Eleven Malawi sex workers win a victory for women’s rights everywhere!

On Wednesday, eleven Malawi sex workers won a victory for women’s rights everywhere. The story takes place in Mwanza, a town on the southern border with Mozambique. In September and November 2009, police conducted sweeps and pulled in a number of women presumed to be sex workers. Many were held overnight at the Mwanza Police Station. In the morning, the women were taken to the Mwanza District Hospital were they were forced to undergo blood tests, without any informed consent. The medical staff took down the women’s names and recorded the test results, which they handed to the police. The women were then charged with spreading venereal disease, “in contravention of section 192 of the Penal Code.” During the courtroom hearing, the charges were laid out, as were the women’s medical conditions, including their HIV positive status. For a number of the women, the reading of their name in court and the announcement of their HIV positive status was the first time they became aware of their situation.

On March 10, 2011, eleven of the women filed an application in the Blantyre High Court. They challenged the mandatory HIV tests, the use of HIV test results as evidence in their criminal cases, and the public disclosure of their HIV status in open court. The women said that the police and the hospital, effectively the State, had violated their constitutional rights.

Arguments were heard February 25, 2014, and the decision was handed down on May 20, 2015. The women were represented by well-known human rights attorney Chrispine Sibande, with support from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, or SALC, and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. Justice Dorothy nyaKaunda Kamanga presided over the High Court case.

On Wednesday, Justice nyaKaunda Kamanga ruled that subjecting the women to forced HIV testing was unreasonable and a violation of their rights to privacy, equality, dignity and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Justice nyaKaunda Kamanga noted, “The authorities took advantage of the women being in police custody to force them to undergo the tests,”

Chrispine Sibande explained, “This case could not come at a more critical time. The Malawi government is in the process of finalising the HIV and AIDS (Prevention and Management) Bill. Draft versions of the Bill have included provisions allowing mandatory HIV testing of various groups, including sex workers. It is internationally accepted that forced HIV testing is counter-productive and violates human rights. We hope the judgment will ensure that these provisions are finally removed from the Bill. The judgment is also progressive in that it considered equality between men and women in relation to HIV testing.” Sibande further saw the ruling as “a victory for sex workers who are usually abused every day.”

Anneke Meerkotter, of SALC, concurred, “The case shows that it is possible for vulnerable groups to hold the government accountable when their rights have been violated.”

The Mwanza Eleven join women like Samukelisiwe Mlilo in Zimbabwe, Milly Katana in Uganda, Peninah Mwangi in Kenya, and countless others across the continent, who have struggled against the notion that HIV is a criminal offense; that the `war on HIV’ means the women, on one hand, and even more sex workers, on the other, must relinquish their Constitutional, civil, and human rights in the service of some greater good. The struggle continues.

(Photo and Image Credit: SALCBloggers)

In France, sex and power go to trial, and DSK takes a walk

Last weekend in Lille, in northern France, a media sensitive trial ended. The trial came after 4 years of investigation by trial judges. Thirteen people faced charges of “aggravated procuring.” The accused were the usual suspects, pimps, cops, notables, businessmen, and Dominique Strauss Kahn aka DSK.

The trial is now finished; convictions and sentencing will be made public in June. While the pimp and his entourage will certainly be convicted, DSK left the court assured of being cleared, at least from the legal point of view.

The trial incriminated the managers of the Carlton Hotel in Lille who organized business reward sex orgies with the help of pimps, from Belgium, the local bourgeoisie and business men. They admitted that the raison d’être for these parties was DSK, knowing that it was a good way to create a friendly bond with this powerful man. DSK also opened his apartments to these orgies in Paris and in Washington when he was at the IMF.

The civil suit was composed of two former prostitutes, referred to as M and Jade. They sued for the violence they underwent, though the official charge was based on the orgies being paid for. Another former prostitute did not join the civil party although the same story happened to her. She was shipped to Washington in 2010 to please DSK. She was visibly scared and never joined the civil suit.

