked Victims.

A woman with her eyes closed and hands on her cheeks
Source: Mental Health, Yahoo Images

This blog uses direct quotes from survivors that may be explicit for some readers.

What is Sex Trafficking?

The U.S. Department of State defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, provision, or the obtaining of a person for a commercial sex act. The commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, where the survivors are pushed to perform such acts while under 18 years of age”. Sexual trafficking relies heavily on the control of the victim’s vulnerability. According to the Trafficking Hotline, about 10,949 cases of human trafficking were reported in the year 2018 alone. Among those cases, 7,859 account for sex trafficking (approximately 71.78%). Those who are survivors of human trafficking report experiencing severe cases of abuse and extortion sex practices. As a result, these individuals’ lives are continuously exposed to physical and sexual trauma.

So how does sex trafficking occur? After individuals are lured by their traffickers, victims are absorbed into the underground and uncontrolled sectors of the economy where wage, health, and safety law violations routinely happen. In these sectors, individuals are hooked into prostitution, pornography, and other forms of the commercial sex industry. Those who have survived human trafficking explain how hard it is to escape the trafficker. For example, in an interview with Kristina Kuzmic, Oree describes her experiences as a victim of human trafficking,

Warning Explicit Content.

And he grabbed me by my hair and drugged me down the street. My knees was scraping the floor. There was other women out there, nobody did anything. When you have been forced to sleep with 7 to 15 men and be raped and be 11 years old, I was like slowly dying. And after the first night, you suppress those feelings because any inch of hope that you have, any sense of “I can get out,” any feeling of “There’s a God,” any feeling of “I don’t deserve this,” you get beat, You ain’t going to survive out there. By the time I was 12 years old within a year, I was already raped over 4,000 times.”

In Oree’s case, she explains that she was not able to get away from her trafficker until a man named Jim Carson came to her rescue when she was 14 years old. In her interview, Oree emphasizes, “It was never a choice. It’s not a choice for these kids…they are children whose dreams and innocence was stolen and snatched from them.” Regardless of the form of their exploitation, trafficked victims suffer extreme abuse that often results in physical and mental trauma.

Traffickers use various means, such as pregnancy, to coerce trafficked victims, This ensures that the individual is emotionally bound and remains dependent on the trafficker to meet her own and her child’s needs. In an interview, Rebecca Bender, another survivor of sex trafficking narrates her experiences as follows,

“When you have a trafficker that’s at home with your child and says, if you don’t bring home $1500, you’re going to find your daughter out on the corner. I think I was probably more frightened to go home than I was to be in the room because if you got robbed, it was your fault for being stupid. If you get raped, it was your fault for not watching your back. Anything that happened to you was typically your fault, and you incurred more punishment for allowing these things to happen.”

Trafficked victims, like Bender, often blame themselves for their situation, therefore making it even harder for them to escape their traffickers. Some other reasons victims find it hard to leave include:

  1. Threats of violence against the victim’s family and loved ones.
  2. Traffickers requiring their victims to repay all debt (real or not real) before they can be liberated.
  3. Traffickers manipulate victims to believe they love them.
  4. Victims may be unfamiliar with the language of the country they are in and often do not know how to get around.

Sex Trafficking and Mental Health.

Prolonged captivity has been found to cause psychological trauma and contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is because traffickers instill psychological trauma through terror, helplessness, and continuous destruction of the victim’s self-esteem. Constant death threats and physical abuse, followed by inconsistent and unpredictable outbursts of violence, results in significant mental health consequences for trafficked victims. For PTSD, symptoms either present themselves within the first three months after a traumatic event or can go for months to years without showing any symptoms, making it harder to detect and diagnose. In addition to PTSD, victims of human trafficking have been found to suffer from other anxiety and mood disorders, including panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. There is also an increased risk for the development of dissociative disorders.

Substance abuse disorder is also at the top of the list. While some victims of trafficking may report prior substance addictions, the majority of victims who reported alcohol and drug use said they began using drugs after they were in their trafficking situations. Other victims report being forced into drugs by their traffickers or using drugs as a coping mechanism.

Types of Treatment.

Understanding the effects of human trafficking on the mental health of victims requires long-term comprehensive therapy. Some of the evidence-based treatment options for PTSD include:

  • Cognitive Therapy
    • Challenges dysfunctional thoughts based on irrational or illogical assumptions.
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
    • Combines cognitive therapy with behavioral interventions such as exposure therapy, thought breathing techniques.
  • Exposure Therapy
    • Aims to reduce anxiety and fear through the confrontation of thoughts or actual situations related to the trauma.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
    • Combines general clinical practice with brief imaginal exposure where a client is asked to imagine feared images or situations, and cognitive restoration. Rapid eye movement may be induced.
  • Stress Inoculation Training
    • Combines psycho-education with anxiety management techniques such as relaxation training, breathing retraining, and thought stopping.

Barriers to Treatment.

Language barriers and transportation issues may hinder adequate treatment. Service providers express that clients who speak other languages have difficulty receiving care or even seeking care. More importantly, transportation barriers may result in missing appointments, which interferes with treatment. When looking at language, culture also plays a role. Just because someone speaks the same language as the victim, does not necessarily mean that services offered will be culturally appropriate. While speaking the same language as clients can help with service provision, other pieces of one’s culture are often overlooked. For example, some cultures may require that women only see women providers, and therefore it becomes difficult when the only provider available is male. In addition, some victims may also fear talking about their experiences because of fear of stigma and shame. Traumatic events may also affect the memories and may negatively influence the individual’s ability to recall events. Lastly, longer wait times for psychotherapy and funding cuts continue to be a challenge to both mental healthcare professionals and patients.

How Can Treatment be Improved?

I believe it is important to offer trafficking-specific training to professionals. This will help increase awareness of trafficking as well as inform the staff of available resources. Acknowledging the gender of patients when writing out assessments is also important because it will lead to better practice by providing more treatment options for victims. There is also the need to examine both social and psychological factors when responding to mental health needs. This will help improve communication between services as well as offer more insight into what type of treatment one should receive. Furthermore, there is a need for more research to help explore the ways in which healthcare professionals identify victims and determine what kind of care one receives. This will allow for the generalization of mental health practices and procedures into other disciplines. While there is still plenty to improve, it is important to note that there is work being done to enhance the mental health care of trafficked individuals.

