Skip to content

Rae Story challenges three common myths in the prostitution debate

October 4, 2017

The Abolition of Prostitution Is Part of the Societal Transformation We Must Demand and Work For

October 4, 2017

Should it be normalized or abolished? Prostitution is the subject of one of the fiercest debates of our time, because opinions about prostitution are shaped by people’s fundamental beliefs about what is right and what is possible.

Those on one side of the debate recommend normalizing prostitution by decriminalizing all aspects of the sex trade (i.e., pimping, brothel running, paying for sex, and selling sex), because they believe that doing so will reduce HIV vulnerability among people who sell sex[1] (UNAIDS 2012, WHO 2016) and will enable them to assert their human rights (UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016; Amnesty International 2016). Advocates of decriminalization view prostitution as a consensual choice to sell sex (Global Commission on HIV and the Law 2012) and refer to prostitution by the euphemisms “sex work” and “commercial sex” (UNAIDS 2015).

Those on the other side call for the abolition of the sex trade, because prostitution is dangerous (Farley et al. 2003; Nixon et al. 2002; Potterat et al. 2004; Raphael and Shapiro 2004), harmful (Farley 2004), and incompatible with gender equality (Kraus 2015; Post 2013). Abolitionists view prostitution as a human rights violation (Barry 2013; Day 2008; Leidholdt 1993; Ruhama 2007), as violence against women (Kraus 2016; Raymond 1988), and as paid rape (Kinsella 2017; Moran 2015; Mott 2017). Arguments against decriminalization of the sex trade are plentiful on the internet (Demand Abolition. No date; MacKinnon 2011; and Raymond 2003), and are cogently presented in books such as Rachel Moran’s (2015)  Paid For; Janice Raymond’s (2013)  Not a Choice, Not a Job; Kat Banyard’s (2016)  Pimp State; and Julie Bindel’s (2017) The Pimping of Prostitution.

Many proponents of abolition advocate the Nordic model—also called the “sex buyer law” and the “abolitionist model”—which permits individuals to sell sex but prohibits pimping, brothel running, and buying sex (Equality Now. No date; Nordic Model Now! No date). The Nordic model also strengthens social services that protect people from having to sell sex for survival and that assist people who wish to exit prostitution. The Nordic model has been adopted in France, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland and Northern Ireland (Batha 2017). The objective of the Nordic model is to abolish prostitution by discouraging demand for commercial sex, prohibiting the exploitation of people who sell sex, and eliminating the pressures that push people into prostitution.

Two very different perceptions of prostitution exist because women sell sex in various circumstances and for various reasons. Although some women engage in prostitution as a matter of preference (Amnesty International 2016), many studies have found that the majority of women who sell sex are compelled to do so by dire circumstances.

Disagreement over the degree to which women choose prostitution is so central to the debate that it is worth repeating what studies report about the reasons that women sell sex:

“Most of the people who sell sex in Asia do so because they are compelled by economic and social inequality and by terribly restricted life chances. Especially in the poorer countries of the region, they have no other realistic option. . . . Most sex workers in the lower ranks of the industry are victims of many kinds of social and economic injustice, and it is inaccurate and patronising to exaggerate their degree of agency and their power to negotiate with clients and the management of the industry. Some sex workers profit well from their work, but the sex trade as a whole is exploitative of the women and men who work within it.” (WHO 2001)

“For many, the decision to engage in sex work is a reflection of limited livelihood options.” (Amnesty International 2016)

“The extent to which initiation of women and children into sex work involves individual choice may vary, but available data indicate that most women enter sex work as a result of poverty and consequences of rape, infertility, and/or divorce.” (Aral and Mann 1998)

“The failure of family support along with the lack of ability to provide for themselves due to poverty and illiteracy were key factors why the women in this study had adopted prostitution.”  (Chattopadhyay,  Bandyopadhyay, and Duttagupta 1994)

“The findings of the study indicate that poverty, marital abuse, sexual abuse and the death of a parent or husband were the main reasons for entry into prostitution. The majority of the respondents were sold into prostitution by family members or acquaintances. . . . As indicated throughout the literature on women in prostitution, poverty/impoverishment was the most common theme to emerge as the reason for entry into prostitution.”  (Karandikar, Gezinski, and Meshelemiah 2011 cite Mukherjee and Das 1996; Nair 2003; and UNDP 2002)