In France, prostitution is not forbidden but the notion of prostitution is legally blurred, and the status of the prostitute or sex worker is not legally well defined. Procuring is a crime (possible sentence up to five years) as is soliciting passively and actively (possible sentence up to 2 months). Having sex for money with a minor or a qualified “vulnerable” person, such as handicapped people, is forbidden. There is a notion of contract between the client and the prostitute that is tacitly accepted as long as the prostitute is not subordinated as the law says.

These shadowy laws have underserved the women. In Belgium, brothels are permitted. Since Lille is near Brussels, the prostitutes came from a brothel near Brussels run by one of the accused and his wife. The trial exposed the elusive character of the laws in France as well as the hypocritical situation in Belgium and how the accused took advantage of both legislations to plot these parties with minimum legal risks.

While DSK and his friends presented themselves as modern libertines with all the prerogatives that they should enjoy due to their social rank, the pimps were ready to take the brunt for their friend DSK. DSK claimed he had no idea that the women he mistreated were prostitutes. Nobody believed him, and the women said that they knew he knew.

Six prostitutes testified. The preliminary investigation established their degrading conditions of life in the brothel close to Brussels and used the term “carnage” to describe the type of sex that DSK and his friends would demand. The arrogance of DSK and his companions was exemplified by the words they used to describe their activities; they commonly talked about pleasure, pleasant détente, festive parties, and great massages. Their text messages, made public for the trial, alluded to the sex workers as livestock or equipment.

The women told a different story. They talked about their shameful work conditions and the violence that entailed suffering, pain and tears. Jade declared that there is no price that justifies imposing such suffering. She also reflected on how women enter this unwanted “job,” “The common point I observed among all of my companions in misfortune is that they all have been mistreated…. This body has been mistreated as a result we keep this stigma about ourselves…then we come to prostitute ourselves.” The notion of forceful mistreatment was at the center of their testimonies. All of them explained even if they were forced to accept these practices, they still accepted them, which made the case for rape legally feeble.

DSK’s lawyers asserted that their client was a victim of, voyeurism and moral lynching. In their closing arguments, they attacked those in the civil suit, accused them of being manipulated and of reinventing the facts. They trivialized the use of violent sex as part of the libertine life. One defense lawyers described the pain inflicted on his client. He even saw some tears!

At the end the prosecutor, who overtly opposed the work of the trial judges since the beginning, transformed his indictment of DSK into a speech for his defense, thanks to DSK’s large circle of influence.

After three weeks of trial, the Sofitel affair in New York became clearer to many and voices of support for Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel Maid who accused DSK of rape, grew louder.

The trial also shed light on the collusion between finance/power and sex.

In Sexus Economicus, the historian Yvonnick Denoel delineates the relationship among politics, business and prostitution/sex around the globalized world. He reveals the code of silence that accompanies financial manipulations of the profit driven market covers up the use of women as business and political contracts’ bonus. Their treatment and well being are the least of everyone’s concerns.

Meanwhile, some from DSK’s political party declared that they should erect a statue to Nafissatou Diallo for her strength and determination. Thanks to her, he did not become President, while she used his money to do good, opening a restaurant where she welcomes immigrants and workers.

From New York, Washington, Paris to Lille, the DSK saga magnifies the story of violence against women that epitomizes the power of patriarchal capitalism over women’s bodies.


(Image Credit: Benoît Peyrucq. AFP / Libération)

It was amazing

It was amazing

It was amazing
sex workers disclose
while folks still can
(we have a right to know
those Mandela-moments)

It was amazing
good money made
outside of the launch
of the ANC’s manifesto

It was amazing
more clients came
election plans made
the country anticipates
(will it be work for all)

Participants’ hotels
lodges and their cars
the scene of much activity
(service delivery at work)

(was the handbook
suitably amended
allowing members
to go forth and engage
with the electorate)

It was amazing
the demand very high
big fish landed
colleagues wishing for more
(ANC rallies out yonder)

After the main event
local industry supported
was it business as usual
or was it the usual business

(though food and fruit vendors
had different responses
to the brisk street trading)

It was amazing
politicians at work
introducing our born-frees
and other impressionables
to the ways of the world

It was amazing

Sex workers in Mpumalanga’s capital city get to meet the ruling party’s politics (“Launch is a shot in arm for sex trade”, Cape Times, January 14 2014).