The information above does not fully cover what victims of human trafficking experience before, during, and after they escape their traffickers. If you see something suspicious, call the Blue Campaign with your tip and be sure to include the car tag and vehicle description.

Call: 1-866-347-2423

Rape Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

Trafficking Hotline: 1-800-373-7888

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

The Sex Trafficking Industry Right In Alabama

by Dianna Bai

a picture of hands in chains
Source: Public Domain

You may have heard of the tragic situation straddling the I-20 corridor, the stretch of highway that runs between Birmingham and Atlanta.

Known as the “sex trafficking super highway,” the I-20 corridor is a hotbed for human trafficking.

The intimate settings of this illegal trade? Familiar places in our backyard: the hotels on Oxmoor Road, Woodlawn, Bessemer, and establishments all over the city of Birmingham.

Yet sex trafficking is not just confined to the I-20 corridor, as many media reports would suggest. It’s spread throughout the state of Alabama, in large cities and rural areas alike, appearing in myriad variations. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 6000 victims of human trafficking each day in Alabama, which includes labor and sex trafficking.

As a $32 billion industry, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world after the illicit drug trade—and it’s the fastest-growing. It’s the modern-day slave trade flourishing under the radar.

In the idyllic foothills of Alabama, we are touched by dark and complex operations with global reverberations.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking in Alabama?

Sex traffickers prey on the vulnerable, such as people who come from poverty or broken families.

According to The WellHouse, a non-profit organization that shelters young women in Alabama who have been victims of sex trafficking, there is a common “model” of a victim human traffickers prey on.

She is often a 12-14-year-old girl who has already been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. An emotionally vulnerable young woman, she is lured in by the promises of comfort, love, and acceptance that an older man offers her.

He will later become her captor.

One example provided by Carolyn Potter, the executive director of The WellHouse, offers us a glimpse into the world of the girls who become victims of traffickers:

“There was a victim who had been abused by her stepfather—and her mother blamed her. Her captor started luring her in and buying her Hello Kitty items. She loved this. Nobody who was supposed to protect her protected her.”

Sex traffickers often prey on girls who have been abused by the people who love them. The accumulated trauma and experiences of abuse that these girls have been subjected to in their young lives gives rise to a sense of apathy and hopelessness.

So when their captors, who had been lavishing them with gifts and attention, start asking them to sell their bodies, their reaction is often, “Why not? This has been happening to me all my life.”

To numb the pain of repeated abuse, they may turn to drugs provided by the captors and become addicted. Traffickers then have a way to keep them from leaving.

A few might escape this life by her own efforts, but more often than not they escape through rescue operations carried out by law enforcement. In January of this year, the Well House participated in a sting operation led by the FBI during the Atlanta Super Bowl that rescued 18 girls and led to 169 arrests.

Once rescued, one of the most important steps to helping victims is simply the process of gaining their trust, as most victims who have been trapped in this life suffer from complex trauma. “Their level of PTSD is equal to someone who’s been in war,” Potter said.

What does the sex trafficking industry look like in Alabama?

As a criminal activity, sex trafficking in Alabama can take on many forms.  

“Alabama is a microcosm of human trafficking around the world,” said Christian Lim, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama who is heading up a federally funded project on the subject. “There is just about every type of human trafficking in Alabama.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are individual pimps conducting a small-time business. They might even be family members who are pimping out their children for rent or drug money—and these cases often go unreported because of the family connection. On the other end, there are the massage parlors that are the fronts for international criminal networks, laundering money and trafficking women from places as far as China and Korea. These massage parlors routinely bring in $500,000-$800,000 a year, operating late into the night and advertising online at dozens of websites selling sex.

Sex trafficking has also risen in recent years among street gangs in Alabama with ties to Georgia, Florida, and even the West Coast, according to Teresa Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Street gangs such as the Bloods, Simon City Royals, Latin Kings, and Surenos are known to be engaging in sex trafficking to make a profit alongside the illegal drug trade. Recruiting mostly young victims, traffickers use “bottom girls” – prostitutes who are trusted by the pimps – to identify and recruit new girls, as well as a bevy of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, KIK, Meet Me, Badoo, and Seeking Arrangement. Gangs like the Surenos, which have a powerful reach back to El Salvador, can even coerce the women by threatening their families back home.

In many cases, other criminal activities such as drug dealing, money laundering, and murder also surround sex trafficking operations.

What’s being done about sex trafficking in Alabama?

One reason Alabama attracts traffickers of all stripes is because it is easier to get away with the crime than other states like Georgia that have a tactical task force dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Also playing to the trafficker’s advantage is the fact that Alabama is mostly a rural state with greater distances between police stations and fewer resources for law enforcement, said Lim, the professor of social work at the University of Alabama. He also said there’s needs to be more awareness raised about this issue as many misconceptions exist about sex trafficking due to the popular media’s portrayal of sex trafficking in movies like “Taken.”

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating an array of cases in Alabama and prosecuting cases at both the state and federal level. “We have made human trafficking arrests at every socioeconomic level in Birmingham, from Mountain Brook to $35-a-night hotel rooms,” said Doug Gilmer, the agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Birmingham office. “Trafficking victims also run the spectrum, with girls ranging from age 12 to the 50s.”

DHS has also provided training to 1500 Alabama law enforcement officers to combat sex trafficking in the state and offers education to any community group that’s interested. These trainings focus on how to how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, how to respond to a call, and how to support the victims.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Police have jumpstarted special initiatives to combat sex trafficking in Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Police worked with Illinois’ Cooke County police three years ago in a “National Day of Johns” sting, specifically targeting the “demand” side of the industry. Officers placed fictitious ads for sex services on various sites, which led to the arrest of 135 Johns over 16 days.

But it’s a cat-and-mouse game as traffickers find new ways to advertise sex services, moving from online ads to alternatives like secret Facebook groups. Undercover agents are seeking out these secret online groups to find traffickers and victims as traffickers learn from past mistakes and become savvier at using the digital tools at their disposal. A popular website hosted in the United States, backpage.com, was shut down by the FBI several years ago, yet has created new challenges for law enforcement as dozens of newer and smaller sites have now popped up hosted by foreign servers that are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Alabama’s state legislature is also moving on this issue. They have recently passed three resolutions that would require training for truckers and healthcare workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and make it easier for the trucker to identify victims. Two other bills moving through the legislature are intended to fine and “shame” johns for soliciting sex services.

