Feminist Legal Studies

, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 245–262 | Cite as

Vulnerability in Domestic Discourses on Trafficking: Lessons from the Indian Experience

  • Prabha KotiswaranEmail author


In recent years, rather than addressing the needs of sex workers themselves or of trafficked persons, international anti-trafficking law has been mobilised towards an ideological end, namely the abolition of sex work. The vulnerability of ‘third world’ female sex workers in particular has provided a potent image for justifying state intervention backed by the full force of the criminal law. Moral legitimacy has been afforded to this by a radical feminist discourse which views sex workers as nothing but hapless victims. Drawing on the work of Martha Fineman and legal realists like Robert Hale, this article redeploys vulnerability in trafficking debates to depart from its narrative of victimhood and to offer a renewed critique of liberal legalism, which has in the trafficking context been characterised by legal strategies of criminalisation and the attendant rescue and rehabilitation of trafficked persons. Specifically, it examines how three Indian social legislations regulating bonded labour, contract labour and inter-state migrant labour, and targeted at the domestic trafficking of men, conceptualise vulnerability in substantially different ways when compared to the 2000 Palermo Protocol on Trafficking (at least as it has been enforced to date). To the extent that these Indian laws construe the vulnerability of labour as systemic, trafficking is understood as a problem of labour migration to be addressed primarily by labour law. As such, this view of vulnerability, I argue, not only helps to de-exceptionalise trafficking as always equivalent to the trafficking of women for sex work, and therefore sex work, but also to substantively address the vulnerability of both male and female workers in other labour markets.