(Photo Credit: The Randburg Sun)

Counting the victims: The politics of numbers in anti-trafficking campaigns

Numbers hold a fascination that borders on the irrational sometimes. Their simple mention turns hypothetical conversations into fact-based statements, triggering the you-can’t-deny-it effect. The link between the right numbers and the irrefutable reality they allegedly reflect works to bolster viewpoints and functions as the ultimate test of the work of evidence. To mention numbers is to halt conversations mid-sentence and present one with the naked truth: genocides are called by name when the right numbers are attached to killings and a humanitarian crisis is not a crisis unless numerically proven to be so.

It is no wonder, then, that human rights organizations rely on numbers to bring evidence and tell stories of human rights violations. Yet numbers, like stories, function affectively to represent reality. They do not merely reflect a sociopolitical phenomenon. They also produce the very phenomenon they represent, creating new realities and ways of understanding the world. Like stories numbers work emotionally, they are “what moves us” and “what makes us feel”; they “circulate and generate effects,” bringing people together and against one another.

The politics of numbers is at the center of the alleged humanitarian crisis of the traffic in women. The simple mention of high numbers of trafficked victims or survivors breathes new life into the anti-trafficking activist cause. To be clear, I am not arguing here that the traffic in women does not qualify for the name of “humanitarian crisis” or that activists make dishonest use of numbers. I am rather interested in the ways in which numbers are given, contested, and take on a life of their own in activist circles. My argument is that numbers are too easily mobilized with little understanding of what they mean and the effects they have for feminist politics.

Governmental and non-governmental anti-trafficking organizations cite the high numbers of sex trafficked women to justify rescue campaigns worldwide and to justify the large amounts of anti-trafficking governmental funding. The Polaris Project in Washington DC, a group that works closely with the U.S. Department of State, estimates that 100,000 children enter the sex industry in the United States each year, while the U.S. State Department places the global number of trafficked persons at 27 million. USAID estimates that there are between 12 and 27 million trafficked persons worldwide. The 2013 Traffic in Persons Report, issued annually by the U.S. Department of State, puts the number of survivors at 46, 000 out of the 27 million trafficked persons believed to exist worldwide.

Responding to these numbers and drawing attention to the illicit character of the phenomenon, many international organizations, including the United Nation, have declared such accounts unreliable. According to the UNESCO Bangkok office Trafficking Statistics Project, trafficking statistics circulated in media and scholarship are “false” and  “spurious”:

“When it comes to statistics, trafficking of girls and women is one of several highly emotive issues, which seem to overwhelm critical faculties. Numbers take on a life of their own, gaining acceptance through repetition, often with little inquiry into their derivations. Journalists, bowing to the pressures of editors, demand numbers, any number. Organizations feel compelled to supply them, lending false precisions and spurious authority to many reports.”

Numbers circulated liberally in mass media and governmental press releases have enabled the mobilization of a strong anti-prostitution coalition made up of anti-prostitution feminists (the so-called neo-abolitionists), evangelical Christians, and anti-trafficking activists. Under John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice spent approximately 100 million dollars a year to fight trafficking both inside and outside the United States. Between 2001 and 2008, the United States has channeled about $528 million into anti-trafficking assistance overseas. USAID alone has provided $123.1 million in assistance to more than 70 countries in the time period mentioned above. In 2011, the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat the Trafficking in Persons allotted $16 million in foreign assistance. In 2012, the sum rose to $64 million in assistance for 70 countries.