“For the most part, prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experiences within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability. Power and vulnerability in this context must be understood to include power disparities based on gender, race, ethnicity and poverty. Put simply, the road to prostitution and life within ‘the life’ is rarely one marked by empowerment or adequate options.” (ECOSOC 2006)

“Many women who initiate sex work are not forced physically, but do so because of reasons over which they had little or no control. . . . Studies in India show that women either involve in sex work involuntarily, often due to economic reasons (Blanchard et al. 2005), or they are forced into sex work (Dandona et al. 2006; Silverman et al. 2007). . . . This study shows that many women who enter sex work are not forced physically but do so due to compelling reasons that are beyond their control.”  (Saggurti et al. 2011)

“Due to limited employment opportunities and omnipresence of workplace sexual harassment, sex work becomes a survival mechanism for vulnerable women with poor literacy skills and lack of family support (Gupta 2004; Lawyers Collective 2003). . . . For most of the women in my study, sex work was reported as their last resort.” (Sinha 2015)

”Sex workers’ narratives on their pathways to sex work were intertwined with themes of disempowerment that framed reasons for entering sex work in a context of constrained choices: economic insecurity and familial poverty, loss of a male breadwinner, limited alternative work opportunities that were often coercive, and occasionally also coercive or deceptive initiations into sex work.” (Swendeman 2014)

Such findings match the testimonies of dozens of women I have interviewed in my work documenting HIV prevention programmes in India.

The debate’s impact on public policy will significantly affect gender equity, public health, and human rights. Decriminalization would likely draw hundreds of thousands of girls and women into prostitution.  

Despite their concern about the rights and needs of women currently in the sex trade, proponents of decriminalization fail to acknowledge that, by expanding and normalizing the market for sex, decriminalization will affect many girls and women who are not currently in the sex trade.

Decriminalization will undermine efforts to promote girls’ education. Eliminating gender disparities in education is target 4.5 of Sustainable Development Goal 4, because increasing girls’ educational attainment is imperative for social progress (Lloyd 2009; Summers 1994). Keeping adolescent girls in school reduces their vulnerability to HIV infection, slows population growth, improves maternal and child health and survival, and raises women’s social standing. If prostitution is decriminalized, girls in low-income families will be more likely to be pushed into prostitution by parents who don’t value or who struggle to afford girls’ education.

Discontinuing their education and forcing them to sell sex would violate their right to liberty (Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 3), their right to freedom from degrading treatment (Article 5), their right to free choice of employment (Article 23), and their right to education (Article 26).

A normalized market for sex will also drive more women into prostitution, because a legal market for sex will increase the pressure on women in low-income households to sell sex, and will motivate human traffickers to meet buyers’ incessant demand for new women (Cho, Dreher, and Neumayer 2013; Huisman and Kleemans 2014; Jakobsson and Kotsadam 2013; Transcrime 2005).

The track record of legal prostitution is a cautionary tale (Diu 2013; Mallick. No date; Meyer 2013; Meyer et al. 2013). In the Netherlands and Germany, where prostitution is legal, authorities have been unable to stop traffickers and organized crime groups from supplying and exploiting women in the sex industry (Mathieson 2015; Meyer et al. 2013; Raymond 2013; Schulze 2014).

Women and girls who are likely to be pushed into prostitution by decriminalization must be supported to participate in the debate over prostitution, because decriminalization will affect their human rights and welfare.

Advocates of decriminalization rightly insist that people who sell sex must have meaningful participation in the development of policy that will affect them (UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016). But such advocates disregard the views and interests of girls and women who are likely to be forced into prostitution by decriminalization.

Such girls and women must not be excluded from participating in the development of policy that may profoundly affect them. Governments should support and enable adolescent girls and women to engage in advocacy and decision making on legal and human rights issues that affect them (UNESCO 2013; United Nations 2014).

This debate isn’t just about prostitution’s impact on public health and human rights. It is about the social structure and gender relations we want.

Public health scholar and human rights advocate Jonathan Mann (1996) argued that

“Once we acknowledge that the goal of public health, beyond HIV/AIDS, is to ‘ensure the conditions in which people can be healthy,’ and recognize the enormous burden of evidence which tells us that societal factors are the dominant determinants of health status, we realize that, ultimately, to work for public health is to work for societal transformation.”

