KASAMA Vol. 16 No. 1 / January-February-March 2002 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

RMIT, Melbourne, Australia - 25 February 2002

The following are extracts from the paper presented by LIZ KELLY from the United Kingdom to the "STOP THE TRAFFIC" Symposium organised by PROJECT RESPECT in Melbourne on February 25, 2002.

Biographical Note:
Liz Kelly is a feminist researcher and activist, who has worked in the field of violence against women and children for 29 years, including founding a refuge and rape crisis line, and involvement in local, national and international networks. Since 1987 she has worked in the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU), University of North London, and she is now its Director. CWASU has completed 30 research projects, including Stopping Traffic a Home Office funded exploratory study on the extent of, and responses to, trafficking in women into the UK. The Unit has, since its inception also undertaken training and consultancy within the UK, and increasingly internationally. A current project involves working in six countries in the Balkans on a local capacity building training for trainers project on trafficking in women. In 2000 she was appointed Professor of Sexualised Violence, and awarded a CBE in the New Years Honours list for 'services combating violence against women and children'.

From the keynote speech by Liz Kelly:

Over the last decade trafficking in humans and smuggling of human beings in general have become major issues across Europe. The transition to capitalism for much of Central and Eastern Europe has been a transition to poverty and the collapse of social and economic infrastructures. The burden has fallen most on women, who now represent 80 percent of the unemployed in, for example, the Ukraine. The desire to migrate west is a powerful one, and an aspiration for many millions. At the same time most western European countries have narrowed the possibilities for legal migration, thus increasing the market for people smuggling. The conflicts in the Balkans, and subsequent arrival of peacekeeping troops and international development and aid agencies has been a major factor in the growth of sex industries there, and in the creation of conditions conducive to trafficking in women. In 2002, trafficking in women is not a marginal issue in Europe, or an issue that exists 'elsewhere', but an arena for intense debate and policy development. …

I am conscious of speaking in a place where prostitution and aspects of the sex industry are legal, and of the unresolved debates between feminists about this. Whilst we are not going to agree in this sense, I do believe that with respect to trafficking there is room for, at the minimum, dialogue and beyond that linked work that begins to develop support services and policies that recognise harm, exploitation and violations of human rights.

International responses and silences

Trafficking of human beings, and of women for sexual exploitation in particular, has become a major international issue in the last few years. Every week another international meeting/conference/seminar takes place or a new report is published. Much of this material restates what has previously been said, calls for action, and locates trafficking within both an organised crime and human rights framework. Very little explores the sex industry or looks at the issues it raises with respect to policies on prostitution more generally. In fact, there is a studied reluctance to do this - everyone can agree that trafficking for sexual exploitation is a bad thing, especially if it is defined as a 'contemporary form of slavery', but no-one agrees about prostitution and the sex industry or 'economic migration'.

This last term is rather mysterious if one thinks about it - hasn't migration (leaving aside movements of individuals and groups because of political repression) always been linked to economics - from nomadic peoples who move between climates and seasons to ensure their own survival to movements between poorer and richer countries?

The international terrain on which debates about trafficking in women now take place is increasingly ground where the fissures about prostitution narrow the exchange and limit curiosity.

…There is consensus that traffickers are adept at reading local, regional and international politics, targeting women whose lives and possibilities have been disrupted and diminished by economic, political and social dislocation. What there is far less recognition of is that women are trafficked into countries that have existing sex industries which can absorb them, and are often, but not always, trafficked from countries where there is an indigenous sex industry. At times it seems as if the fact that the 'sexual exploitation' element in trafficking by and through prostitution is minimised, and even ignored.

To operate in this field one is yet again confronted with the dilemma of deciding whether to work within these distortions and make some small progress or to try to shatter the mirrors and risk losing either a place in the discussion or the limited commitment to action from those with the power to do something on a significant scale. I do not claim to have anything original to say about this perennial tension for feminists, but I do want to raise some questions that are seldom, if ever, explored in policy debates.

Defining terms - what's in a name?

The place where these debates became most obvious - and protracted - is in how to define trafficking in women. More time has been devoted to this issue in most international meetings than is ever spent exploring what should be done. As someone who has emphasised the importance of definitions for many years, I was surprised to discover a sense of frustration and irritation with this process. The more one witnesses or reads about these endless circular discussions, the more one suspects that this is not just about ideological differences. The longer prevarication and disagreement prevails the longer states and organisations can put off doing anything. And the deep rifts between feminist global coalitions working on trafficking have, unintentionally, fed into this excuse for inaction. Repeatedly in policy documents, the incomparability of definitions between states, between institutions within states, and across research studies is cited as a serious barrier to progress.

As an exercise conducted for a study for the UK Home Office, a number of definitions, including those used by CATW [Coalition Against Trafficking in Women] and GAATW [Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women], were examined to discover what they concurred on. The disagreements were minor, when compared to the extent of agreement: neither relied on force, but include a range of control strategies and coercive contexts which vitiate consent; both include traffic within and across borders, and both attempt to capture all those who facilitate trafficking. The only significant differences were that CATW highlight sexual exploitation of/through marriage (which both the UN and Council of Europe now include in their discussions of trafficking) and include anyone who profits from/exploits a trafficked woman.

