by Chi Mgbako
May 22, 2012
Before a hushed audience of over 2000 women’s rights advocates from 140 countries stood Kthi Win, a sex worker and leader of a national organization of female, male, and transgender sex workers in Burma. With quiet confidence she bravely stated:
“The key demand of the sex workers’ movement in Burma, in Asia and all around the world is simple. We demand that sex work is recognized as work. But we have one other key demand, specific to certain parts of the women’s movement. We demand that we are not treated as victims.”
This defiant rejection of victimhood by a sex worker, speaking on behalf of the global sex workers’ rights movement, took place at the recent AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development, one of the largest gatherings of women’s rights activists in the world. It was an extraordinary moment because there’s a tendency by some in the women’s movement to reject sex workers like Kthi because they dispute the monolithic narrative that all people in prostitution seek rescue.
The characterization of sex workers fighting for their human rights as “prostituted women” engaged in futile attempts to “organize the enslaved” is perplexing. For five years my students and I have worked with and been inspired by sex workers successfully organizing from the margins of society. Sex workers in India who fight against police abuse, work as safe sex peer educators, and run afterschool programs for their children. Sex workers in South Africa who are leading a national campaign to decriminalize sex work. Sex workers in Malawi who had the courage to sue the government and challenge the constitutionality of forced HIV testing of sex workers without informed consent. And there are countless more examples of sex workers organizing in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America. To label and disregard these advocates as “victims” who cannot comprehend their true “enslavement” is condescending, disempowering, and untrue.