The societal transformation that we should work for is a reversal of the trend of growing inequality, because inequality compromises public health (Baum 2005; Daniels et al., 2000; Else 2012; Kennedy et al. 1998; Marmot 2002; Subramanian et al. 2002; Subramanian, Blakely, and Kawachi 2003; Szalavitz 2011; Wilkinson 1992; Wilkinson 1996; Wilkinson and Pickett 2006; Wilkinson and Pickett 2010) and threatens human rights (Balakrishnan and Heintz 2015).

Instead of normalising prostitution, public health professionals and human rights activists should work to make society more equitable by endorsing the Nordic model and advocating higher taxes on wealth, high incomes, and corporate earnings; a living minimum wage; and robust social services, which would reduce the pressure on people to prostitute themselves for survival.

Baum (2005) notes that the impact of inequality on public health has the following research and policy implications:

  • Analysis of the distribution and concentration of wealth and its impact on health would assist policy makers in devising taxation and other policy to redistribute wealth in such a way as to increase overall population health status.
  • Research funding bodies should fund public health research that examines the health costs and benefits of inequities in wealth between people within countries and between countries.
  • National governments should consider increasing taxes on wealthy people through means such as death duties and estate taxes and invest the money gained from these taxes into public goods such as public health services and public education.
  • International bodies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization should consider means of redistributing wealth globally so that the current vast inequities between high and low and middle income countries are reduced. Measures already proposed are a Tobin-type tax on investment transaction, tax on air travel, increased taxes for transnational corporations.
  • Public health associations and other public health lobby groups should develop advocacy strategies in relation to excessive wealth in addition to those concerned with poverty reduction. Their lobbying and advocacy should report the extent of wealth inequity and describe what population health gains are likely to be gained if a proportion of wealth is redistributed.

A study by Bindel et al. (2012) found that assisting women who wish to exit prostitution was “an extremely cost-effective way of preventing further physical or emotional harm associated with their continued involvement in prostitution.”

The most logical way to protect women from the violence and hazards inherent to prostitution is to dramatically reduce the number of women in prostitution. This can happen if we 1) mitigate the pressures that compel women to enter prostitution, 2) assist women who wish to exit prostitution, and 3) reduce demand for commercial sex by prohibiting the purchase of sex.


Amnesty International 2016. Amnesty International Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect, and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers. POL 30/4062/2016. May 26.

Aral, S. O. and Mann, J. M. 1998. Commercial sex work and STD: The need for policy interventions to change societal patterns. Sexually Transmitted Diseases. October:455-56.

Balakrishnan, R. and Heintz, J. 2015. How inequality threatens all human rights. Open Democracy. 29 October.

Banyard, K. 2016. Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality. London: Faber & Faber.

Barry, K. 2013. Why is prostitution a violation of human rights?

Batha, E. 2017. Ireland passes law making it a crime to buy sex. Reuters. 23 February.

Baum, F. 2005. Wealth and health: the need for more strategic public health research. J Epidemiol Community Health 59:542–545. DOI: 10.1136/jech.2004.021147

Bindel, J. et al. 2012. Breaking Down the Barriers: A Study of How Women Exit Prostitution. Eaves and London South Bank University.

Bindel, J. 2017. The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. London: Palmgrave Macmillan.

Blanchard, J. F., et al. 2005. Understanding the Social and Cultural Contexts of Female Sex Workers in Karnataka, India: Implications for Prevention of HIV Infection. J Infect. Dis., 191 (Suppl 1): S139–146. DOI: 10.1086/425273

Bowen, K. J. et al. 2011. Life circumstances of women entering sex work in Nagaland, India. Asia-Pacific Journal of Public Health. 23: 843. DOI. 10.1177/1010539509355190

Chattopadhyay, M., Bandyopadhyay, S., and Duttagupta, C. 1994. Biosocial factors influencing women to become prostitutes in India. Biodemography and Social Biology 41(3-4):252-259, DOI: 10.1080/19485565.1994.9988876

Cho, S., Dreher, A., and Neumayer, E. 2013. Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking? World Development 41:67-82.

Dandona, R. et al. 2006. Demography and sex work characteristics of female sex workers in India. BMC Int. Health Hum. Rights 6 (5) DOI: 10.1186/1472-698X-6-5

Daniels, N., Kennedy, B., and Kawachi, I. 2000. Is Inequality Bad for Our Health? Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Day, S. 2008. Prostitution: Violating the human rights of poor women. Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes.

Demand Abolition. No date. Why Prostitution Shouldn’t Be Legal.

