On January 15, 2003, field missions around the world for the United States’ international aid agency (USAID) quietly received notice that, henceforth, no more funding for projects against trafficking in people would go to “organizations advocating prostitution as an employment choice or which advocate or support the legalization of prostitution.”

On a small scale, the policy shift stands to affect the funding given to groups likeEmpower, a sex workers’ group in Thailand that has vocally supported legalization andthe political organizing of sex workers. Though the money they receive foranti-trafficking programs is small, it covers the cost of literacy classes. Whatremains to be seen, is how much else is at stake.

The provision was part of a now well-known cable sent out by Colin Powell that set outUSAID’s new foreign policy under the Bush administration. It announced that fundingwould be cut to projects perceived as supporting “trafficking of women and girls,legalization of drugs, injecting drug use, and abortion.” The attack on abortion andthe tying of HIV-prevention funding to abstinence-based programs stirred up afirestorm of protest from women’s groups and health activists in the U.S.

Though touted as a grave set-back for the feminist movement’s advances aroundreproductive rights, in an interesting twist, some feminist groups found a diamondin the rough: the provision on prostitution, at least, could be counted as a victory. “The challenge now is to implement these landmark [anti-prostitution] policies in order to free women and children from enslavement,” said a celebratory Donna Hughes of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) last month.

For groups like hers, the change was the fruit of hard work, since USAID’s new stance comes as a result of the combined lobbying efforts of the seemingly-strange bedfellows of anti-prostitution feminist groups and the Christian Right. Despite their disparate constituencies, the current incarnation of the feminist-rightwing alliance was crystallized a few years ago in 2000 around the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in the United States. A successful joint campaign was mounted to ensure that the TVPA would not only condemn forced labour and forced prostitution but condemn sex work as a whole  forced or not.

Conservative pundit Charles Horowitz jubilantly crowed to conservative Christian magazine World: “You’ve got soccer moms and Southern Baptists, the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Evangelicals on the same side of the issue. Pro-family issues are usually controversial, but on this one, you’ve got everyone in agreement. Gloria Steinem and Chuck Colson together.”

Laura Lederer, editor of the classic feminist anti-pornography anthology Take Backthe Night and current appointee to the U.S. State Department’s anti-trafficking office declared to World that faith-based groups had brought “a fresh perspective and a biblical mandate to the women’s movement. Women’s groups don’t understand that the partnership on this issue has strengthened them, because they would not be getting attention internationally otherwise.”

Despite the content of the bi-partisan bill concentrating mostly on labour abuses across all industries such as debt-bondage and force, the bill was packaged as part of an act against violence against women. This allowed conservatives to support the billwithout threatening their business constituencies and the feminist lobby toinextricably link prostitution with trafficking and violence in the law. This earlyslippage between “trafficking” (and all its attendant connotations) and prostitution has further been cemented in the Powell cable — he uses the two synonymously.

It’s a dangerous conflation, says Melissa Ditmore of the Network of Sex Work Projects,not least of all because it eclipses abuse of migrant workers in all other industries. “The majority of trafficking cases that I know of in the U.S. are [debt-bondage of] migrant construction workers. The bill was not a labour bill, nor a women’s rights bill, despite how it was packaged. It was a law-and-order bill.”

The push to single-mindedly put anti-trafficking policies — and funding — into the hands of police and border guards, often with appalling human rights records against migrants and sex workers, is one of the things that scares many sex worker advocates about the new USAID policy. Gary Hanger of International Justice Mission (IJM) a Christian anti-prostitution organization, foreshadowed this eventuality in an April presentation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “IJM is very pleased that recent legislation has cleared the way for funding by USAID and other agencies of targeted programs that strengthen counter-trafficking activities of specialized police and prosecution units,” he said. Donna Hughes, of CATW, the other committee presenter, remained open to a combination of police and religious group interventions when she demanded aid workers “be obligated to catalyze a rescue” of people in the sex trade by “notification of the appropriate authorities or an NGO or faith-based group that specializes in rescuing women and children enslaved in prostitution.” Although, in a small caveat she admitted that “police and officials are sometimes complicit in trafficking.”

According to Ditmore, “They will end up funding only raids or ‘reverse traffickingraids’: when the state kidnaps, transports and imprisons sex workers and forces themto ‘reform’ through unpaid sewing or basket-making.” She points to the case of theviolent police raids of the Tanzabar and Nimtoli brothels in Bangladesh in 1999where four hundred sex workers were evicted by police and imprisoned in vagranthomes where each was given a sewing machine. Human rights groups exposed the widespread beatings and sexual abuse that the women were subjected to as well as the the kidnapping and beating of Saathi, leader of the sex workers’ movement against forced rehabilitation, until public pressure forced her release. The raids were orchestrated as a “rehabilitation effort” by the Department of Social Services in Bangladesh who had received 2 million dollars (U.S.) from the UNDP to implement “rehabilitation” projects.

In response, sex worker groups in Bangladesh, India and Cambodia have agitated,sometimes by the thousands, under the banner of “Workers’ Rights Not SewingMachines.”

However, the times are less than friendly for such a position. In a recent open callfor help, Josephine Ho of ZiTeng, a sex workers’ rights group in Hong Kong wrote that Asian prostitutes’ rights groups were coming under increasing pressures from “thosefirst-world feminists and women’s NGOs who have now joined with UN workers and other international organizations in characterizing Asian sex work as nothing but thetrafficking in women and thus is to be outlawed and banned completely.”Now, says Ho, “the immense power of Western aid, coupled with the third-world states’ desire for modernization (that is, putting up fronts of democracy and equality so as to gain aid funds without moving toward social justice)” have led to the introduction of newlaws criminalizing sex work, possession of condoms being held as evidence by which to prosecute women for prostitution and the harassment and extortion of sex workers by police. According to Ho, it has also led to the dangerous precedent of “interpreting all forms of women’s migration toward economic betterment and sex workas mere trafficking.”

The prospect of USAID putting their funding squarely behind projects with ananti-migration agenda, is another one of the possible outcomes of the policy change.Already in 2001, the Population Council and Asia Foundation jointly released a studythat found that in Nepal, a country that receives a bulk of the anti-trafficking money from USAID, “a common approach to controlling trafficking is to limit women’s migration.” NGOs were found to use frightening messages to discourage women from leaving theirvillages while women and girls reported being prevented from crossing the borderdespite vehement protests of their free will. This echoes anti-trafficking policyinitiatives in other U.S. departments. In 1997, the INS assigned forty-five officers overseas to work on “counter-measures in trafficking in migrants” as part of Operation GlobalReach “with the particular purpose of deterring people in the source and transitcountries.”

Sex worker groups across the world, meanwhile, have taken a lesson from the feminist establishment and the Christian Right by creating alliances of their own with labour, migrant and human rights groups. The USAID announcement has also brought support of sex workers from certain feminist groups. “In the U.S., we are now making inroads with reproductive rights groups,” says Ditmore with optimism.

But it will take more than the support of a few women’s groups to fight this battle in Bush’s other war. The challenge of forging an alliance to be reckoned with has sex workers’ groups out to prove they know a thing or two about bedfellows themselves.