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Abstract

Philippine anti-trafficking and women’s rights legislation constructs sex work as victimhood. This understanding of prostitution positions interventions such as raids, rescue operations, and rehabilitation programs as core strategies for “protecting” and “empowering” all sex workers, regardless of their individual circumstances. Rehabilitation in this context refers to a range of psychosocial, medical, education, legal, protective custody, and economic services that help those designated as victims recover and reintegrate into society. There is a glaring lack of data on whether the socio-economic situations of rehabilitated women have improved and the current spaces for political advocacy by “survivors” are controlled by their rescuers. This paper draws on extensive interviews with ten Filipino women who were placed in anti-trafficking shelters for rehabilitation, only four of whom identified as trafficking victim. Their experiences show that rehabilitation programs have fallen short of their own goals of providing women access to resources and upholding their self-determination, not least because rehabilitation opportunities were conditional on exiting sex work and cooperation in the prosecution of perpetrators, regardless of women’s preferences. Furthermore, unless rescued women provided a credible performance of victimhood, they were abandoned, failed, and stigmatised by organisations that purported to care for them. This paper also argues that the disciplinary practices and moral regulations to which women were subjected are part of an ideological project that constructs sex work as deviance and directs women towards low-paying, labour-intensive alternatives that conform to normative femininity. In doing so, rehabilitation addresses the problem of trafficking by repairing “problematic” individuals rather than strengthening demands for social justice and redistribution.

Note on the Author

Sharmila Parmanand has a PhD in Gender Studies from the University of Cambridge on a Gates Scholarship. She is currently a teaching fellow in Gender and Human rights at the London School of Economics. Email: sparmanand@gmail.com

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