The agreements and commonalties reflect the increasing knowledge about trafficking in women and the new forms that it is taking. In this context - where coercion, debt bondage, abuse of authority and threats and deception are recognised as forms of exploitation and human rights abuses. Indeed, this is precisely the language used in the UN optional protocol agreed in Palermo in 2001.

One might reasonably expect that this would have clarified problems with the simplistic distinction between 'forced' and 'free' prostitution that has dominated the international debate in recent years. But no, it returns again and again, resulting in policy papers and research that are internally inconsistent - where the language of 'force' and 'slavery' sits alongside evidence of multiple forms of power and control. 1 The connections with, and implications for, other forms of violence against women are never addressed - probably because most do not really see trafficking as 'gender violence'.

Feminists have spent decades arguing for wider understandings and definitions of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment - to move us away from narrow legal definitions that only recognise physical force and physical injury. Drawing on women and children's accounts, we have documented a continuum of forms of power and control, and, at least with respect to domestic violence, have been successful in establishing this as the generally accepted perspective and definition. To do the opposite with respect to trafficking seems strange to say the least. The only justification can be to avoid the unresolved and difficult debates on prostitution, or at a more prosaic level, to defend 'turf' and position in the increasingly competitive world of international lobbying by NGOs.

Some have argued strongly that trafficking of women should be seen as one form of illegal migration, and there are undoubtedly connections here that are important. The patterns of movement in some parts of the globe are similar, and the same individuals and gangs are involved in aspects of the transportation. But these links should not deflect from a number of crucial differences. Reducing trafficking in women to just one form of illegal migration means that the exploiters in countries of origin and destination become invisible and the sexual exploitation irrelevant - other than as a form of forced labour or debt bondage. Facilitating illegal migration is usually limited to delivering the person to the country they wish to enter: at this point they are left to their own devices. In some instances they may be being trafficked in order to work in sweat shops, or other industries for minimal remuneration, but none of these forms involve being raped as part of the process, as many women from Albania and Moldova have reported in recent research. 2

With trafficking for sexual exploitation, women are delivered or sold to individuals or organisations who are parties to the transaction and who intend to sexually exploit her. They pay a fee for the 'delivery' of one or more women, which is then translated into a debt that she has to repay through prostitution. To define women who have been trafficked as economic migrants requires redefining traffickers and procurers as providing some form of desired service to women seeking 'work'. It is not economic migration when women are made to stand naked in the street and are literally bought and sold, as they are being in the Arizona market in Bosnia.

This perspective also fails to address the meanings and consequences of sexual exploitation for women if and when they return home. Whilst there is increasing attention to 'return and reintegration' programmes, few, if any, of them choose to engage with what it means to have been prostituted in any circumstance, let alone the specific ones for trafficked women. Given that stigma attaches to women in prostitution and is even more intense in countries where culture and religion involve notions of honour, failing to explore these issues means women are left vulnerable to social exclusion on their return, and because of this, to re-trafficking or involvement in the sex industry in their home country. Currently no-one is tracking what happens to women who are either returned through deportation, or through the more humane voluntary return programmes operated by IOM internationally.

The good intentions of NGOs are rooted in a belief that by viewing women as 'forced' this will in turn mean that they are seen as 'deserving victims' by the community and reintegration will be unproblematic. This optimism is not supported by what we know about other forms of violence against women - the most extreme example being the rejection by families and communities of women who have been raped during conflict. Woman blaming persists in all cultures, although its virulence and precise content may vary. Nor does this strategy reflect what we know about what enables women to not just leave prostitution, but to re-construct (and for some construct for the first time) a sense of self as deserving of respect and dignity. …

Another possible reason why NGOs and human rights groups might choose the language of 'slavery' and 'force' is to circumvent the increasingly ambivalent, if not hostile, attitude amongst western governments to migrants and asylum seekers. The growth in western Europe of stricter immigration and border controls, alongside a narrowing of rights to accommodation and financial support for asylum seekers, creates a context where making arguments for 'special cases' can soften the impact at least for some. But 'special cases' have to be 'special' - different from the majority. In the process some trafficked women will be designated as 'deserving' and others less so.

Whatever the reason, the focus of discussion and debate on the simplistic distinction between 'forced' and 'free' prostitution means that many of the most interesting questions do not get asked.

Shifting sands

Some of these questions are: what is happening in the sex industry internationally? Why? And what does this mean? It is not just that trafficking in women has increased dramatically in the last decade, but that sex industries globally are increasingly populated by foreign women. Many, but not all, will have been trafficked. Some women from countries where they face limited employment opportunities do migrate legally to work in the sex industry, others are able to pay for their (illegal) migration to be facilitated but are not controlled on arrival, since they are not indebted to anyone. But these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and there is still the open question of how they find routes into the sex industry in a foreign country; the only accounts which shed light on this suggest that women who are already involved act as informal recruiters when they return home. How organised this is remains unclear.

