Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Dark Side of the Anti-Trafficking Movement

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

The Dark Side of the Anti-Trafficking Movement

Article excerpt

A rising young academic, Dr. Elena Shih--who is an assistant professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University and faculty affiliate in sociology at the Watson Institute for International Studies--examines complex issues surrounding women's lives and survival.

By this summer's end, Shih will complete writing her book Manufacturing Freedom: Trafficking Rescue, Rehabilitation, and the Slave Free Good. The book examines the rise of the anti-trafficking movement from the year 2000 with the United Nations Palermo protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children, and the corresponding U.S. Protection Act of 2000. Shih, a transnational feminist scholar, describes these as "two watershed pieces of legislation that bring the issue of human trafficking onto the global legal landscape."

"What's so interesting about that moment," she explains, "is that issues of trafficking that encompass labor rights, migration, gender rights, laws against prostitution have all been dealt with prior to the year 2000, but this is the first time we have this new category scripted into law."

The U.S. has been a large force in driving global efforts against trafficking. In the book, Shih examines what largely U.S.-driven anti-trafficking norms look like in the transnational movement in China and Thailand. With her doctorate in sociology and her training as an ethnographer, she says embedded participant observation was really important to her.

"I looked at this question microscopically through the idea of the slave free good" says Shih. "That's largely an artifact that emerges around the early 2000s, a good that is made by formerly trafficked people.

"In the case that I'm looking at, they're training former sex workers to make jewelry and then selling the jewelry in the United States as a 'slave free good' with all the promises of freedom, an end to enslavement and virtuous wages for victims of trafficking in the global south."

Shih did extensive research, traveling to Beijing and Bangkok each summer during graduate school, visiting sites where the jewelry is produced. The book examines the new moral and labor regimes that center around acceptable Western femininity when these largely American projects try to transform Asian women's sexual labor into manual labor.

Making jewelry alongside workers and participating in outreach alongside activists gave Shih insight into the commodity chain. She says the anti-trafficking movement has largely trampled sex worker rights and portrayed sex workers as either victims needing rescue or criminals requiring surveillance. …

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