“There should be no politics when it comes to protecting our children,” State Representative Merika Coleman told AL.com.

Right in Our Backyard

It is revealing and disheartening to see the extent of the modern-day slave trade right here in our backyard in Alabama. Without the right consciousness, it may be invisible to the average person. You may see a scantily dressed young woman walking through a gas station, a Sonic, or a Walmart. She is always accompanied by someone. She looks depressed or hopeless… You may have just run into a victim of human trafficking.

Vulnerable women (and men) and children are being exploited over and over again for the profit of more powerful and unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations. The traffickers could be anyone, but what they have in common is a disturbing disregard for human life and human dignity. In Alabama, there are many dedicated agencies fighting for the human rights of these victims, including The WellHouse, Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, Alabama Fusion Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For DHS agent Doug Gilmer, there is a sense of urgency to his mission because it is a crime that’s “unspeakable.”

“When you get into the nitty-gritty of sex trafficking at the street level and you are interacting with the victims, seeing what they go through, seeing what the traffickers do…. It’s horrible,” Gilmer said. “Seeing a 14-year-old girl with eight different STDs and the 35-year-old man who purchases this girl for sex?”

“It shocks the conscience.”

Important Links

The WellHouse – A 24-hour shelter offering immediate assistance to trafficked women who are rescued from anywhere in the United States.

EnditAlabama.org – A project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together public and private agencies to address the issue in Alabama.

Alabama Fusion Center – An information-sharing organization within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency designed to combine or “fuse” information between federal, state and local government, private sector entities, and the intelligence community

Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” – A national public awareness campaign, designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Book Review: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

February is Black History Month. For the next few posts, I will review books by Black women who provide insight into the Black experience.

a photo of the book Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
Source: Ajanet Rountree

Zora Neale Hurston (ZNH) was a cultural anthropologist. With her very being, Hurston occupied a space of protest of the normative within the field of anthropology as she traversed through society and academia as a Black woman from the South. The intersectionality of her life may remain lost on some; however, it is essential to understanding her as an ethnographer, folklorist, and local colorist. She studied under Franz Boas alongside Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, but there is often an exclusion of her work. When listing the cohort of the generations of anthropologists or ethnographers, ZNH is often not among those listed, as the categories for her work are The Harlem Renaissance, folklore, or African American literature. To Boas, ZNH was an anthropologist who, through the application of anthropological methods and techniques, gave insight into Black life in a way no White person could do. In this way, she achieves “racial vindication” and qualitative results through the application of anthropological methods like observation and participation, unstructured interviews, and ethnographic data collection.

Barracoon is the oral history of Cudjo Lewis—or Oluale Kossola–the only living African “cargo” of the slave ship, Clotilda. Kossola was not born into enslavement. He was sold and captured from Dahomey (presently Benin) and brought to Mobile Bay in Alabama. His testimony offers a completely new perspective and firsthand account of colonization. Hurston first reveals insight into her reflexive research on Kossola’s life and story in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. “One thing impressed me strongly…The white people had held my people in slavery here in America. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on. It was a sobering thought” (164-8). Employing her trademark of writing phonetically, ZNH allows Kossola to tell his story in his language and style, rarely interrupting his stream of consciousness. This methodology would later become known as emic ethnography. Spending three months in one-on-one interviews solely with Kossola, a Yoruba by birth and a resident of Affriky town, she learns about his life in Africa, his survival of the Middle Passage and enslavement, and his life as a ‘free’ man.

Oluale Kossola was a man to many, but to others, he was an exploit of their contrabanded flesh: “’the black ivory,’ ‘the coin of Africa,’ had no market value.” He and the other enslaved were “Africa’s ambassadors to the New World,” sold as “brisk trade” by the King of Dahomey (5-9). Although she refers to him by his American name, Cudjo, throughout the book, ZNH makes a point to state that upon her initial reunification with him, “I hailed him by his African name as I walked up to the steps of his porch.” As his eyes filled with joyful tears, he exclaimed,

Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil” (17).

By the time ZNH sits down with Cudjo, he is the only one left and finds himself surprised and moved that someone would want to learn about his life. Hurston writes that she told him that she wanted to know all about him, to which he responded:

“Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in the Afficky soil some day and callee my name and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’ I want you everywhere you go to tell everybody whut Cudjo say, and how come I in Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. I can’t talkee plain, you unnerstand me, but I calls it word by word for you so it won’t be too crooked for you. My name, is not Cudjo Lewis. It Kossula. When I gittee in Americky soil, Mr. Jim Meaher he try callee my name, but it too long, you unnerstand me, so I say, ‘Well, I yo’ property?’ He say, ‘Yeah.’ Den I say, ‘You callee me Cudjo. Dat do.’ But in Affricky soil my mama she name me Kossula” (19-20).

a photo of a barracoon
barracoon. Source: Creative Commons

Kossola’s narrative differs from the account of Olaudah Equiano and the former slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington. Additionally, it is unlike the ethnographic work of Eatonville, Florida as written about in Mules and Men and her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Scholars Natalie S. Robertson and Sylviane A. Diouf provide extensive supportive evidence about the 1927-28 anthropological research of ZNH, the Clotilda and the establishment of Africa town in Alabama in their respective books, The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, USA and Dreams of Africa in Alabama. Although both books preceded Barracoon’s 2018 publication, they build upon the foundation laid and the way paved for by ZNH, even mentioning current residents of Africatown who met her during the visit. Robertson accurately identifies Kossula as a griot or native African storyteller, trusted to keep and share the stories of tribes over generations. There is “genius that is contained in oral tradition as chroniclers of phenomena and as vehicles for education in Africa…without dependency on written records. Because Cudjo hailed from West Africans who are masters of the spoken word, it was not difficult for him, even as a nonagenarian, to recall the circumstances that led to his capture and forced migration to Alabama” (9). As Diouf points out, slave and former slave narratives reveal what life was like during and after enslavement but the narrative of Clotilda survivors like Kossola “represents a unique group of people who grew up free, spent the majority of their years in bondage during the Civil War, and soon became free again.” Their perspectives also reveal the parts of African culture that adapted, sustained them and continued to unify them (4).