Devine, A. et al. 2010. Pathways to sex-work in Nagaland, India: implications for HIV prevention and community mobilisation, AIDS Care: Psychological and Socio-medical Aspects of AIDS/HIV, 22:2, 228-237, DOI: 10.1080/09540120903039869

Diu, N. L. 2013. Welcome to Paradise. The Telegraph.

Dorling, D., Mitchell, R., and Pearce, J. 2007. The global impact of income inequality on health by age: an observational study. BMJ. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39349.507315.DE

ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) 2006. Integration of the Human Rights of Women and a Gender Perspective: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Aspects of the Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Sigma Huda. E/CN.4/2006/62 20 February 2006. Commission on Human Rights, Sixty-second session, Item 12 of the provisional agenda.

Else, L. 2012. Inequality: Of wealth and health. Special report. 25 July. New Scientist.

Farley, M. et al. 2003. Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: An update on violence and postraumatic stress disorder. Pages 33-74 in Prostitution, Trafficking, and Human Stress (ed. Melissa Farley) The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.

Farley, M. 2004. “Bad for the body, bad for the heart”: Prostitution harms women even if legalized or decriminalized. Violence against Women 1(10):1087-1125. DOI: 10.1177/1077801204268607

Global Commission on HIV and the Law 2012. Risks, Rights & Health. New York: UNDP.

Gupta, R. G. 2004. Globalization, women and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Peace Review 16(1), 79–83.

Huisman, W., and Kleemans E. R. 2014. The challenges of fighting sex trafficking in the legalized prostitution market of the Netherlands. Crime Law Soc Change. DOI: 10.1007/s10611-013-9512-4

Jakobsson, N. and Kotsadam, A. 2013. The law and economics of international sex slavery: Prostitution laws and trafficking for sexual exploitation. European Journal of Law and Economics 35(1).

Karandikar, S., Gezinski, L. B., and Meshelemiah J. C. A. 2011. A qualitative examination of women involved in prostitution in Mumbai, India: The role of family and acquaintances. International Social Work 56(4):496-515. doi:10.1177/0020872811425804

Kennedy, B. P. et al. 1998. Income distribution, socioeconomic status and self-rated health in the United States: multilevel analysis. BMJ 317(7163):917–921.

Kinsella, W. 2014. Prostitution isn’t sex, it’s bought rape. Toronto Sun. 11 January.

Kraus, I. 2015 Prostitution is incompatible with gender equality.

Kraus, I. 2016. Prostitution is violence against women!

Lawyers Collective (India). (2003). Legislating an epidemic: HIV/AIDS in India. Delhi: Universal Law.

Leidholdt, D. 1993. Prostitution: a violation of women’s human rights. Cardozo Women’s Law Journal 1:133.

Lloyd, C. 2009. New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls. New York: Population Council.

MacKinnon, C. A. 2011. Trafficking, prostitution, and inequality. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 46:271-309.

Mallick, H. No date. Prostitution: lessons from Europe’s streets. The

Mann, J. M. 1996. Human rights and AIDS: The future of the pandemic. J. Marshall L. Rev. 30(1) Article 6:195-206.

Marmot, M. 2002. The influence of income on health: Views of an epidemiologist. Health Affairs 21(2):31-46. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.21.2.31

Mathieson, A. 2015. Prostitution policy: Legalization, decriminalization and the Nordic Model. Seattle Journal for Social Justice 14(2):366-428.

Meyer, C. et al. 2013. Unprotected: How legalizing prostitution has failed. Spiegel Online. 30 May.


Meyer, S. 2013. Has legalized prostitution turned Germany’s government into a pimp? Worldcrunch in partnership with Die Welt. 15 June.


Mott, R. 2017. Paid Rape. Exited Woman’s Exploration blog post. 23 August.

Moran, R. 2015. Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.

Mukherjee, K. K. and Das, D. 1996. Prostitution in Metropolitan Cities of India. New Delhi: Central Social Welfare Board.

Nair, P. 2003. A Report on Trafficking in Women and Children in India. New Delhi: NHRC-UNIFEM-ISS Project.

Nixon, K. et al. 2002. The everyday occurrence: Violence in the lives of girls exploited through prostitution. Violence against Women 8(9): 1016-1043.

Nordic Model Now! No date. What is Nordic Model?

Post, D. 2013. Prostitution cannot be squared with human rights or the equality of women.