Fueled by this wealth of resources, numerous nongovernmental organizations have mushroomed throughout the U.S., embarking on humanitarian campaigns to stop the traffic in women. During the Bush administration, evangelical Christian groups received large sums of anti-trafficking funding. Citing the high numbers of trafficking victims, such groups spread their missionary work throughout the world finding yet another opportunity to disseminate their version of Christianity, this time under the guise of the struggle against trafficking and for women’s rights.

It is impossible to know the exact numbers of trafficked victims and survivors because of the complexity and illicit character of the trade. What is called human trafficking is, in effect, an amalgamation of distinct but related phenomena: migration, work, the globalization of capital, the emergence of the virtual space and its subsequent incorporation into the capitalist means of production, and the expansion and overall transformation of the sex industry. To talk about millions of trafficked persons is to simplify and misread the socioeconomic conditions that enable the forward movement of the capitalist machine. The impressionistic mention of numbers merely sustains the rhetoric of abolition, naturalizing what would appear otherwise to be the coercive actions of brothel raids and imprisonment of sex workers.


(Image Credit: UN SDG Action Campaign)

Labor, Migration, and the Movement to Stop the Traffic in Women

The traffic in women (or sex trafficking, as it is usually called) has gained central attention in the humanitarian world of nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations. The emergence of sex trafficking as the ultimate humanitarian crisis has led to an uncritical, melodramatic discourse. Governmental and non-governmental organizational rhetoric posits women and children as the main protagonists in a tale of capture, rescue, and redemption. Slogans such as “Free the slaves,” “End slavery,” and the authenticity-promising  “Sex trafficking through the eyes of survivors,” prod audiences to learn about human trafficking and embark on rescue campaigns, by donating to anti-trafficking causes or by founding anti-trafficking NGOs.

Human trafficking (sex trafficking included) is a serious problem. What is unrealistic and uncompassionate is anti-trafficking activists’ presentation of trafficking in a political and economic vacuum, and the resultant erasure of capitalist socioeconomics, including labor migration and trade globalization. The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) sums up the problem best: “Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights.” The slogan refers to the frequent brothel raids undertaken by western humanitarians, raids that result in the so-called rehabilitation of sex workers as employees in the textile industry. Rejecting their easy subsumption under the logic of capitalist accumulation, sex workers mobilize the language of rehab only to reinvest it with their own struggles as workers and women living in deeply racialized and inequitable local and global economies. The APNSW re-channels the trafficking conversation into debates about labor exploitation, in the process recognizing sex work as a legitimate part of the labor sector, as well as situating human trafficking in the broader context of work migration.

So who are the sex trafficked? According to most anti-trafficking activists, the story is simple: the sex trafficked are non-western women and children coming from poverty-stricken places and desperate to move west for a better life. Enter pimps, traffickers, and organized criminal groups who pry on desperation and poverty. The poster child of anti-trafficking campaigns is the naïve and innocent young woman or girl — unfamiliar with capitalist transactions and ignorant of the perils of immigration — beaten into prostitution, her body a living testimony to the cruelty and inhumanity of the sex industry. The reality of migration is messier and less straightforward. As scholars and activists Laura Augustín, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo, among others, have shown, women migrate for a variety of reasons (poverty being only one of them) and go through a variety of situations that rarely resemble the absolute captivity envisioned by mass media.

The easy equation of sex trafficking and sex work jeopardizes anti-trafficking initiatives. Sex workers, not anti-trafficking activists, are more successful at fighting forced prostitution. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Sonagachi, the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India, is a network of sex workers who take upon themselves to locate underage sex workers or those workers who are in the trade against their will. Committee’s success in removing sex workers forced into prostitution should represent a lesson for the anti-trafficking movement. Despite evidence to the contrary, however, anti-trafficking scholars and activists  continue to discount sex workers as reliable allies in the fight against human trafficking.

The misguided conflation between trafficking and prostitution has had serious effects on AIDS prevention programs. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR requires all organizations that receive PEPFAR funding to oppose prostitution and trafficking, both seen as equally oppressive. This anti-prostitution pledge has had negative effects, such as forcing the closure of AIDS prevention programs geared towards sex workers. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision as unconstitutional.