In her signature way, ZNH accomplishes several things with this book. First, she continually restores the humanity that enslavement and separation from Africa stripped away. With the one action of calling him by his African name, she imparted both his personal and cultural identity. By transcribing his narrative in his dialect, she maintains his character and dignity. Second, she allows Kossula to tell his story. Oral history and narrations are cultural and personal heritage. Kossula was the last survivor of the Clotilda; therefore, if ZNH had not traveled to Africatown when she did, this one-of-a-kind perspective might not have been told. Third, she does not gloss over or shy away from the brutality of colonization and the dehumanization that comes with the financial trading of human beings and comes to identify with him. As echoed in Dust Tracks, “Truth is a letter from courage” (31). Regardless of her role as an anthropologist and observer, she finds herself drawn in and experiencing his pain, tragedy, and joy. It is for these reasons that Boas concluded that the work of ZNH contributed to the “knowledge of the true inner life of the Negro” because she was not only a student of history but could “enter into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted” (xiii-xiv).

Hurston could have selected any group of people to study, anywhere in the U.S. or world, yet, she chose to return home and study the people she knew and the town she loved. In doing this, ZNH gave value and voice to the “inferior”—people who shared the same skin color and occupied the same category of within the social construction. She reflexively offers a distinct perspective on Blackness because she was Black and studied Black people to know herself more and to debunk the myths and stereotypes about who Black people were, how they arrived here, how they live and continue to live.

 

Additional resources include African American Pioneers in Anthropology and The History of White People

The Importance of Art in Human Rights

How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin. June 30, 1917

The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.

“All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, March 9, 1969

The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.

“The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerrilla Girls, 26 Feb 2016

The Guerilla Girls are feminist activist group comprised of more than 55 artists. They describe themselves by saying: “We wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” This group of activist artists started in 1985 and, by the early-21st century, have expanded their awareness into the media world, namely the film industry. “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” brings awareness to the racism and sexism in the film industry by portraying a white male holding his genitals with text boxes demonstrating the percentage of people of color that have won Oscars in the past 86 years. The Guerilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood a few months leading up to 2016 Oscars, noting, “the people we want to reach will see it…There is so much positive press around the Oscars – the gowns, the stars – that we decided it was time for another point of view.

“Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman

Molly Gochman’s “Red Sand Project” is a worldwide instillation that takes a hands-on approach of bringing awareness to human trafficking. This project encourages all communities to pour red sand into cracks on sidewalks to recognize the overlooked populations (refugees, immigrants, girls, and others) that are at risk of slavery and exploitation. “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities — those who fall through the metaphoric cracks”, explains Molly Gochman. This informative, and largely interactive, work of art takes simple, yet powerful, gestures and to bring worldwide awareness through photography and social media. It is an ongoing project, raising action for those who are overlooked and vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, 2011

In 2011, various outbursts of popular protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, causing a revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. Staring from Tunisia and later spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, people were rising against their oppressive leaders. As the protests grew larger they were met with violent responses from authorities. One of the striking things that came out of this short period was the growth in street art, graffiti, and calligraphy. “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, located in Cairo, Egypt, is a great example of protest of oppression. This graffiti is part of an instillation called “Thousand Times No” which Shehab explains, “represents a rejection of both the conformity and the repression that often stifle the Arabic speaking region and Islamic cultures.” The text above the Blue Bra is saying “no stripping the people” and the sole of the military boot reads “long live a peaceful revolution”, calling the incident of a veiled girl who was stripped and beaten by police on December 18, 2011, and happened to be wearing a blue bra. In another location, Sheab installed a calligraphic graffiti which is an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda’s quote, “you may crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring”.

“America” by Touba Alipour, 2017

Touba Alipour’s “America” is a mixed media artwork, curated by gallery director and artist Indria Cesarine, placed in The Untitled Space gallery’s “ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE” exhibition in January 2017, shortly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. This exhibition, which included over 80 artists, addressed and protested policies that challenged human rights in our society such as immigration rights, health care, reproductive rights, climate change, transgender rights, white supremacy, gender equality, gun control, sexual harassment and many others. Among these artists, Touba Alipour addressed the travel bans placed by Trump which prevented people from six Muslim countries to enter the United States. “Being from Iran, it definitely affected me in different ways”, mentions Alipour, “I’ve seen families being torn apart, and they had green cards, they were living here, they just went to travel, and when they came back they were told they can no longer enter the country”.

Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.

Orphan Fever: The Dark Side of International Adoption 

Adopting a child from a country foreign different from your own is a complicated and controversial practice. If done correctly, you have saved a parentless child from a life of probable poverty and despair. If done incorrectly, you have either aided organizations who coerce parents into giving their children up or even facilitated child abuse, if the individual institution is unethically managed. Even if the adoption is conducted using appropriate channels and oversight, the adopting families are not always well intentioned.

International adoption peaked in 2004 and has been declining ever since, in part because of increasing restrictions fueled by incidents of violence. The problems that surround international adoption are complex and deeply intertwined with a variety of factors. Race, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, and global inequality together form the sticky, problematic web of international adoption.

Two children stand in a circular entrance to a tunnel holding hands.
“Tomorrow and the Next Day and the Day After That.” Source: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons. 

“Orphan Fever”

At the peak of international adoption in the United States nearly fifteen years ago, much of the hype was driven by religious organizations. Adoption became a primary social welfare issue in the early 2000s after American Evangelicals began to champion the issue. This is not to be taken as an explicitly negative phenomenon; some religious organizations are instrumental in protecting human rights violations for international orphans. Many individuals who adopted in the name of their religion have vibrant, happily integrated families. However, religiosity does provides a cover of moral legitimacy that often discourages scrutiny of organizations or individuals.

