The thin line between prostitution and slavery

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The shady underworld of global prostitution is alarming, and Europe should act to tackle the dire situation by looking at Sweden as a model to end slavery that still weighs on women, writes Pierrette Pape.

Pierrette Pape is a policy officer and project coordinator for the European Women’s Lobby.

"Changing 'the way things have always been' can seem a daunting task. Often, the status quo seems not only normal, but also inevitable. This is certainly the case when it comes to prostitution, a system which is widely acknowledged to have dark links with human trafficking, violence, drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse and organised crime, yet to which policymakers along with most of their constituents have long tended to turn a blind eye.

In the EU, two countries have been trailblazing exceptions to this rule: Sweden and the Netherlands. A bit more than a decade ago, the Swedish (1999) and Dutch (2000) governments came to a similar conclusion: the daily exploitation of increasing numbers of women and girls within the system of prostitution can no longer be ignored, both for reasons of human rights and for reasons of national security.

Indeed, what factual knowledge can be garnered from the shady underworld of global prostitution is alarming. For example: in the UK, according to research conducted by the Women’s Resource Centre, 75% of women in prostitution were underage when they started; human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation represents 79% of the total and 85% of the victims are women and girls.

To tackle this dire situation, the two countries took starkly different approaches. In the Netherlands, a practical approach indicated that controlling the system by decriminalising procuring and encouraging the integration of women in prostitution into the regular labour-market would allow for the protection of the rights of prostituted persons while clearing the way for a targeted crackdown on organised crime.

In Sweden, the primacy of a human rights and equality analysis brought to the fore an understanding of prostituted persons as victims entitled to specialised support and the political choice to tackle demand (by banning the purchase of sex) so as to render supply redundant.

Women’s rights associations working with victims of prostitution and trafficking have been monitoring progress over the last 10 years, alongside police and security officials, as well as academics.

While the public debate remains fierce, the results have led to a narrowing of opinion among these groups. In the Netherlands, bringing prostitution into the legal economy and improving the well-being and security of women in prostitution has proven more difficult than expected: In 2008, the Dutch police reported that between 50-90% of the women in licenced prostitution “work involuntarily”. Official research for the Ministry of Justice found in 2007 that the average emotional well-being of women in prostitution had decreased while the use of sedatives had risen.

In Sweden on the other hand, the official data is far more encouraging. By 2010, the number of men who had bought sex had dropped by almost half as compared to 1996. Street prostitution halved and there are no signs of increase in more hidden forms of exploitation.  Support for the law, at a meager 30% upon its introduction, had risen to 70%.

The experiences of the Netherlands and Sweden have shown that there are alternatives to the status quo. These countries, and those that have since imitated them, should be applauded for opening their eyes to the ugly realities of the system of prostitution for the vast majority of those women and girls (and a smaller number of men and boys also) trapped in its claws, and taking action to change this. Their experiences have also clearly shown what works and what does not. It is time to take these lessons on board. It is time for the Netherlands to change its approach adopt the Swedish model, and it is time for the rest of Europe and the world to wake up to the urgency of action.

Earlier this month, more than 200 women’s rights and gender equality associations from 29 European countries launched a call for action at the European level. Some 150 years ago, the French author Victor Hugo noted: “They say that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. That is incorrect. It still exists, but now it weighs only on women, and it’s called prostitution.”

How many more years will it take for this message to be heard?"

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