Potterat, J. J. et al. 2004. Mortality in a long-term open cohort of prostitute women. American Journal of Epidemiology 159(8):778-785. DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwh110

Raphael, J. and Shapiro, D. L. 2004. Violence in indoor and outdoor prostitution venues. Violence against Women 10(2): 126-139. DOI: 10.1177/1077801203260529

Raymond, J. G. 1988. Prostitution as violence against women: NGO stonewalling in Beijing and elsewhere.

Raymond, J. G. 2003. Ten reasons for not legalizing prostitution and a legal response to the demand for prostitution. Journal of Trauma Practice 2:315-332.

Raymond, J. G. 2013. Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. Washington, D. C.; Potomac Books.

Ruhama 2007. Prostitution violates women’s human rights. Information/Discussion Paper 5–Ruhama’s Perspective.

Saggurti, N., Sabarwal, S., Verma, R. K., Halli, S. S., and Jain, A. K. 2011. Harsh realities: Reasons for women’s involvement in sex work in India. Journal of AIDS and HIV Research, 3(9), 172–179.

Sanger-Katz M. 2015. Income inequality: It’s also bad for your health. 30 March. The New York Times.

Schulze, E. 2014. Sexual exploitation and prostitution and its impact on gender equality. A study for the Directorate General for Internal Policies. Brussels: European Parliament. DOI: 10.2861/44806

Silverman J. G., Decker M. R., Gupta J., Maheshwari A., Willis B. M., and Raj A. 2007. HIV prevalence and predictors of infection among sex trafficked Nepalese girls and women. J. Am. Med. Assoc., 298: 536-542.

Sinha S. 2015. Reasons for women’s entry into sex work: A case study of Kolkata, India. Sexuality & Culture 19(1):216-235. Doi 10.1007/s12119-014-9256-z

Subramanian, S. V., Delgado, I., Jadue, L., Vega, J., and Kawachi, I. 2002. Income inequality, income, and self-rated health: A multilevel analysis. American Journal of Epidemiology 155: S62.

Subramanian, S. V., Blakely, T., and Kawachi, I. 2003.  Income inequality as a public health concern: Where do we stand? Commentary on “Is exposure to income inequality a public health concern?” HSR: Health Services Research 38:1, Part I:153-167.

Summers, L. 1994. Investing in all the people: educating women in developing countries. World Bank Publications. Vol. 45. Growth and Development? Evidence from Cross-Country Regressions (Rep. No. 7). Washington, DC: The World Bank Development Research Group/Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network

Swendeman, D. et al. 2014. “Whatever I have, I have made by coming into this profession”: The intersection of resources, agency, and achievements in pathways to sex work in Kolkata, India. Arch Sex Behav. Doi. 10.1007/s10508-014-0404-1

Szalavitz, M. 2011. How economic inequality is (literally) making us sick. October 19.

Transcrime 2005. National Legislation on Prostitution and the Trafficking in Women and Children. A study conducted for the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.  ID. N°: IPOL/C/FEMM/ST/2004-05. Brussels: European Parliament.

United Nations 2014. Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights: A Handbook for National Human Rights Institutions

UNAIDS 2015. UNAIDS Terminology Guidelines. Geneva: UNAIDS.

UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights 2016. Letter to UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka regarding UN Women’s approach to sex work. 17 December.

UNAIDS 2012. Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work. Geneva: UNAIDS.

UNDP 2002. Layers of Silence–Links between Women’s Vulnerability, Trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Switzerland: UNRISD.

UNESCO 2013. Young people and the law in Asia and the Pacific: A review of laws and policies affecting young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health and HIV services. Bangkok: UNESCO.

Vandepitte, J. et al. 2006. Estimates of the number of female sex workers in different regions of the world. Journal of Sexually Transmitted Infections. 82(Suppl III):iii18–iii25. doi: 10.1136/sti.2006.020081

WHO 2016. Consolidated Guidelines on HIV Prevention, Diagnosis, Treatment and Care for Key Populations. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Wilkinson, R. G. 1992. Income distribution and life expectancy. BMJ 304:165.

Wilkinson, R. G. 1996. Unhealthy Societies. The Afflictions of Inequality. London: Routledge.

Wilkinson, R. G. and Pickett K. E. 2006. Income inequality and population health: a review and explanation of the evidence. Social Science and Medicine 62(7):1768-84

Wilkinson, R.  and Pickett, K. 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.