Adoption agencies are not legally required to be accredited, and many faith-based agencies are not. Only 303 organizations are accredited per international standards of the roughly 3,000 agencies that perform adoption services in the United States. Central to this issue is the white-savior industrial complex, a term coined by notable author and activist Teju Cole. Cole explains that white people (often Americans) tend to view less developed regions but most specifically Africa as “a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.” Families sometimes adopt international children with perverse motivations of piety and applause. Children are stripped of their culture and forced to adapt to Western norms overnight, and face dire consequences when they cannot conform. Individuals have relayed being severely disciplined for hesitating to eat unfamiliar foods, not adapting to American norms for eye contact quickly enough, and for speaking their own languages. This is a direct violation of the human right to culture. Internationally adopted children have the right to fully experience their birth culture for the sake of human dignity and the preservation of that child’s identity.

Adoption Facts and Flaws

The majority of international adoptees (71%) in the United States from the last twenty years have come from one of five countries: China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea, or Ethiopia. All five of these countries have increased restrictions on foreign adoption, accounting for 88% of the decline since 2004 (Source: Pew Research Center). The restrictions come on the heels of majorly publicized cases of abuse and/or deaths of international adoptees.

Abuse and deaths in intercountry adoptive families are common. Numerous appalling incidents involving the misfortune of adopted children have circulated in the media in the past few years. International adoption is a tricky subject. Exploitation can occur on a number of levels, as the adoption process includes a variety of actors. The adopting families, the adoption agency, and the source institution can all be separately complicit in unethical behavior. To amplify corruption, there is little to no legislation to identify or prosecute exploitation on any level. “Sending countries” or the countries which children are most frequently adopted from, have had to become increasingly strict on foreign adoption policies. This is one of the most critical issues – the sending countries, who are most often relatively disadvantaged compared to receiving countries, carry the burden to make major policy reform in order to protect their children from exploitation. International policy on intercountry adoption is scarce, vague, and often unenforced.

Policy Issues

While the international adoption system contains many flaws, the most identifiable fundamental issue is lack of oversight and policy. Adoptions are most often conducted through private, individual agencies who each have different standards of what the adoption process should look like. These private agencies operate without much restriction placed on their activity. It seems unacceptable to permit adoption to occur through non-accredited agencies, yet that is the current norm. Lack of accreditation creates a wider pathway for unethical behavior. The market for adopting children is huge and incredibly lucrative, as it is full of wealthy potential adoptive families. The desperation for many families to find and adopt a child can often generate more demand than the current supply of available children can sustain; this eventually leads to gaps in supply being filled by non-orphaned children who were either stolen, coerced through misinformation, or otherwise manipulated into leaving their families.

Three boys stare up at the camera, smiling.
“Curious Children at an Orphanage, Mumbai.” Source: Tobias Leeger, Creative Commons.

Internationally-Adopted Victims of Child Abuse

One of the most recent and infamous cases was that of Sherin Mathews, a three year old girl from India who had developmental disabilities. Sherin died in October of last year from allegedly choking on milk that she was being forced to drink, though her adoptive father has made various claims about the circumstances of her death. The three year old was missing for a period of time but was found in a culvert. The international community was in an uproar after this crime came to light, and India quickly adopted legislation to reduce foreign adoption.

Ethiopia made similar measures last month following similar stories of abuse, though this act still surprised many, as the country has been well known for their high frequency of international adoption. Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died at age thirteen from exposure after being forced to stay outside for hours as punishment. Hana was adopted by Carri and Larry Williams in 2008, but was quickly subjected to torturous conditions after Carri became dissatisfied with Hana’s maturity. Carri reportedly said, “I expected to adopt a little girl, not a half-grown woman,” as Hana began to menstruate shortly after arriving in the United States. The Williamses forced Hana to stay in a closet for upwards of ten hours at a time and required Hana to use an outdoor portable toilet, while the Williamses’ biological children were never subject to such misery. The night that Hana died, the entire Williams family spectavted and allegedly laughed as she staggered around naked for several hours in the cold, rainy backyard.

Two victims who survived their abuse are Guatemalan adoptee Carolina and Russian-born Leonid, who together endured years of physical and psychological torture from Kathleen and Martin O’Brian. The O’Brians were originally charged in 2012 of abusing their adopted children, including allegations of “locking them in a room with no bathroom, forcing them to kneel naked on sharp rocks and stand in a feces covered dog pen, and withholding food from them.” Both Carolina and Leonid have been happily adopted by different families after both Kathleen and Martin were found guilty, but will likely always retain the emotional and physical scars from the hellish O’Brian family. Russia banned foreign adoption the same year that the O’Brians were charged, as nineteen Russian children have died at the hands of foreign adoptive parents in the past twenty years. Stories of child abuse inflicted upon international adoptees are depressingly frequent. It is imperative to identify which flaws in the system are to blame for these horrible crimes, and how change can be enacted to prevent future suffering.

A man, face turned away from the camera, holds a sleeping baby.
“Air Force family adopts child from Ukraine.” Source: Dvidshub, Creative Commons.

Re-Homing

Despite the seemingly endless desperation to adopt, it is surprisingly easy to exchange children online with no legal intervention or monetary exchange. Re-homing communities exist in niches of the Internet, where families with adopted children post advertisements to give their “troublesome” children away. Reuters gave a detailed investigation of this practice in 2013, recounting several personal narratives of individuals who have either taken part in rehoming children, been re-homed themselves, or otherwise interacted with the re-homing community. Laws vary by state and have become more common since Reuter’s report incited brief public interest, but many states still only require the signature of a legal guardian to transfer custody to another adult. The exchange can occur privately without notifying any government officials, which creates a dangerous avenue for predators to easily obtain vulnerable children from desperate parents. Within Reuter’s report, multiple detailed accounts were given of children who were re-homed with individuals with documented pasts of abusing children physically, sexually, and emotionally. This occurred because the original adoptive parents did not thoroughly vet the family who was taking their child, a common experience among re-homing communities. One mother stated of her twelve year old adopted daughter, “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate.”

Re-homing perseveres despite ethical quandaries due to the imminent need for post-adoption support for adoptive parents. Most agencies provide little to no support after the adoption process has been finalized, despite the difficulties that many families have in acclimating to the change. Reuters found that 70% of the children being re-homed were of international origin, and many of those children had behavioral problems indicative of some form of trauma or disability.

Several young orphans in matching uniforms stand in a grassy area, holding some types of tools.
“Orphanage.” Source: Clay Junell, Creative Commons.