Equally pernicious are the law enforcement and rescue paradigms that characterize current approaches to sex trafficking. In 2004, the U.S. Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Attorney General created the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center (HSTC), a center that brings together officers and investigators from the FBI, CIA, and the Homeland Security to combat the traffic in women. The makeup of the Center mirrors the State Department’s punitive anti-immigration approach to human trafficking. The law enforcement approach relies on raids of red light districts and indiscriminate arrests of sex workers. The migrant women rescued during these raids have two options: return to their countries or testify against their so-called traffickers.  Following the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act, Section 103.8, women must also prove that they suffered “severe forms of trafficking” in order to qualify for the T-Visa that enables them to remain in the United States.

Returning to the APNSW, one is puzzled by the exclusion of issues of labor and migration. What would change if activists were to heed the APNSW slogan and consider the rights of women as workers in a globalized capitalist economy. What if anti-trafficking activists acknowledged the fight of migrant women and sex workers for decent work, respect, and social inclusion? While this alternative is unlikely to dominate the anti-trafficking community too soon, the prospect of a justice paradigm centered on labor and migration will continue to inspire migrant workers, sex workers, and their allies.


(Photo Credit: Twitter / Lela Who)

For women workers, it’s time to change the song

Reading the names of missing women

Across Turkey, women are at the forefront of the demonstrations. And not only women. Feminists: “At first groups of students chanted: `We are the soldiers of Ataturk’; this died out after feminist protesters objected to its militaristic overtones.”

From the first eruption through today, the Turkish movement has been a giant popular feminist education site, and one that includes sex workers: “`We used to sing ‘Erdogan is the son of a whore’. But when the police teargassed us, one of the brothels on Taksim Square opened its doors, and the women gave us shelter and treated us with lemons. We don’t sing that any more.’”

The solidarity of sex workers taught demonstrators that sex workers are workers, sisters, and women. Sex workers are not epithets or metaphors, and they are not criminals. They are part of the working mass, and they can represent themselves.

In the past week, sex worker organizations have taught exactly the same lesson to workers, social movements, and the State, around the world.

Across Canada this weekend, sex workers and supporters demonstrated, under the Red Umbrella, for legalization of sex work and for sex workers’ rights as workers, women, and women workers. This week, Canada’s Supreme Court will finally hear a challenge by Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch to the constitutionality of the laws concerning sex work.

Former and current sex workers have argued that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable, forces them further underground, further isolates them, and impedes access to public and social services. It’s a hard life, and the laws only make it harder, sometimes fatally so: “When Kerry Porth remembers her life as a sex worker in Vancouver, she can’t help but wonder how she survived when so many other prostitutes died a gruesome death at the hands of notorious serial killer Robert Pickton. `They were women just like me. Looking back, realizing just how much risk I was at, it was a real eye-opener.’”

In Kenya, sex workers in Laikipia District have organized a group called the Laikipia Peer Educators. They want formal recognition. They want the protection that formal recognition might provide, and they want the citizenship, the opportunity to participate and contribute to the common good in the same manner as every other worker. They want to trade in stigma for taxes.

In Australia, the Scarlet Alliance, representing Australian sex workers, lobbied to have foreign sex workers included among the skilled work visas. Sex work is legal across Australia, to varying degrees, but it’s not considered “skilled labor” by the State, at least not yet. Massage therapists, gardeners, florists, cooks, dog handlers, fashion designers, bed and breakfast operators, entertainers, dancers, recreation officers, makeup artists, jockeys, gymnastic coaches and horse riding instructors are considered skilled labor, but not sex work.

This is about work that is not called work, workers who are not called workers, and women who are told they cannot represent themselves. This concerns sex workers, as it concerns domestic workers in the United States. Both Hawaii and California seem to be on the verge of implementing or of passing respective Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. All workers are workers. Period.

