While human rights activists, government officials and the United Nations all agree that the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution is a serious – and growing – problem, there is some disagreement in relation to the best way to prevent trafficking and exploitation.
Equality Now supports and advocates for laws based on the ‘Nordic model’ to combat trafficking and exploitation and promote gender equality. This is a set of laws that criminalises the demand for commercial sex while decriminalising individuals in prostitution based on an approach first adopted in Sweden in 1999, followed by Norway and Iceland. In 1999, as part of a Violence Against Women bill, Sweden passed a law that criminalised only the purchaser of sex. Since the introduction of the law, street prostitution has halved and Sweden has become an undesirable destination for sex traffickers. In 2008, Norway followed Sweden’s example and passed a law criminalising the purchase of sex (within Norway and abroad) while keeping the sale of sex decriminalised to help combat human trafficking. Due to concerns regarding sex trafficking and exploitation after legalising prostitution in 2007, Iceland passed a law in 2009 criminalising the purchase of sex to better promote gender equality and fight exploitation.
The ‘Nordic model’ has two main goals: to curb the demand for commercial sex that fuels sex trafficking, and to promote equality between men and women.
Sex trafficking is a criminal industry that operates like a market and is based on the principles of supply and demand. On the demand side, men pay for commercial sex. Traffickers, pimps and facilitators profit from this demand by supplying women and girls. On the supply side, women and girls are exploited every day in the commercial sex industry. Sex trafficking does not just exist because people are vulnerable, but also because there is a demand for commercial sex that traffickers can exploit and profit from. Thus, addressing the demand for commercial sex is a key component of any plan to prevent sex trafficking. Furthermore, men who buy sex and provide the demand which fuels trafficking have confirmed that greater criminal penalties, as well as loss of anonymity, would deter them.
Exploitation in the commercial sex industry is both a cause and consequence of gender discrimination. It is a form of violence against women and girls and violates their human rights, including the right to equality and non-discrimination, dignity, health and to be free from violence, torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. It perpetuates the idea that women’s and girls’ bodies are for sale to satisfy the male demand for sex. The Nordic model challenges this construct by promoting women’s and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s right to buy women’s bodies for sex. Unsurprisingly, three of the top four countries with the highest level of gender equality have adopted the Nordic model as a way to combat sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.
There is also a growing international consensus on the need to address demand: the UN Trafficking Protocol, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the head of UN Women have all called for countries to combat the demand for commercial sex in order to prevent sex trafficking and promote gender equality.
France, Denmark, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland are all currently examining new legislative possibilities, which could lead them to potentially adopting the ‘Nordic model’. In relation to this, Jacqui Hunt, London Director of Equality Now suggests that “an increasing number of countries are recognising that true gender equality can never be reached as long as it is considered acceptable for one more powerful segment of society to purchase the bodies of those members whose options are much more limited. We therefore urge the global adoption of legislation on prostitution, which promotes the core principle of gender equality and where exploitation of women and girls becomes a thing of the past”.
Equality Now works for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls around the world. Working with grassroots women’s and human rights organizations and individual activists since 1992, Equality Now documents violence and discrimination against women and mobilizes international action to support efforts to stop these abuses.
For further information on the work of Equality Now in this area, please visit: www.equalitynow.org