The Path Ahead: Hope and Reform

The dark side of international adoption is one shrouded in mystery and corruption. Vulnerable children all over the world are being victimized on all levels within the process of adoption. Abuse can occur at the hands of adoptive parents, in re-homing families, by private non-accredited agencies, and within local orphanages. Considering that these children are already incredibly vulnerable (as many are already impacted by compound discrimination of race, disability, and class), this systematic abuse is particularly heinous. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child fully secures and protects all human rights of children, and specifically requires that “the system of adoption shall ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.” Shockingly, the United States is the only UN member nation who has not yet ratified the CRC. This is a blatant failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our population. America cannot remain complicit in such an exploitative system; it is truly reprehensible that our country is so heavily engaged in the adoption of vulnerable foreign children yet refuses to protect them. This is a failure for the global community as well — international community has accepted a flawed adoption system for far too long. Both domestic and international policy reform are essential to preserving and promoting the human rights and dignity of children.

Moving Beyond ‘Victim’

The normative value of universal human rights is constantly scrutinized both within the academy and in the field alike, as has been previously featured on the Institute for Human Rights Blog. Universal human rights, codified in international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, are writ large by a group of representatives operating at the international level and are ideally enjoyed by everyday citizens on the societal level. Human rights are both universally created and culturally applied. Problems arise when specific, codified human rights directly contradict cultural norms of a particular society. Examples of this contradiction include female genital cutting, the right to return of refugees, and international tourism.  The underlying tension is this: how can the local / global communities reconcile cultural beliefs with universal norms? Can human rights activists and scholars find a third way- marrying the universal with the particular? To evolve the conversation surrounding these issues, this blog uses the incidence of human trafficking in Benin to illustrate the discursive dimension of human rights advocacy and to counter the notion that universal human rights are incompatible with culturally particularistic beliefs.

Picture of a harbor in Cotonou, Benin
Shubert Ciencia, Creative Commons

Benin & the US: Bound by Cotton

Benin, formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, is located in western Africa between Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, and Togo. Benin’s capital is Porto-Novo, official language is French, and has a population of almost 10 million individuals. And finally, according to the United States’ annually published Trafficking in Persons Report (US TIP Report), Benin is grappling with a human trafficking crisis. According to the 2017 TIP-Report, vast numbers of Beninese girls and boys are:

“… subjected to domestic servitude or sex trafficking in Cotonou and across Benin’s southern corridor. Some families send children to wealthier families for educational or vocational opportunities, a practice called vidomegon; some of these children are subjected to domestic servitude.”

(Emphasis in original document)

However, before we may contextualize human trafficking trafficking in Benin, the political motivations of the TIP-Report must be unpacked.

Every year, the US compiles all available data on the incidence, prevalence, and efforts to combat human trafficking worldwide. This information is provided from policy analysts, field researchers, first-hand testimony, and a vast array of informants working with or for the US State Department (among other national agencies). Once this information is analyzed, the US labels each country a 1, 2, 2-Watchlist, or 3 Tier ranking. The lower a country’s rank, the more successful efforts a country is undertaking to prevent trafficking in general, protect trafficked persons, and prosecute traffickers. Once a country reaches the Tier 2-Watchlist (in some cases) or Tier 3 designation, the US has precedent to curtail or eliminate monetary aid and other diplomatic exchanges with the state. Danger occurs when political instrumentalism and lack of awareness of cultural beliefs thrust themselves into this ideally ‘objective’ designation process.

As an example of political gaming,  China receives low rankings, despite a sprawling human trafficking plight, to maintain polite integrity of US-China relations. In the case of Benin, ignorance of cultural mores and beliefs fundamentally redefine what trafficking is and looks like on the ground; this fact is not internalized by the US State Department. Hence, Benin’s designation of Tier 2-Watchlist.

This designation means the US believes Benin is making active strides to combat trafficking, but these efforts do not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking within the country as a whole. Massive structural issues complicate Benin’s anti-trafficking process, including: sweeping inequality, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, and a national economy unable to withstand price gauging from foreign actors. The last issue is particularly germane to the incidence of trafficking in Benin, as Howard (2012) explains:

“In Benin, cotton is the major cash crop. It accounts for around 5 per cent of the GDP and almost 40 per cent of the country’s export receipts… [I]t is a household industry and provides income for thousands of families… When prices are high, people benefit… [C]otton prices have been at record lows for over a decade, in large part due to illegal US subsidies.”

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

According to Oxfam, the US raised cotton subsidies, which decimated many economies in Western African dependent on cotton production from local farmers. Benin’s economy in particular is crippled; many rural and agrarian workers are unable to sell their cotton products at a fair cost. Therefore, they must turn to alternate means of income – in some cases, trafficking. This oft-unexplored antecedent of trafficking cases is the pressing economic demands of both the trafficked person and others (such as the trafficker, buyer of services, etc.) involved in the process (Bales, 2012). Here is the paradox: the US classifies Benin a Tier 2-Watchlist country on the TIP-Report (a supposed human rights-promoting mechanism) when US economic policy vampirically saps Beninese resources, thereby increasing the occurrence of trafficking in the Beninese state. The US indirectly causes trafficking in Benin and simultaneously uses diplomatic pressure to punish Benin for its trafficking “problem”. So what does this disingenuous relationship look like to human rights activists in Benin and the populations they wish to serve?

Politics in Trafficking Discourse

In his ethnographic portrayal of the lives of working Beninese adolescents, Howard (2012) explores the motivations and incentives of young Beninese persons attempting to make a livelihood for both themselves and their families. He interviews young men who often work in gravel pits in western Nigeria and young women who opt to work for families in major coastal cities within Benin itself. According to Howard’s interviews with anti-trafficking NGO workers, two concerning issues surround the designation of these young men and women as ‘trafficked persons’:

  1. The young men and women seeking employment are underage. International law decrees childhood ends and legal consent begins (for most individuals) at age 18. In Benin, societal tradition prepares adolescents for work before age 18, and many adolescents (highly aware of their dire economic need) opt to work to support themselves their families. Due to these definitional inconsistencies, one persons trafficking survivor is another’s entrepreneur.
  2. Many of these young men and women do not consider themselves as trafficked persons, despite using 3rd-party cooperation to cross borders to find work. Here is a conversation that exemplifies this issue:

 

(Howard): Have some of you ever been away to do holiday work?

