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Thursday, May 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By John R. Miller
The worldwide fights against AIDS and slavery are both worthwhile, uphill battles. However, well-intentioned people seeking to limit the spread of AIDS in at-risk populations, especially in the commercial sex industry, often ignore a larger challenge helping to free the slaves of that industry.
Melinda French Gates addressed the need to fight AIDS in India by empowering and helping women obtain condoms through a prostitutes' union, a project supported by the Gates Foundation ("AIDS and India," Times Sunday Opinion, April 11).
Unfortunately, at the same time Gates was in India praising the union, the Times of India reported that this union fought police who were trying to rescue a 14-year-old girl sold into prostitution against her will. After the girl's "keepers" warned union members that police were arriving, members threw rocks, injuring six police officers. Fortunately, the girl was liberated despite the attack.
How can this happen? Many of the union members who may have been initially forced into prostitution are older women dependent on dwindling payments from the union and from the brothel owners and organized criminal elements who exploit younger girls. What we have is a "devil's bargain" to distribute condoms, the union agrees to resist efforts to break up the brothels and free the prisoners.
As senior adviser on slavery to Secretary of State Colin Powell, I have traveled the world to combat what is euphemistically called trafficking in persons.
I've witnessed catatonic women in India, barred in rooms waiting to endure another round of abuse by a client-rapist. In Mumbai, I talked to a beautiful 14-year-old girl, Sima. She had been sold for $300 to a brothel where adults paid several dollars each to rape and abuse her. Sima is now at St. Katherine's shelter receiving treatment and education.
In Calcutta alone, some 100,000 women and children are engaged in prostitution. Between 20 and 40 percent of those victims are under 18, according to Sanlaap, a leading local nongovernmental organization (NGO).
Under both U.S. and Indian law, and under international covenant, children under 18 engaged in prostitution are by definition slave victims since they are not capable of consent. Sanlaap sees evidence that the average age of an Indian prostitute is decreasing because brothel owners increasingly replace older women with younger ones. Younger girls such as Sima bring a higher price.
It's naïve to think that in India and elsewhere, women become and stay prostitutes by "choice." Research by Dr. Ann Cotton of the University of Washington School of Medicine, and others, reveals that the vast majority of women in prostitution are assaulted, raped and harassed. No wonder her study indicates that 89 percent of prostitutes want to escape.
It is no surprise that criminal networks of brothel owners and human traffickers are dead-set against loosening the prisoners' bonds. Unlike drugs, which can be sold just once, humans can be sold over and over, generating huge profits for organized crime.
The challenges facing the Gates Foundation and other foundations are how to fight both AIDS and slavery without ignoring the plight of captives. There are many nongovernmental organizations in India that can help the Gates Foundation achieve both aims. The foundation deserves credit for funding Andrew Levine's masterpiece, "The Day My God Died," a film that graphically describes the link between prostitution, AIDS and sex slavery in India.
People trying to improve the health of Indians must consider and act on this link. Otherwise, they run the risk of being judged the same way as some of their 19th-century predecessors: health reformers who sought to improve health conditions for slaves on ships while ignoring the slave trade.
John R. Miller is director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. He is a former Seattle City Council member and former U.S. representative from Washington state's 1st Congressional District.
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