Trafficking survivors work toward laws that end violence and exploitation

Indian sex workers hold placards as they participate in a rally at the Sonagachi area of Kolkata on Nov. 8, 2014. Hundreds of sex workers with their children and family members participated in the rally to demand better legal protection of sex workers, claiming that better laws will reduce human trafficking and exploitation.

TURIN, Italy — Over the last few weeks, two territories thousands of miles apart made a similar commitment to gender equality. Northern Ireland became the first part of the United Kingdom, and Canada the first country outside of Europe, to vote in favor of a bill that recognizes the gender dimension of the commercial sex trade.

In both cases, the selling of sex will be decriminalized. Exiting services and support will be provided to those in prostitution, and the focus will move to pimps, brothel-keepers and buyers – those who create the demand that fuels sex trafficking. The approach is known as the “Nordic Model,” initially established by Sweden in 1999 and later adopted by Norway and Iceland.

Today, Ireland and France are considering similar approaches, while the European Union and the Council of Europe both recommended that other countries follow suit.

This is happening now because survivors of sex trafficking have been leading the way. Networks such as Sex Trafficking Survivors United and Space International agree that this is the only approach that will work. In Canada, women such as Bridget Perrier, Natasha Falle and Trisha Baptie have courageously helped explain to policymakers why the violence and exploitation that affect the vast majority of those in prostitution mean it is not possible to ever make it “safe.”

Governments are supposed to legislate for the majority, with a particular emphasis on protecting the vulnerable sections of society. It is therefore absolutely vital that governments around the world pay attention to this growing trend towards gender equality, in spite of misinformation and lobbying by those with vested interests in decriminalizing pimping and brothel keeping in particular.

In the UK, Ireland, France and elsewhere, one argument in support of decriminalizing brothel keeping and pimping is that UNAIDS supports this approach. But UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé clearly stated in late 2013 that the agency “is not advocating for the decriminalization of pimping or brothel ownership.” This reflects the UN’s Trafficking Protocol as well as the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.

The trend towards the “Nordic” or the “Equality” model, as some call it, reflects increasing evidence that approaches other countries have tried have ended as failed experiments.

Since 2000, Germany, the Netherlands and New Zealand have each attempted to either legalize or decriminalize the sex trade. These approaches are slightly different, but they permit brothels and, often, pimps to operate within the law.

Evidence from studies on these approaches shows how they fail to protect people in prostitution and only serve to conceal the physical, emotional and psychological violence and sexual exploitation of the commercial sex trade.

Survivors of sex trafficking and human rights organizations working towards gender equality really want a world free from all forms of violence and discrimination against all people. Endorsing and normalizing violence is counter-productive to this global movement.

The foundation for reducing exploitation and violence, and redefining the value of every person, are laws that work for society and enable individuals to reach their full potential. In the case of children — who make up a large proportion of people who enter prostitution — it means ensuring they are protected from trafficking and treated as victims of a crime rather than criminals.

After years of work, the world is finally beginning to listen to survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The type of world that survivors and their supporters envisage is becoming more possible. Governments and policymakers now need to decide which side of history they want to be on.

Esohe Aghatise is an anti-trafficking expert for Equality Now, an international human rights organization dedicated to action for the civil, political, economic and social rights of girls and women.