(Young Man): Yes, every single one of us! This is what allows us to continue at school! You can go to Nigeria or Savé and earn 30,000 or 40,000 FCFA in a summer!

(Howard): Do NGOs, white people or the government come here and say that’s bad?

(Young Man): Yes, loads.

(Howard): Why?

(Young Man): Because they can see that it can be hard, but they offer us no alternative.

(Emphasis added; Howard, 2012)

The young man in this exchange, in addition to others interviews by Howard (2012), expresses frustration the Beninese government cannot aid employable citizens to find livable wages and jobs in their home communities. These individuals now must make long and arduous journeys to find work to sustain themselves and their families. This complicates the ‘victim-mentality’ all too common of anti-trafficking efforts; in many cases, anti-trafficking NGO’s see trafficked persons in need of ‘rescue’. However, via testimony from these so-called ‘trafficked persons’, these Beninese adolescents are exercising agency and ingenuity to pursue economic stability. They are not ‘victims’ of trafficking; they are victims of structural violence, in part propagated by the US government. In one fell swoop, the US government not only crippled the Beninese economy but also victimizes many Beninese workers through human rights discourse. What does the discursive process mean for human rights research and advocacy?

Notes on top of the written text of Michel Foucault
James Shelley, Creative Commons

Discourse, in a Foucault-ian sense, describes the process of transferring one’s worldview to another via communication (Howard, 2012). When we engage in dialogue, we construct a momentary reality for the person with whom we are engaged. They do the same. These conversations are laden with our worldview, power (a)symmetries, and culture; each of us brings these elements to the table. Therefore, the way in which we speak about a subject not only tells us about the subject itself, but it also of speaker(s). To speak of someone as a victim in need of rescue is to deny them agency and autonomy. This tactic may additionally heighten the moral authority of the speaker. This power asymmetry is epitomized by the dyad of the Beninese worker & US government.

Returning to the young man’s quotations above, we may infer he is an individual seeking agency and economic independence within a state that is unable to provide these opportunities. The state, Benin, is laden with political and financial woes; in part from price gauging by the United States. The US, also according to Howard’s ethnographic research, finances and sends NGO humanitarian aid workers to Benin to aid in anti-trafficking efforts. These aid workers, when pressed about why their Beninese ‘trafficking survivors’ were unable to find work within their homeland, often had no idea about the cotton subsidies or other reasons why the Beninese economy is suffering (Howard, 2012). Without a nuanced understanding of the structural barriers compelling Beninese adolescents to seek work in foreign lands, US aid workers revictimized Beninese citizens through discursive patronage and an inability to shoulder the burden of the US’s involvement in crippling the Beninese economy.

A Beninese woman balances a gourd above her head
AdamRogers2030, Creative Commons

A Challenge for Human Rights

Human rights are universal. The notion that all persons, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other identifying characteristic, deserve their dignity and personhood honored and protected is a key mainstay of modernity. The protection of human rights should be implemented by transnational actors such as the United Nations. Human rights should also be protected by states, such as the United States of America and Benin. Finally, human rights have to be guarded be ordinary people living in societies all over the world.

Conversations about human rights inform us about the speaker and how they conceive of rights. In the case of US aid workers in Benin, they considered Beninese adolescents in need of saving and as involuntary trafficking survivors falling prey to a malicious trafficker. And indeed, this is the case for many Beninese. From the other perspective, through the eyes of impoverished Beninese young women and men, earning a livable wage to support their family is paramount. They do not see themselves as victims; they see the aid-workers as misinformed. This begs the question: how do human rights activists and the communities they wish to serve negotiate power-sharing in discourse and social / economic / cultural equality within the doctrine of human rights?

A fundamental challenge within the realm of human rights is the negotiation between two groups of people who have (sometimes radically) different interpretations of what human rights mean. Eastern vs. Western, secular vs. religious, North vs. South, these are illusory differences propagated by individuals who directly benefit from antagonistic discourse between these (and many other) groups of people. Sometimes, is it not the conversation itself that is the important part; it is what each speaker is bringing to the conversation.

We see a conflict of interest between aid-workers in Benin and Beninese adolescents looking for jobs. Neither is wrong in their pursuit; both are merely taking radically different approaches to protecting the rights and fortunes of themselves and of those they care about. These differences of opinion on the interpretation of rights do not, as my colleague has written, weaken the foundational argument for the existence of universal human rights. These differences throw down the gauntlet for human rights activists and researchers to expand the table large enough for all vested parties to have an equal opportunity to negotiate a culturally-practical implementation of universal norms. It is a challenge to dismantle structural barriers to human rights (such as the US’s involvement in Benin’s cotton industry). It is a challenge to marry non-Western and Western conceptions of justice and peace. Human rights as a normative prescription of beliefs and behaviors is still in its infancy. These ideals still need an anthropologically-informed ethic, a moral system steeped in cultural pluralism through a globalized mechanism of implementation, in order to realize the full potential of universal human rights and a shared global identity of what it means to be human.

 

References

Bales, K. (2012). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Press Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Howard, N. (2012). Accountable to whom? Accountable for what? Understanding anti-trafficking discourse and policy in southern Benin. The Anti-Trafficking Review, 1, 43-59.

Libya, Slavery Revisited

a statue, entitled Emancipation, of Lincoln standing over a kneeling freed slave
Emancipation statue at Lincoln Park. Source: David, Creative Commons.

A video of a slave trade in Libya presently circulates the international circuit, eliciting pleas from the international community to the UN, and the UN Security Council to Libyan government to do something to end the “heinous abuses of human rights.” Questions of the video’s validity arose when Libyan officials, based on President Trump’s go-to slogan, discredited the report as “fake news” because it is a product of a CNN investigation. However, in April, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) exposed the slave markets after staff based in Niger and Libya gathered testimonies of these markets. The trafficked individuals are migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, and Gambia seeking passage through Libya to Europe. “Migrants who go to Libya while trying to get to Europe have no idea of the torture archipelago that awaits them just over the border. There they become commodities to be bought, sold, and discarded when they have no more value.” In other words, the video confirms what the humanity already knows: human beings are trafficked and disposed of by other human beings. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking in persons is an all-encompassing term for the recruitment, transportation, transfer, and exploitation of another for the purposes of commercial sex exploitation, labor trafficking, and organ trafficking. This blog focuses on labor trafficking, which includes domestic/manual forced migrant labor, and speaks to three issues surrounding this labor trafficking case: the international attention, the commonplaceness, and the international complicity.

