By Debasri Ghosh
Women's History Month is a time to reflect on the interconnected social movements that have pushed gender equality forward so far. But it's also a good time to ask what we lose when our tent becomes too big. What happens if we welcome those who support some women's rights while staunchly opposing others?
Such a question came into sharp focus this month when the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act came up for a vote in the Senate. The bill, which started with broad bipartisan support, would establish a fund for survivors of human trafficking to address basic needs such as housing, health care, and trauma services.
However, the bill's momentum stalled when an amendment was added that would prohibit a woman who has been trafficked from using money from the fund to terminate a pregnancy. Abortion-coverage bans are commonly tacked onto appropriation bills, in part due to the far-reaching effects of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited taxpayer dollars from being used to cover this legal and routine procedure.
The difference with the trafficking bill is that it would not rely on taxpayer dollars. It would be supported by the fines imposed on convicted traffickers.
Human trafficking, much like domestic violence, is at its core about power and control. Through a system of force, fraud, and coercion, traffickers strip away a victim's support network, personal autonomy, and, ultimately, freedom. It's common for survivors to internalize messages of worthlessness and expendability after being forced into sex work or other forms of exploited labor.
For survivors of sex trafficking, the need for safe and comprehensive reproductive health care is especially dire. Some research indicates that 75 percent of these women will become pregnant while being trafficked, with more than half indicating they have attempted to terminate a pregnancy that resulted from rape. If they are to heal, survivors must be empowered to make their own reproductive decisions. They do not need the system of power and control that their traffickers used against them to be reinforced by punitive and politically motivated restrictions on their health-care options.
The Polaris Project, a national antitrafficking organization, says the majority of trafficking victims comes from vulnerable populations, including undocumented migrants, runaways, and at-risk youths, as well as those afflicted with poverty and homelessness. Put simply, those most susceptible to human trafficking are girls and women of color. Race also informs the application of abortion restrictions. For example, the Hyde Amendment practically translates into the denial of abortion care for Medicaid recipients, the majority of whom are women of color.
Intersectionality is a framework for understanding how individuals hold multiple identities that inform their view of and interaction with the world. For example, my experience as a second-generation Indian American woman may differ from that of my male peers in the immigrant community and from that of my white peers in the feminist community - both in the privileges I experience and in the oppressions I face.
A truly intersectional feminism recognizes that gender does not exist in a vacuum. When we talk about "us vs. them," as actress Patricia Arquette recently did after the Oscars, we create divides that marginalize women with multiple identities and fracture the movement for human rights.
The trafficking bill is just one within a long-range legislative strategy to position one feminist cause against another, creating a false and dangerous dichotomy. The senators who introduced the abortion amendment aim to pit trafficking survivors against those who benefit from reproductive autonomy, as if there is no overlap or correlation between the two. These lawmakers are effectively erasing the histories of women who have been sexually exploited and sought abortions, women who have survived and are ready to rebuild their lives on their own terms. These are the women feminists fight for. We cannot ignore them or allow them to be forgotten because they do not fit cleanly into political narratives about victimhood or abortion. They are exactly why the feminist movement must embrace intersectionality if it is to remain viable, accessible, and relevant.
The path may not be clear and the journey will not be easy. The road could be littered with stumbling blocks, defensiveness, and difficult conversations. But feminists are a scrappy and fearless bunch. We do not back down. We resist and we persevere.
With a little humility and lot of humanity, we can realize a shared vision of safety, equity, and justice that reflects the experiences of all who are united for gender equality. And that is a powerful, beautiful, and achievable thing.