[1] Although men, women, and transgender people sell sex, the debate over prostitution is primarily about women who sell sex, because most people who sell sex are female (Vandepitte et al. 2006). This essay is about the prostitution of women.

Progressive Podcasts

June 29, 2016

When I travel long distance, I love listening to podcasts to hear various perspectives on current events. My favorite podcast, Media Matters with Bob McChesney, ended production in October 2012, but you can still listen to Bob’s excellent interviews with guests such as Chris Hedges, Glenn Greenwald, and Greg Palast at the archive.

Here are links to the podcasts that I subscribe to. In the comments, please share podcasts that you recommend.

Bite, or in iTunes

Unauthorized Disclosure with Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola

Moment of Clarity – Backstage of Redacted Tonight with Lee Camp

Best of the Left, or in iTunes

Wake Up Call Podcast, or in iTunes

Ralph Nader Radio Hour, or in iTunes

KCRW’s Scheer Intelligence with Robert Sheer, or in iTunes

Real Time with Bill Maher, or in iTunes


Democracy Now!, or in iTunes


Participatory Video for Improving Maternal and Child Health: PCI’s DARSHAN Project

February 3, 2015
Bishwajit and Brooks interviewing sahelis

DARSHAN project coordinator Bishwajit Mukherjee and me interviewing sahelis Pinky Kumari and Rekha Kumari

In November 2014, Project Concern International (PCI) invited me to document the process of their DARSHAN project, which used participatory video to educate women in rural Bihar about practices that protect maternal and child health, especially during and after pregnancy. DARSHAN was one of four such projects supported by Digital Green in India to demonstrate and assess the effectiveness of participatory video for improving maternal and child health. My report, Promoting Better Health through Participatory Video: The Process and Impact of PCI’s Program DARSHAN, can be seen here.

One of the women I interviewed in November, Radha Devi with her son Hritik.

One of the women I interviewed in November, Radha Devi with her son Hritik.

DARSHAN’s videos featured women who practiced, demonstrated, and endorsed healthy habits, such as handwashing with soap, exclusive breastfeeding for six months after delivery, and immunizing their children. This video clip shows a saheli screening a DARSHAN video during a women’s self-help group meeting.

Saheli Lata Kumari screening a DARSHAN participatory video on complementary feeding

Saheli Lata Kumari screening the DARSHAN video on complementary feeding to the members of a PCI Parivartan self-help group

Although I had twice previously documented PCI’s Parivartan project, which is supported by the Gates Foundation, this was my first exposure to participatory video and Digital Green, which Melinda Gates regards as one of the four ideas that are changing the world.

I returned to Bihar 10 days later to document a DARSHAN learning workshop, during which approximately 50 PCI’s frontline community mobilizers, called sahelis (friends in Hindi), reflected to distill lessons from the project.

Sahelis writing lessons learned during PCI's DARSHAN project

Sahelis writing lessons learned during PCI’s DARSHAN project

On 19 January, I presented findings from my fieldwork at the DARSHAN dissemination workshop in Patna. The workshop was attended by over 50 people from organisations including PATH, Digital Green, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Janani, BBC Media Action, the Population Council, Engender Health, Water Aid, World Health Partners, Praxis, Jhpiego, and Marie Stopes, as well as by representatives of Jeevika, the Bihar Rural Livelihood Promotion Society. For the workshop, I prepared case studies about a pregnant woman and a saheli who I had interviewed in November.

Presenting my findings at PCI's DARSHAN dissemination workshop in Patna, 19 January

Presenting my findings at PCI’s DARSHAN dissemination workshop in Patna, 19 January

I’m enormously grateful to PCI for the opportunity to document DARSHAN. I’m very impressed by the power of participatory video for accelerating progress in public health.

Illegal Dumping of Municipal Solid Waste Continues at Pondicherry’s Truck Terminal

August 22, 2014

My reports about illegal dumping of municipal solid waste and biomedical waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal have received considerable attention. Photographs first published on this blog have been used in Health Care Without Harm’s report Medical Waste and Human Rights for the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, and on the website of Occupy for Animals. My reports have been viewed thousands of times on this blog, and helped to inform Kunal Vohra ‘s excellent documentary, The Plastic Cow, which has been viewed over 40,000 times. 

Given such coverage of the problem, I was curious to revisit Pondy’s truck terminal to see the situation now, three years after my first report. I visited the terminal yesterday and discovered that the area is still being used for illegal dumping of mixed municipal solid waste and biomedical waste, and cows are still foraging in the waste.