India Labour trafficking Coercion Exploitation 


  1. Barry, Kathleen. 1995. The prostitution of sexuality: The global exploitation of women. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Berman, Jacqueline. 2010. Biopolitical management, economic calculation and “trafficked women.” International Migration. Special Issue on Human Trafficking 48(4): 84–113.Google Scholar
  3. Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. Temporarily yours: Intimacy, authenticity, and the commerce of sex. Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2010. Militarized humanitarianism meets carceral feminism: The politics of sex, rights, and freedom in contemporary anti-trafficking campaigns. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Special Issue on Feminists Theorize International Political Economy, guest edited by Kate Bedford and Shirin Rai 36(1): 45–71.Google Scholar
  5. Blanchet, Therese. 2002. Beyond boundaries: A critical look at women labour migration and the trafficking within. Dhaka: Drishti Research Centre.Google Scholar
  6. Breman, Jan, and Isabelle Guérin. 2009. On bondage: Old and new. In India’s unfree workforce of bondage old and new, ed. Jan Breman, Isabelle Guérin, and Aseem Prakash, 1–17. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Chacón, Jennifer. 2006. Misery and myopia: Understanding the failures of U.S. efforts to stop human trafficking. Fordham Law Review 74: 2977–3040.Google Scholar
  8. Chuang, Janie. 2010. Rescuing trafficking from ideological capture: Prostitution reform and anti-trafficking law and policy. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 158: 1655–1728.Google Scholar
  9. Davidson, Julia O’Connell. 2006. Will the real sex slave please stand up? Feminist Review 83: 4–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Devi, Mahasweta. 2002. The fairytale of Rajabasha. In Outcast: Four stories 57–82 (trans: Sarmistha Dutta Gupta). Kolkata: Seagull Books.Google Scholar
  11. Doezema, Jo. 2010. Sex slaves and discourse masters: The construction of trafficking. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  12. Doezema, Jo. 2005. Now you see her, now you don’t: Sex workers at the UN trafficking protocol negotiations. Social & Legal Studies 14(1): 61–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fineman, Martha Albertson. 2008-2009. The vulnerable subject anchoring equality in the human condition. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 20:1–23.Google Scholar
  14. FitzGerald, Sharron. 2011. Introduction. In Regulating the international movement of women: From protection to control, ed. Sharron FitzGerald. London: Routledge Cavendish.Google Scholar
  15. Gallagher, Anne T. 2001. Human rights and the new UN protocols on trafficking and migrant smuggling: A preliminary analysis. Human Rights Quarterly 23(4): 975–1004.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. 2007. Collateral damage: The impact of anti-trafficking measures on human rights around the world. Bangkok: Self-Published.Google Scholar
  17. Guérin, Isabelle in collaboration with G. Venkatasubramanian. 2009. Corridors of migration and chains of dependence: Brick kiln moulders in Tamil Nadu. In India’s unfree workforce of bondage old and new, eds. Breman Jan, Isabelle Guérin and Aseem Prakash, 170–197. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Hale, Robert L. 1943. Bargaining, duress, and economic liberty. Columbia Law Review 43: 603–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Halley, Janet, Prabha Kotiswaran, Hila Shamir, and Chantal Thomas. 2006. From the international to the local in feminist legal responses to rape, prostitution/sex work, and sex trafficking: Four studies in contemporary governance feminism. Harvard Journal of Law & Gender 29(2): 335–423.Google Scholar
  20. Hathaway, James C. 2008. The human rights quagmire of ‘human trafficking’. Virginia Journal of International Law 49(1): 1–59.Google Scholar
  21. International Labour Office. 2009. Cost of coercion, global report under the follow-up to the ILO declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work. Geneva: ILO.Google Scholar
  22. Jordan, Ann. 2012. The Swedish Law to criminalize clients: A failed experiment in social engineering. Available at
  23. Jeffreys, Sheila. 2008. The industrial vagina: The political economy of the global sex trade. Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Kapur, Ratna. 2007. India. In Collateral damage: The impact of anti-trafficking measures on human rights around the world, ed. Bandana pattanaik. Bangkok: Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.Google Scholar
  25. Kapur, Ratna. 2005. Erotic justice law and the new politics of postcolonialism. London: The GlassHouse Press.Google Scholar
  26. Kempadoo, Kamala, Jyoti Sanghera, and Bandana Pattanaik (eds.). 2005. Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered new perspectives on migration, sex work, and human rights, boulder. Colo: Paradigm Publishers.Google Scholar
  27. Kennedy, David W. 2004. The dark sides of virtue: Reassessing international humanitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Kristof, Nicholas D. 2004a. Girls for sale. New York Times, A15, January 17.Google Scholar
  29. Kristof, Nicholas D. 2004b. Bargaining for freedom. New York Times, A27, January 21.Google Scholar
  30. Kristof, Nicholas D. 2006. Slavery in our time. New York Times, sec. 4, January 22.Google Scholar
  31. Kristof, Nicholas D. 2011a. Raiding a brothel in India. New York Times, May 25,
  32. Kristof, Nicholas D. 2011b. She’s 10 and may be sold to a brothel. New York Times, June 1,
  33. Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl Wudunn. 2010. Half the sky how to change the world. London: Virago Press.Google Scholar
  34. Lerche, Jens. 2009. A global alliance against forced labour? Unfree labour, neo-liberal globalization, and the international labour organization. In India’s unfree workforce of bondage old and new, ed. Jan Breman, Isabelle Guérin, and Aseem Prakash, 352–385. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Marks, Susan. 2008. Exploitation as an international legal concept. In International law on the left: Re-examining marxist legacies, ed. Susan Marks, 157–171. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Miller, Alice. 2004. Sexuality, violence against women and human rights: Women make demands, and ladies get protection. Health and Human Rights: An International Quarterly Journal 7:16.Google Scholar
  37. Munro, Vanessa E. 2008. Exploring exploitation: Trafficking in sex, work and sex work. In Demanding sex: Critical reflections on the regulation of prostitution, ed. Vanessa E. Munro, and Marina Della Giusta, 83–97. Hampshire: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  38. Orford, Anne. 2003. Reading humanitarian intervention human rights and the use of force in international law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Sanghera, Jyoti. 2005. Unpacking the trafficking discourse. In Trafficking and prostitution reconsidered: New perspectives on migration, sex work, and human rights, eds. Kamala Kempadoo, Jyoti Sanghera, Bandana Pattanaik, 3–24. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm Publishers.Google Scholar
  40. Sankaran, Kamala. 2009. Bonded labour and the courts. In India’s unfree workforce of bondage old and new, ed. Jan Breman, Isabelle Guérin, and Aseem Prakash, 335–351. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Tambe, Ashwini. 2009. Codes of misconduct: Regulating prostitution in late colonial bombay. New Delhi: Zubaan.Google Scholar
  42. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2012. Issue Paper: Abuse of a position of vulnerability and other “Means” within the definition of trafficking in persons. Vienna: UNODC.Google Scholar
  43. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2009. Global report on trafficking in persons.
  44. Weitzer, Ronald. 2006. Moral crusade against prostitution. Society 43(3): 33–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dickson Poon School of LawKing’s College LondonLondonUK

Personalised recommendations