Feminist political economists have argued for decades that women’s work is work, whether it’s waged or not, whether it’s called work or not. Women workers have known this and have organized for centuries for recognition, dignity, autonomy, rights and power.

From the social movements in Turkey to the courthouse in Canada to the District government in Kenya to the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship to the state houses across the United States, it’s time. It’s time to recognize women’s work, all work, as work, and to recognize all workers as workers. It’s time to change the song.


(Photo Credit: Rabble.ca / Murray Bush / Flux)

Ask Peninah Mwangi about the PEPFAR pledge

Faced with violence against sex workers in Kenya, Peninah Mwangi noted, “The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a Kenyan.”  Mwangi should know.

Peninah Mwangi is the Executive Director of the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, BHESP, located in Nairobi, Kenya. BHESP organizes, advocates, and empowers sex workers. Before the recent elections, BHESP organized `awareness campaigns’ with bar hostesses and their customers, to make sure that everyone voted, that no one missed voting due to drunkenness. It was a critical citizenship participatory popular education program run from one bar, and one barstool, to the next.

BHESP has marched and lobbied for decriminalization and legalization of sex work. They have marched and lobbied to end police violence against sex workers. At the same time, they have established drop-in centers, legal services, hotlines and havens. The Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme have improved and saved women’s lives in Kenya, and are a model for the rest of the world.

They are supported by Pathfinder International, the Open Society Foundations; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Almost every major organization that matters admires and supports the great, innovative and urgent work that BHESP provides. The large exception, the elephant-in-the-room exception, to this is PEPFAR, the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Why? Because Peninah Mwangi and her colleagues won’t take the `anti-prostitution pledge.’ Apparently sex work is a far greater `emergency’ than AIDS.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a case in which opponents to the `pledge’ argue that the `pledge’ violates first amendment rights and impairs attempts to improve the working conditions of sex workers. Proponents claim the `pledge’ rescues women from trafficking and worse.

Behind, or obscured by, the legal debate are the sex workers themselves. On one hand, researcher after researcher has noted that the PEPFAR pledge harms any campaigns or programs among sex workers to reduce and eradicate HIV and AIDS. Criminalization of sex work increases risk factors for AIDS among sex workers. Transnational and global criminalization of sex work widens the pool of those increasingly at risk into a global ocean. As some have noted, it’s a dark ripple effect, which keeps on spreading.

Here’s one example of the impact of the `pledge’: “As a result of the pledge, in many instances information sharing about successful programming with sex workers has nearly ceased. Sex work programming has become a taboo topic; organizations that receive other funding are likely to be interested in or to seek US government contracts and funds. Others with specific missions have reigned in all activities unrelated or tangentially related to their missions; this has affected many sex work projects the world over. The anti-prostitution pledge has prevented the sharing of information about successful programming and prevented scaling up successful operations.”

Prevented the sharing of information. Silence. Equals. Death. The death of a sex worker is the death of a woman, a mother, a sister, a `fellow citizen’, a human being. Ask Peninah Mwangi. She should know.


(Video Credit: Josephine Nekesa Were / YouTube.com)

Afghan feminists haunt the liberation narrative

Malalai Joya

On October 7, the world will “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Why did the United States send air and land troops into Afghanistan? To save the women … of course. How’s that working out?

Girls are going to school, and in big numbers. As many as 2.4 million girls have entered primary school. Few have finished, very few have gone on to secondary school. Girls’ schools are under attack. Women teachers are as well. The assaults can be physical and deadly, or verbal and “cultural” … and as deadly.

Recently, the Afghan government announced it would take over shelters for battered and abused women. The shelters had been accused of serving as a front for the sex work industry. If the government had taken over the shelters, women would have needed government approval and a virginity test before entering the shelter.  Afghan women’s groups and feminists leapt into action and defeated much of the proposal. It was “a rare victory.” Even now, the remaining regulation states that a woman can only leave the shelter if she is moving to the residence of a male relative. The laws governing women’s movement may have changed, but women report that walking in the streets without male escort invites physical harm.

