As our self-interests differ, so do our feelings. - Pierre Corneille
It’s interesting how two different organizations doing work that on the surface might seem very similar can nevertheless be extremely different, both morally and practically. This is nowhere more true than in sex worker outreach, where a harm reduction organization working in the same city as a “rescue” organization nearly always has much better results, even if the “rescue” group is better funded. The reason is simple: harm reduction groups treat their clients as human beings who have fallen into a bad situation, but still deserve respect and autonomy; such an organization may offer shelter, services, health care, legal assistance, vocational training and the like, but none of it is compulsory or conditional. “Rescue” groups, on the other hand, look upon their clients as things to be done to (“saved”, “lifted”, “converted”, etc); though they offer the same type of services as harm reduction groups, these are generally conditional upon the women leaving prostitution or even submitting to captivity and/or brainwashing.
Two charities recently came to my attention; both operate in Asian countries and run boarding schools for poor girls with the specific intention of providing them an alternative to sex work…but there the similarity stops. Let’s look first at Chaithanya Happy Home in Hyderabad, India:
…Chaithanya Happy Home is part of Chaithanya Mahila Mandali, India’s first nonprofit organization founded by a former sex worker, Jayamma Bandari…the 35 girls living in the home are all daughters of…sex workers. Even a decade ago, the fate for these girls was to join the same profession as their mothers once they came of age. Today, however, they are living in a safe place and…attending one of the best…schools in Hyderabad, dreaming of becoming schoolteachers, engineers, doctors and revenue collectors. The stigma and discrimination attached to…sex workers in Indian society trickles down to their daughters. To change this, nongovernmental organizations are working to secure basic rights for the girls…but activists say more needs to be done to change age-old societal attitudes stigmatizing sex workers and their daughters…In Hyderabad alone, there are more than 25,000 female sex workers…Bandari’s organization has helped 600 of them to possess valid proof of identity. But thousands of others are still unable to access free health care, to vote or to open a bank account.
More than 60 percent of the total number of sex workers in Hyderabad do not own any property and live in rented apartments…They do not reveal their real profession to their landlords or to their neighbors, fearing that they will be evicted and shunned. A [non sex-working] parent will never allow…her kids to mingle with the kid of a sex worker…[the] exclusion for being sex workers…[thus] trickles down to their children, denying them basic rights in the past such as education…some schools reasoned that parents of other children would oppose, others refused to accept them on the grounds that the children had only one parent…None of these children had a birth certificate, as their mothers delivered at home…[but Chaithanya Mahila Mandali] appealed to the schools to consider this and accept the children without a valid birth certificate…also…the…Right to Education…law, in effect since April 2010, has made elementary education compulsory and free in any government school. This has encouraged more sex workers to enroll their children in local schools…As a result, the number of daughters of sex workers attending school is increasing across India…
The girls in the “Happy Home” were all brought there by their mothers, who wished for them to have a better life; Bandari and the other interviewed activists all place the blame for the situation exactly where it belongs, on bad laws and social stigma which marginalize sex workers and thereby trap their daughters so that sex work is their only option. There is nary a mention of “sex traffickers” in the whole article, which is more than can be said for “House of Grace”:
…House of Grace is a home for tribal girls [in Northern Thailand] at risk of being sold into sexual slavery. House of Grace has rescued hundreds of girls, before the horror of child prostitution became a reality…“the finest children’s home in Thailand”…is a first-rate facility that houses and tenderly raises Akha girls in a loving Christian atmosphere…In most cases we are doing a preventative work — trying to get the girls to safety…before they are sold into prostitution. It is very difficult to rescue a girl who has already been trapped into that lifestyle, so our main focus is to reach little girls before this horror has become a reality for them. As God extends our reach, we will also be able to rescue those who are trapped…[if] a father or stepfather is going to sell his daughter…often there is a kind person in the girl’s life who will try to keep this from happening. Many times a grandmother, aunt, older sister or a good neighbor will bring a young girl to House of Grace to protect her…
Though the last sentence claims that those who bring girls there are “often” relatives, all that talk of “rescuing those who are trapped” and the fact that the Akha are a favorite target of “rescue” groups leads me to believe otherwise. While Chaithanya Mahila Mandali recognizes that young girls are pushed into sex work for social and legal reasons, House of Grace prefers to promote “trafficking” hysteria and “slavery” rhetoric and to demonize male relatives (when poor families sell their daughters into brothels, the mothers are to blame at least as often as the fathers). And while the language of the Indian article is fairly objective even when it’s discussing the awful and often violent conditions under which poor sex workers in Hyderabad live, the second is rife with dysphemisms like “horror”, “slavery” and “lifestyle” (which is always a pejorative term for Christians, evoking the idea of “temptation” into sexual “sin”.) But the most striking difference of all is that while Chaithanya only takes girls whose sex worker mothers voluntarily surrender them, it is clear that House of Grace has no such scruples and is happy to abduct any “heathen” girls they can get their hands on, with the help of whatever confederate they can arrange, using the excuse that somebody said she might end up as a whore.