This is a public health problem because, as I explained in my first post on this topic, cows that forage in burnt plastic waste are likely to consume dioxin and then pass that dioxin to humans through milk. Such dioxin is passed to infants by nursing mothers. Permitting cows to forage in municipal solid waste endangers the life of cows because plastic bags accumulate in their rumen and can eventually cause cows to die. As this footage shows, cows continue to forage in illegally dumped municipal refuse and biomedical waste in Pondicherry’s truck terminal.

If you consume dairy products in India, the chance is very high that the milk came from a cow that eats hazardous municipal solid waste.

Here are a few images of cows foraging at Pondicherry’s truck terminal:

Cow foraging in municipal and biomedical waste in Pondicherry, India

Cow foraging in municipal and biomedical waste in Pondicherry, India

Cow and crow in municipal solid waste in Pondicherry, India

Cow and crow in municipal solid waste in Pondicherry, India




Cow and dog foraging in municipal solid waste and medical waste in Pondicherry, India

Cow and dog foraging in municipal solid waste and medical waste in Pondicherry, India

Processing Lumix GH3 and Nokia 808 Video for YouTube: The Search for the Best Settings

August 15, 2014

I’m writing this post to share my experience editing and processing video clips shot with a Lumix GH3 or with a Nokia 808. My primary purpose for editing and processing video has been for uploading videos to YouTube, so I’m trying to find the best combination of compression and image quality. I invite you to share your video processing experience and advice in the comments section.

In this post, I’m going to use the words “format”, “codec”, and “container” as they are explained in this YouTube video from

I use PowerDirector 10 for editing and processing. I’ve found it very easy to use, and it worked well until I noticed odd blotches of color in videos that I exported from PowerDirector in MPEG-4 format. Here’s a screenshot that shows orange blotches on my arms in a frame of video that was processed by PowerDirector:

Orange blotches

The full video can be seen here.

I also found that when uploading .mp4 videos to YouTube, YouTube would display a message saying that my videos would process faster if they were in a format that is suitable for YouTube. I understood this to mean that my MPEG-4 videos were not in the best format for YouTube.

I wasn’t sure what was causing the blotches in my videos. The blotches did not exist in the original files from the camera. The blotches occurred only after the files were edited and exported from PowerDirector 10. I wondered if the blotches could be avoided if I shot the video in a different format, or if I exported the edited files from PowerDirector 10 with a different codec.

So, instead of shooting in the GH3’s high-bitrate MOV format and exporting from PowerDirector in MPEG-4, I tried shooting some video in AVCHD 1080p, 24fps at 24 Mbps bitrate and exporting the edited clip from PowerDirector in H.264 AVC 1080p, 23.976fps at 13 Mbps.

PD screen shot with h264 circledI found that videos shot in AVCHD (with an .mts extension) and exported from PowerDirector in H.264 AVC (with an .m2ts extension) have not had any color blotches. Here’s a 55-second sample of such video. Its bitrate was 13 Mbps, and the file size is 91 MB.

In a thread on the Cyberlink forum, a forum member named Carl said that he exports videos from PowerDirector in Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 HD standard.

PD screen shot with WMV circled

I tried that and found that the video clip that I showed above became just 40 MB in WMV (at a data rate of 6 Mbps). I thought that the WMV version still looked acceptable. Here it is on YouTube:

I’ve also found that the MOV video that acquired color blotches when I converted it to MPEG-4 in PowerDirector did not acquire color blotches when I converted from MOV to AVCHD in PowerDirector.

So, I’m concluding from this experience that MPEG-4 is causing the color blotches in my videos.

I’ve also observed that when uploading .m2ts files to YouTube, I do not get a message from YouTube saying that the video will process faster if I use a format that is suitable for YouTube. I understand this to mean that the H.246 codec is suitable for YouTube, which is something that I’ve heard on several YouTube videos.

I’ll keep experimenting and will share what I learn. I’ll be very interested to read about your experiences. Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section of this post.

The Lowepro Magnum 200 AW — First Impression

August 9, 2014

I just received the Lowepro Magnum 200 AW. I loved the Lowepro Inverse 100 AW, but my gear collection outgrew the bag, so I needed something a little bit larger.

Here’s a video of my first impression of the bag, compared to the Lowepro Inverse 100 AW and the Case Logic SLRC 203.