Some swell victory.

Meanwhile, in Kabul, the sex workers, part of a thriving sector, come and go, speaking of Michelangelo.

When it comes to “saving Afghan women”, there is only blur. The government shades into the Taliban. The aid agencies nestle in the embrace of the military until they are one and the same. All in the name of the liberation of Afghan women.

Afghan feminist Leeda Mehran recently described the “joke” of the current state of Afghan women’s liberation: “A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea…. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.”

Inconvenient” Afghan feminists have not forgotten and have never stopped organizing. As a member of the Loya Jirga, the Afghan Parliament, Malalai Joya argued against the power of the warlords. As a member of the world, Joya has protested the so-called world powers’ continued support of warlords, who claim to be against the Taliban. For Joya, those who leave warlords in power become warlords themselves. The Afghan blur has become the global blur.

Farzana Wahidy’s photographs focus attention on the complexities of Afghan women’s lives. Wahidy has photographed the dire – attempted suicide by self immolation; the everyday –  women shopping, relaxing, doing what women do; the iconic – burqas; the joyful – weddings. She attempts to make the complex networks of context visual. Wahidy tries to show the common moments as she teaches the world how to see, how to look at, how to envision Afghan women.

Three years ago, the “charismatic” Sima Goryani founded the Ghoryan Women’s Saffron Association, an all-female co-op near Heart, with the slogan, “Why poppies, let us plant saffron!” At its inception, the cooperative had 72 members. Now they are close to 500. Five hundred women growers who are now taking on the misogyny of the marketplace, including that of international so-called saviors of whatever stripe, military or assistance.

One version of the Afghan women’s liberation story has been that Afghanistan is a great battle in which the lines are clear. On one side stand freedom, democracy and women’s rights. On the other the forces of evil line up under the banner of the Taliban. The real struggle is between progressive Afghan women and men, on one side, and a vast array of regressive forces, on the other. Which side are you on? Which side is your government, or your non-governmental organization, on?  Afghan feminists want to know. No joke.


(Photo Credit: Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan)


Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her

Marta Orellana

In the 1940s, the United States sent doctors to Guatemala to address syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. Not to stop them but rather to spread them. Specifically, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to know if penicillin after sex would prevent sexually transmitted diseases. So the doctors went to Guatemala and `recruited’ some 5500 soldiers, mental patients, children, sex workers into the program. They told them nothing, actually less than nothing. They infected the mental patients, all women; the children, all girls in orphanages; and the sex workers, all women, and then sent them to the soldiers. For Guatemalans, this was “the devil’s experiment.”

Marta Orellana was one of those orphans. She was nine years old when she was injected. For years, for decades, she lived with syphilis but was told that she had “bad blood”. She was in pain, and tired, her entire life. As she puts it, a “loving and patient” husband helped her overcome intimacy issues.

More than sixty years later, the United States [a] acknowledged the event, [b] apologized to the government of Guatemala, and [c] appointed a commission. The commission met yesterday and heard `shocking’ testimony. The story that attracted the most attention thus far is this: “a woman who was infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died six months later”.

There are other stories, and others will follow … of injections, of pain and suffering, of abuse; of torture, grand and petty, slow and swift. Of 13,000 infected Guatemalans, around 700 received any treatment. 83 died.

The Commissioners have found the research to have been “grievously wrong”, “chillingly egregious”, “morally culpable”, unjust, tragic, shameful, reprehensible, “cruel and inhuman”, unethical.

The medical researchers did not act in a vacuum nor were they without context or history. The problem isn’t that they were unethical but rather that they were ethical men engaged in `ethical’ violence. In the same way that the experiments in the Nazi death camps, occurring in the same period, didn’t require justification because they were part of a moral crusade, a longstanding war against Jews, people of color, gay and lesbian people, the disabled, the experiments in Guatemala didn’t require justification because they were part of a longstanding war against the indigenous and the rural, against women of color, against the weakest and the most marginal who somehow … somehow … pose the ultimate threat.

