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Social and Behavioral Sciences Gateway
Bringing Attention to Human Trafficking

UCI social scientists offer perspective in recognition of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day
Smith and Ramachandran
According to the U.S. State Department, an estimated 27.6 million people are exploited each year through forced labor and/or commercial sex around the world. Classified as human trafficking, these crimes go largely unreported with victims predominantly comprising vulnerable populations. National Human Trafficking Awareness Day – January 11 – offers a critical opportunity to bring this global issue to the forefront. Within the UCI School of Social Sciences, researchers are examining human trafficking from multiple angles, including its deep-rooted history, why it persists and how interventions designed to improve outcomes may be part of the problem. Below, they share their work and opportunities to learn more.

Women's rights and state responses – Tony Smith, UCI political science
"Cultural portrayals of human trafficking, whether through television, film, or literature, might lead someone who is only casually engaged in the issue to believe human trafficking happens only in economically disadvantaged countries or far away and foreign cities," says Charles Anthony (Tony) Smith, political science and law professor and author of Sex Trafficking and Human Rights: The Status of Women and State Responses (Georgetown University Press). "The truth is that human trafficking is ubiquitous around the world."

Through case studies on five countries - India, Thailand, Russia, Nigeria, and Brazil - with significant human trafficking problems, Smith and coauthors spotlight an alarming, but common, theme in effectiveness of state response to combatting sex trafficking, and that is the degree to which women and girls are perceived as full citizens. They draw a critical link between women's rights and nation state responses to human trafficking, highlighting key factors that make women and girls more susceptible targets and why equal rights must be part of the solution.

"There is a direct relationship between social, political, cultural, and economic equality for women and how effectively states respond to human trafficking," he says. "Where women and girls are treated as second class citizens, the states tend to criminalize the actions of those enmeshed in human trafficking, including those who are actually trafficked. In those places where women come closer to social, political, cultural, and economic equality, the women and girls victimized by sex trafficking are thought of as a vulnerable group in need of assistance rather than just criminals."

As for solutions, he notes that equality is key and policymakers should "take the crimes surrounding sex trafficking seriously. Because the process targets the disenfranchised to begin with, the criminal enterprise never garners the level of policy-maker intensity that crimes that impact their constituents might. Passing other policy initiatives to diminish the systematic inequality faced by women and girls would go a long way toward improving the state response to sex trafficking."

Misconceptions and realities – Vibhuti Ramachandran, UCI global & international studies
Vibhuti Ramachandran, global & international studies assistant professor, is an anthropologist of law, gender and sexuality, and NGOs, whose work focuses on South Asia. Her research examines how Indian law, NGOs, and global campaigns against sex trafficking converge to govern prostitution, and how the women targeted by these intersecting interventions respond to and resist them. Based on ethnographic methods and socio-legal analysis, her research informs the book she is currently completing, Immoral Traffic: Law, NGOs, and the Governance of Prostitution in India, under contract with Cambridge University Press.

In the book, Ramachandran explores how the multiple entities and agendas intervening against prostitution in India approach it through the contrasting lenses of victimhood and immorality. She centers how sex workers navigate these intersecting interventions ostensibly aimed at helping them, that are often deeply punitive and moralistic, and rarely align with the outcomes they seek. The book is rooted in encounters Ramachandran observed between those implementing these interventions (NGOs and Indian legal actors), and those experiencing them (sex workers from India and Bangladesh, those who were trafficked as well as those who do sex work voluntarily).

Her most recent article, published in Contemporary South Asia, examines how India’s anti-prostitution law places sex workers in a form of shelter-based detention termed "protective custody" following police and NGO-initiated raids and rescues. Based on ethnographic research at a shelter in Mumbai where sex workers are thus detained, Ramachandran details how it restricts the movements and livelihoods of those the law is supposed to "protect," and highlights how sex workers resist and escape it. Ramachandran points out that while shelter detention is prescribed by India’s anti-prostitution law, it is fueled by global anti-trafficking campaigns.

"Shelter detention in Indian law dates back to late colonial practices of surveilling and regulating prostitution. But U.S.-funded global anti-trafficking campaigns over the past two decades have resulted in more sex workers being sent to shelters in the name of rescue and protection," she says. In the article, she situates shelter detention within other punitive forms of governance of sexuality in India, and a range of carceral anti-trafficking solutions across global contexts.

In another recent article, published in Social Sciences, Ramachandran critiques U.S. funded, NGO-led anti-trafficking efforts that are centered on "victim-witness testimony." Here, she challenges prevalent assumptions about this criminal justice approach always benefiting survivors of sex trafficking. Her ethnographic research in Indian courts revealed that though anti-trafficking interventions prioritize training sex workers they have rescued to testify against alleged traffickers, such instances of "victim-witness testimony" are rare. The article explores the reasons behind sex workers' hesitation and refusal to testify against alleged traffickers, and the challenges faced by those who do testify.

Ramachandran has also examined the limitations of interventions against labor trafficking, focusing, in particular, on the rescue of young migrant workers from exploitative domestic work in India. In an article published in Humanity, she explores a context shaped by both U.S. funded anti-trafficking efforts and Indian laws against bonded labor and child labor. She found through her ethnographic research that merely rescuing underage workers does not change the socioeconomic conditions propelling trafficking and labor exploitation. For effective interventions against labor exploitation, "we need longer-lasting and wider-ranging solutions beyond rescuing people from trafficking situations," she says.

When it comes to policies to protect those most impacted, Ramachandran says we need more structural solutions that do not see human trafficking as an isolated phenomenon.

"We need to situate human trafficking (whether into the sex trade or a range of labor sectors) within a spectrum of forms of labor exploitation and gender-based violence that impoverished communities, migrant workers, and those seeking employment opportunities face," she says. She adds: "Help should be offered in consultation and solidarity with survivors of trafficking. 'Solutions' that are punitive, moralistic, or too narrow in their focus do a great disservice to survivors of trafficking, as well as to migrant workers, sex workers, and others upon whom they are sometimes forcefully imposed."