In this third post on the contemporary anti-trafficking movement, I evaluate the degree to which the Obama administration has taken a turn away from the sexual politics of the Bush administration in its approach to trafficking, as well as global health funding (click here for the first and second posts).

It is no secret that the Bush administration was vastly at odds with the scientific community on many issues, including global warming, stem cell research, and sexual health matters such as HIV/AIDS research and sex education. Obama’s campaign and election has brought widespread support from the scientific community; prior to his election 61 Nobel laureates publicly endorsed Obama’s science policy.

While many changes have occurred since Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, I focus here on four indicators of change around global sexual health and anti-trafficking efforts:

  • the appointment of Dr. Eric Goosby as US Global AIDS Coordinator,
  • the appointment of Luis de Baca as the director of the Trafficking in Persons office,
  • the content and tone of the 2009 Trafficking in Persons report (in comparison to previous TIP reports), and
  • the status of the anti-prostitution pledge requirement for USAID funding

1) On the appointment of Dr. Eric Goosby, PlusNews Global HIV/AIDS news and analysis reports:


“Just three weeks into his new appointment, United States Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Eric Goosby outlined …some of the changes that President Barack Obama’s administration will make to the country’s global AIDS policy …

“Goosby … made it clear the scientific evidence rather than moral concerns would drive intensified eforts to reach high-risk groups — men who have sex with men, injecting drug users and sex workers — with HIV prevention and care” (emphasis mine).

2) On the appointment of Luis de Baca to head the Trafficking in Persons Office, according to Kathleen Franke, Professor and director of the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia University:

“de Baca’s appointment is very good news.  Mr. de Baca, a lawyer who has worked as legislative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee de Bacaand in the Justice Department as chief counsel of Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit is a smart, experienced and effective choice for the job.   He has worked for years on this issue and is very-well respected in criminal justice and advocates’ circles alike for his approach to this difficult problem.  He was one of the lead DOJ attorneys who successfully prosecuted Kil Soo Lee, the former owner of an American Samoa garment factory, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in illegally confining and using as forced labor over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese garment workers.” (“Good news on U.S. Anti-Trafficking Policy.” Gender and Sexuality Law Blog, March 25, 2009.)

3) On the 2009 Trafficking in Persons report. Melissa Ditmore , who has a Ph.D. in sociology and has worked for many years as a sex work scholar and activist, is one of several hopeful readers of the 2009 TIP report:

“I’m encouraged by the greater recognition of trafficking into a wide variety ofMelissa Ditmore workplaces, the concern for people who have been unjustly imprisoned, and the lack of sensationalism when discussing sex work. …

“Enforcing existing labor laws such as wage and hour provisions is one way to address abuses in many workplaces, particularly in factories and agriculture. Expanding these provisions to address domestic workers (they are not offered such protections now) would benefit maids and nannies and other live-in employees. Obama emphasized evidence and efficacy in his inauguration speech – these are a few examples of opportunities to act” (“Trafficking Report: Less Sensationalism, more Reality.” Rh Reality Check, June 23. 2009).

4) On the status of the anti-prostitution pledge requirement for USAID funding. As reported in my second post in this series, in 2006 this was found to violate first amendment rights of U.S. organizations attempting to provide public health services (see: Pepfar watch). The Bush Administration filed an appeal on this decision one week before Bush left office. In July of 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice under Obama dropped its appeal. Jodi Jacobsen, founder and former director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) reports that this move by the Obama DOJ is being heralded by the public health community:

“in withdrawing the appeal “without predjudice,” the Obama DOJJodi Jacobsen retains the right to resubmit an appeal by January 8, 2010. Many advocates are hopeful that the Administration will use the intervening time to closely review the negative i plications of this policy for HIV prevention work in the field.” (Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jodi-jacobson/doj-drops-appeal-of-injun_b_242676.html)

So now, with these revisions and appointments in place, all that most of us can do is watch to see how they are implemented. Rest assured I will be watching and posting an update on any DOJ movement on the anti-prostitution pledge around January 8, 2010. And for right now, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Pakistan, the U.S. State Department has an opportunity to show its commitment to ending “modern day slavery” in Pakistan.  In a story published by Time magazine earlier this week, we learn of three landlords holding their debt-bonded workers as hostages:

“As Hillary Clinton pays her first visit to Pakistan as Secretary of State, an unfolding hostage crisis will test the Obama Administration’s rhetoric on human rights in the region. Officials at the U.S. embassy in Islamabad say at least three landlords have held as many as 170 bonded farmworkers at gunpoint on their estates in the country’s southeast Sindh province since late September. With U.S. attention focused on getting Pakistan to deal with huge security issues to Washington’s satisfaction, will Clinton be able to press Islamabad’s rulers to address a controversy involving rural poverty and modern-day slavery?

The crisis began after the workers’ advocates successfully petitioned three district courts to declare as illegal the debts that the landlords were using to compel the workers into indentured servitude. Those debts average around 1,000 Pakistani rupees — roughly $12. The hostages, a third of whom are children, some as young as 4 months old, are landless peasants, known as haari in Urdu. According to Ghulam Hyder, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Green Rural Development Organization, the landlords have killed one hostage already and are threatening to kill the others unless they drop the cases and return to work. The landlords also abducted Amarchand Bheel, an advocate for the laborers, as he traveled to court to plead their cause.

A 2004 study by the International Labour Office (ILO) estimated that there are up to a million haari families in Sindh alone, the majority living in conditions of debt bondage, which the U.N. defines as modern-day slavery. Last fall, Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper quoted the labor minister of neighboring Punjab province as saying that landlords hold millions of forced laborers in “private prisons” across the country (emphasis mine).

Thanks to Obama, de Baca, and others on the TIP team, the U.S. State Department can finally begin to recognize the full range and magnitude of highly oppressive working conditions (most of which entail stories such as the one above). Let’s hope that U.S. responses to the situation in Pakistan and elsewhere are measured, non-sensationalist, and extend far beyond simple demand-side strategies (i.e. “shaming and naming” the consumers of goods and services produced in oppressive conditions).

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