By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, Jan 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sex workers in India have slammed a global conference on the abolition of prostitution, saying campaigners for the end of the sex trade failed to recognise some women were prostitutes out of choice and not due to coercion, trafficking or force.
Participants at the Delhi conference - including former sex workers from South Africa, Canada, India and the United States - have been sharing stories of sexual slavery and calling for an end to prostitution by punishing clients, pimps and traffickers.
But sex workers' groups in India said there was a difference between voluntary sex work and sexual exploitation, and that not all women in the trade are victims or trafficked sex slaves.
"We are against anyone who does not recognise us as human beings who can take our own decisions," said Kiran Deshmukh, a sex worker from Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad, a collective of sex workers from India's western state of Maharashtra.
"Making us victims with no agency is a violation of our human right to work in sex work. By 'abolishing' us they are not helping us - they are ignoring our need to work and earn a living with dignity."
Sex work is illegal in most countries across the world, yet it exists everywhere. There are an estimated 40 million sex workers globally, according to French charity Fondation Scelles.
Abolitionists say most have been lured, duped or forced into sexual slavery by pimps and traffickers, largely due to poverty, a lack of opportunities and having a traditionally marginalised status in society.
Once forced to work in brothels, on street corners, in massage parlours, strip clubs or private homes, it is difficult for sex workers to leave, activists say.
For many it is the threat of physical abuse from their pimp that keeps them in prostitution, but some stay of their own accord, ostracised by their families with nowhere to go.
"WE ARE NOT COMMODITIES"
Groups from the National Network of Sex Workers in India said abolitionists were being moralistic and judgmental. They said legalising the trade would regulate the industry and ensure there was no exploitation of women and girls.
"The violence of a judgmental attitude has contributed untold misery on sex workers encouraging lumpen elements to justify the violence meted out to sex workers," said a statement from the group, signed by over 2,000 sex workers, sex workers' children and 20 groups representing their rights.
However, several speakers at the conference said the vast majority of sex workers were exploited.
"So what if there are women out there who are doing this out of their own free will?" said Rachel Moran, an Irish prostitution survivor and founder of the charity SPACE International.
"There are 40 million women and girls on this earth that are prostituted and if you have a tiny sprinkling of those who say they have chosen it fully and voluntarily, that doesn't negate the experience of the vast majority."
Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, attending the conference as a strong advocate for prostitution to be abolished, said women and girls were being bought and sold like commodities and that action had to be taken to end the global sex trade.
"We need to put on the onus and shame where it belongs - which is on the perpetrator, the aggressor and the person who thinks that women and girl's bodies are purchasable," Judd said.
"We are not commodities, we are human beings and we are entitled to bodily integrity, sexual dignity and the right to be free from all forms of body invasion."
The three-day World Congress on the Elimination of the Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls - which brings together 250 charities and activists, as well as academics, trade unions and lawyers from across 30 countries - ends on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)