The US medical researchers in Guatemala were not rogues, renegades, or outlaws. They were ethical White men who saw as part of their dominion over all living things the obligation to decide the fate, and design the excruciating death, of women, people and nations of color.  The United States of America has apologized to the Republic of Guatemala. Marta Orellana must just live with the devil that haunts her.

(Photo Credit: Rory Carroll / The Guardian)

Call them, simply, workers

Yesterday was May 1, 2011. Around the globe, millions marched. Among the workers marching were sex workers, domestic workers, other denizens of the informal economy. Today is May 2, 2011. What are those workers today? Are they considered, simply, workers or are they `workers’, part worker, part … casual, part … informal, part …shadow, part … contingent, part … guest? All woman, all precarious, all the time.

Categorizing workers as part of a somehow other-than-formal work force and work space naturalizes their exclusion and subordination. Why should they have full rights when they’re not full workers? Minimum wage? For `real’ workers, yes. For live-in domestic workers? Not yet.

Why should informal workers have full `protections’ when they’re not full partners in the social industrial contract? They didn’t sign on. They’re informal. How could they have? They were coerced, trafficked, seduced, forced into their current jobs. They must have been. Otherwise, how could they have accepted such abysmal working conditions? The logic is impeccable … and wrong.

Over the weekend, sex workers in South Africa and India brought the lie of the informal economy logic to light. In South Africa, three Cape Town sex workers are suing the State for harassment. They say they were repeatedly taken into custody and held for forty-eight hours, after which they were released without being charged. The three women argue that when they were arrested, they were not `on duty.’ They were not arrested as sex workers but rather as women who at some point or another have engaged in sex work.

This some-point-or-another is the main insight of The First Pan-India Survey of Sex Workers, a major study of sex workers in India, released on Saturday, April 30. Over the past two years, Rohini Shani & V Kalyan Shankar surveyed three thousand women sex workers from fourteen states.

They found that poverty and limited education matter, but not in the way many expect. Poverty and limited education push girls into labor markets early on, often at the age of six or so, but not into sex work. The largest principal employment sector for the very young was domestic labor. The majority of women waited until they were somewhere between 15 and 22 before entering into sex work. That means women had been wage earning workers, for nine to sixteen years before they entered into sex work.

Over seventy percent of the women said they entered sex work of their own volition. For the vast majority, income was the reason. Sex work pays better than domestic labor, agricultural work, daily wage earning or so-called petty services.

In other words, from the perspectives of the sex workers, sex work is one of a number of `livelihood’ options, as Shani and Shankar conclude: “Sex work cannot be considered as singular or isolated in its links with poverty, for there are other occupations as well which fit into the category of `possible livelihood options’ before sex work emerges as one of them. Sex work is not the only site of poor working conditions. For those coming from the labour markets, they have experienced equally harsh conditions of highly labour intensive work for very low incomes. It is from these background cases, that the significance of sex work as a site of higher incomes or livelihoods emerges.”

From South Africa to India and beyond, the sex worker story centers on the fluidity of identity. In South Africa, three women argue that sex work is a job. It’s not an identity, it’s not permanent. Like any other job, when the worker leaves work, she gets to become herself … again. As herself, she has rights, including the rights to dignity, security, and the preservation of freedom.

In India, the researchers learned that context counts. They had to accept women’s multiple work identities if they wanted to depict and understand women’s choices and situations. As women sex workers described their working lives, they moved fluidly among various occupations, often in the same time period. For Indian women struggling in an unforgiving economy, no occupation is an island entire unto itself.

South African sex workers suing the State, Indian sex workers discussing their lives have something to say to workers, trade unions, researchers, and allies everywhere. Sex workers are not like workers nor are they labor lite. They are workers. While it may be true that none of us is free until all of us are free, they tell us that none of us can talk about women workers’ freedom until all of us recognize the fluidity of women workers’ identities. But for now, as a start, call them, simply, workers.