Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Mobilising the Child Victim: The Localisation of Human Trafficking in Singapore through Global Activism

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Mobilising the Child Victim: The Localisation of Human Trafficking in Singapore through Global Activism

Article excerpt

Abstract. In this paper I examine the local mobilisation of the dominant global framing of the problem of human trafficking through 'the female child victim' in child sex trafficking advocacy campaigns. The child victim is a symbolic and emotive frame embodied in the Third World female child and enacted through her helplessness and experiences of extreme violence and (sexual) abuse in trafficking situations across diverse contexts globally. I use The Body Shop's (TBS's) 2009-12 global campaign against child sex trafficking as my site for discussion of the way frames in global human rights activism move into local contexts, often coming to define the ways contemporary human rights problems are understood and reproduced locally. I draw on ethnographic research on human trafficking in Singapore to explore the ways in which the child victim frame is mobilised in a specific locale through the involvement of a local nongovernmental organisation and university student actors as part of TBS's campaign strategy. Although recent geographical scholarship on social movements has embraced a networked approach, I argue for heightened attention to the geographies of scaled (re)iteration, or local mobilisation that occurs as transnational activism connects with particular places. The role of framing in embedding global human rights issues locally in transnational activism is central to this process.

Keywords: human trafficking, activism, local mobilisation, framing, children, Singapore

1 Introduction

Excerpt from field notes (21 March 2010):

Dede (literally, Tittle sister') enters the room with a cap and scarf covering her head and is led by a staff member from the Singaporean nongovernmental organisation (NGO) MIGRANT (1) to a chair in the centre front of the large meeting room. Around a hundred pairs of eyes are focused on her as she takes her seat facing away from the audience and towards the translator from MIGRANT who will convey her narrative to the audience. She is, we are told, a victim of the most heinous and fastest-growing transnational crime in the world: sex trafficking. MIGRANT'S president continues, "It is important for you to hear the voice of a victim, it is important for you to hear her suffering. Open your heart to this child who cries for justice." Silence falls over the audience as she begins her story, a sordid tale of forced marriage as a prepubescent minor, followed by internal trafficking for prostitution after she ran away from her 'husband' who would rape her regularly and well before she reached puberty. Forced to service up to thirty clients a day, seven days a week and for no remuneration during her internal trafficking in Indonesia, she was, we are told, truly the epitome of a sex slave. But there is more. The audience gasps, the collective consciousness of the room whispering "More? How can it get worse than this?" Some women sitting in front of me and then on my immediate left begin weeping. The president of MIGRANT pauses and looks around the room, clearly satisfied with the heightened emotional state of the audience. She asks Dede if she is sure she wants to continue; she can stop if the disclosure is too painful for her. "No", Dede defiantly exclaims, "I want to tell my story." Dede proceeds to narrate the next stage of her journey into the abyss of sexual slavery. "One of my clients offered me work in Batam, doing a job outside the sex industry", she explains. But when she arrives in Batam she is sold for a second time into prostitution. She is placed in a KTV (Karaoke Television) bar where she is again forced to see clients, even, we are told, during menstruation, and work for a paltry remuneration composed largely of tips from clients.

We reach the penultimate point of her story, and the reason she has been brought to Singapore to give testimony. She reveals that she was lured from the KTV bar in Batam by a supposed 'friend' to Singapore for a 'shopping trip'. …

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