The rawness of the video, in many ways, conjures images of American colonial and antebellum days gone by—when Africans were sold in markets and public squares to the highest bidder, thereby becoming property and labor on soil that was not their own. Given the fact slavery in the United States occurred nearly 400 years ago, why is this scene garnering international attention and creating a stir? First, the video provides undeniable evidence of the dehumanizing condition of slavery and the audacity of traffickers and traders. Second, it is a stack reminder that slavery, despite the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, never ended in many other regions of the world, including Libya. Lastly, it is challenges the notion of who is valuable and worth saving, and who civil society may continue to turn its back on.

It is essential to distinguish between indentured servitude and slavery. An indentured servant enters into an agreement with full acknowledgment of unpaid labor for a fixed and agreed-upon timeframe. William Mathews voluntarily made himself the servant of Thomas Windover in 1718 for the period of seven years. For his part, Windover agreed to teach, feed, clothe, and provide lodging to Mathews, who upon his release would receive “a sufficient new suit of apparel, four shirts, and two necklets [scarves].” Slavery, on the other hand, was and is about exploitation and “every sort of injustice…and debasement.” The written account of Olaudah Equiano and his family describes the feelings of betrayal and disillusionment of being “torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain… Surely this is a new refinement in cruelty”. The essential difference here is the presence or absence of choice.

Choice is the thin line separating the inferior from superior, poverty and enough, and animals and human beings. Choice, whether from individual, societal, or government level–influences how we perceive. Bales, in his book, Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, offers two views of slavery: old and new. Both possess a dehumanizing element. However, old slavery prided itself on ownership and maintenance of “property”; new slavery focuses on bodies for profits. Ownership takes a backseat to the profit margin. This new slavery relies on the disposability of human beings. This reliance enables Bales to assert slavery never ended; it simply evolved. Slavery, at its core, is the theft of life. The theft of one life indirectly affects another.

Traffickers sell sex slaves on the black market, underground, and on the dark web. Bonded labor is often intergenerational in places like Pakistan and India, thus, children oftentimes are born into slavery. Migrant workers build soccer stadiums in Qatar and Brazil for FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, respectively, after fleeing poverty in their home countries. Unpaid or slightly paid workers, specifically children, sew garments for major fashion brands, grind coffee beans for industry leaders, and pick cocoa beans for chocolate bars sold in America. The major issue with labor trafficking lies in the complexity of the supply and demand chain, and the complicity of local and national government officials.

book00 slavery project. Immokalee — Jose Solano shows the record book he is keeping that marks the hours he goes to work and the hours that he actually gets paid for in Immokalee. He, like many other migrant workers, said that they go to work early in the morning but then wait for hours before they can pick tomatoes yet they are only paid for the hours they pick. Source: Moody College of Communications, Creative Commons.

Per Free the Slaves website, of the estimated 40 million enslaved persons worldwide, 50% are forced laborers. ABC used last spring’s television show, American Crime, to bring some aspects of labor trafficking to light. The mini-series revealed the interconnectedness of an American tomato farming family and the illegal migrants they employed. In a poignant scene, a fire conflagrates the property, killing several enslaved workers trapped inside. A real-life similar incident occurred in July 2017, whereby nine migrants died in a semi-trailer at a San Antonio Walmart. Many quickly jump to the assertion that ‘they should have done it the legal way’ and ‘they are taking away American jobs’ or ‘should not seek refuge in the EU’, yet what often happens is we fail to examine the backstory and interconnections.

Libyan Arab Spring occurred in February 2011. The death of leader Colonel Muammar Gaddaffi in October 2011 by NATO forces left a vacuum for the rise of the Islamic State. Several failed attempts for parliamentary elections, crumbling infrastructure, thousands of internally displaced citizens (IDPs), and limited resources coalesce to create the perfect storm for the rise and perpetuation of trafficking in persons. Additionally, continental intrastate conflicts and civil unrest result in large migrations of IDPs and refugees desperate for a semblance of normalcy and peace. The proclivity of new slavery, unlike old slavery, is not race or religion but on “weakness, gullibility, and deprivation”. Put another way, the subjection of the trafficked is the misapplication of trust in an uncontrolled situation. Nikki Haley, in the 2017 TIPS Report, concludes that the impact of trafficking in persons is cross-cultural, leaving no country “immune from this crisis.” The slave markets of Libya are not the first occurrence and they will not be the last; however, the video makes them known.

After a month of awareness and contained outrage, where do we sit on the elimination of slave markets in Libya, specifically? The UN released a statement condemning the markets while noting Libyans have launched an investigation, and encouraging inter-regional cooperation. Amnesty International (AI) named and shamed EU governments–particularly Italy—for their collusion and complicity in creating and maintaining a system of abuse. AI discloses the three-pronged policy of containment consists of provision of assistance to run detention centers, coordination with Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return fleeing refugees, and cooperation with leaders on the ground to halt the smuggling of seekers by increasing border controls. The Italian government, a state party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its protocol, pays to refuse refugees and asylum seekers and knowingly returns them to a foreign land for detention and torture. Libya is not a state party; therefore, signing the Convention and implementing asylum law as suggested by Dalhuisen will constitute a step in the right direction, when Libya establishes a functioning government.

The fight to end human trafficking is a global civil society (GCS) responsibility. Glasius believes GCS is a voluntary, social contract based association with others who desire to reach and include humanity to think and participate in the world as global citizens, not simply national citizens. How can one participate in GCS? First, employing social media platforms as advocacy tools. Second, reading the TIPS report and following international entities like the UN and AI will keep you informed of changes in international government strategies and shortcomings for prosecution, protection, and prevention of human trafficking. Third, shop and buy products that are fair trade by understanding the relationship between the supply and demand. Fourth, dig deep and ask questions. Lastly, look up, become aware and watch your surroundings because you, like Shelia Fedrick, could rescue a trafficked person.