… Underpinning this shift in the sex industries internationally is not a well-organised conspiracy of major criminals - at the day-to-day level there are many small-scale operators involved, who women know vaguely, if at all. This is one of the many factors that make tracing and prosecuting traffickers difficult. At the social level, however, there must be some factors that might explain these processes. But there is a remarkable lack of curiosity or interest in either noticing this shift, or seeking to understand and explain it.

Why are sex industries across continents increasingly populated by migrant and trafficked women? Part of the answer has to be the scale of profits involved: having someone who is hugely in debt, or who has been literally sold or kidnapped, means that she works for virtually nothing, and the profit margin goes to the exploiter - whether they are a pimp, a flat or brothel owner, or part of a modern Mafia. Such profits are not possible, however, without demand: demand from men to pay for sex with women who are 'other', who do not speak their language, who have less power and status in general than women who are nationals… That this is increasingly the case, and that one of the things exploiters and customers alike enjoy about 'foreign' women is the fact that they are more likely to have sex without condoms and not draw lines about which sexual acts they will and will not do, raises a number of fundamental questions for those who have sought to argue that women in prostitution have considerable control over their 'work'. …

What is to be done?

Changes in law, policy and practice must not do further harm, nor increase the potential harms to women. For example, it is difficult to see how strategies to increase detection at points of entry, where they are not based on strong intelligence, will achieve anything more than harassment of women travelling from certain destinations. There is little likelihood of such a strategy being effective in detecting and prosecuting traffickers.

Equally, a policy focusing primarily on detecting and removing women both denies them their right to redress and may have the unintended impact of simply increasing demand - as appears to be happening currently in the Netherlands and Australia. Summary expulsion can have dramatic effects on women, since it defines and treats them as criminals, and returns them to contexts where there is minimal support and where, in the absence of protection, they may be swiftly re-trafficked to another destination. Such policies punish the victim, whilst having minimal impact on the exploiters.

A yawning gap in provision in the UK is that there is no specialist NGO working with trafficked women; providing them with safe housing, advocacy and support is extremely difficult. In such a context it is not surprising that on detection most women request to be returned home. One of the recommendations at the end of Stopping Traffic was that the government facilitate and fund such a resource, but whilst the government has expressed concern, no progress has been made over a year later.

It is now European Union (EU) policy that member states should arrange for trafficked women who agree to give evidence in a legal case to be granted temporary residence rights; at least four countries have enacted law to this effect, but the UK has no official policy, although women in this situation have invariably been given leave to remain. This is a minimal position for women whose human rights have been grossly violated within the EU. A more just position would be to recognise, and enable, applications for asylum under the Geneva Convention, with trafficking counting as gender violence.

There is also a need to develop a legal framework with appropriate penalties, which provides redress for all the ways in which traffickers and exploiters violate women's human rights and is effective in prosecuting these crimes. It should also include rights for women to sue their exploiters. Effectiveness here means that it's possible to prosecute some offences, without having to rely on women's testimony, and that the law does not place an undue evidential burden on the prosecution. In this context, discussion and debate needs to take place between, on the one hand, the symbolic value of strong declaratory law and, on the other, statutes that 'work'.

In the context of Australia, this means asking whether the Sexual Servitude law is declaratory - using strong language and high maximum sentences - yet problematic with respect to implementation; as I understand it there have been no convictions since it was enacted. Too little of the work to date has addressed ways of enhancing law enforcement, finding effective methods for disrupting criminal networks and increasing the costs to exploiters at all levels, especially through mechanisms such as asset seizure.

Prevention efforts in origin countries have, in the main, focused on young women offering them advice about the dangers of accepting offers of work abroad. Including measures directed at the young men who recruit would provide some balance in these responses, and daring to target demand, at home and abroad, would be a radical and welcome step.

These measures would have some impact, but while the huge differences in wealth between countries not only exist but also become more acute and women's inequality remains unchanged, there will always be young women desperate enough to believe in promises of a better life. And there will always be men (and some women) from their own countries and elsewhere ready to exploit their desire for something better. We all have a responsibility to think about how we can move towards a 'new world order' in which women's legitimate desires - at the individual and collective levels - for freedom, autonomy, a sustainable future is no longer fertile ground for exploitation. And more than this I look towards a society in which gender relations turn on respect such that the scale of rape and sexual abuse is massively reduced. In such a context I suspect that very idea of purchasing sex from a vulnerable or exploited woman or girl would be unthinkable.


1. The recent adoption of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children in 2001 in Palermo is seen by many as resolving the issue of definitions, by providing a universal standard. It remains to be seen whether this is the case, but it certainly has not resolved the tensions around prostitution that this paper explores. The Palermo definition is an extremely open one, including the phrase: "the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments of benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another persons, for the purposes of exploitation".

2. See, for example, recent statistics from International Organisation of Migration offices in Kosovo and Bosnia, and Koci, 2000.

The full text of Liz Kelly's paper can be downloaded from the RMIT website at

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