What are UK and European lawmakers doing about sexual exploitation and trafficking?

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As awareness has increased in the UK about the welfare and situation of women and girls (and men and boys) in prostitution, and about the scale of sex trafficking both within and into the UK, there has been increased discussion among lawmakers about how to effectively tackle the issue. In the recognition that current legislation is not doing enough to prevent trafficking (for all purposes, including labour exploitation), protect victims and hold perpetrators to account, three separate anti-trafficking bills are currently being discussed in the UK parliament as well as in the national parliaments of Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Lawmakers are increasingly recognising that sex trafficking and prostitution cannot be effectively tackled without targeting the demand for prostitution, i.e. those who pay for sex. The anti-trafficking bill currently moving through the Northern Ireland Assembly includes a provision criminalising the purchase of sex as an integral component of reducing sex trafficking, while a UK parliament cross-party group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade recently recommended that England and Wales fully criminalise the purchase of sex and decriminalise and support people in prostitution—along the lines of the Nordic Model.

This is part of a bigger trend in Europe: France’s legislature is currently considering a Nordic Model bill, a parliamentary committee in the Republic of Ireland has also recommended this legislation, and a 2013 report by Finland’s Ministry of Justice recommended the full criminalisation of the purchase of sex to better tackle trafficking and sexual exploitation there.

On 26 February 2014, the European Parliament adopted by a large majority a resolution from a UK Member of the European Parliament, Mary Honeyball. Representing the official position of the 766-member European Parliament, in which the 28 countries of the European Union are represented, this significant resolution emphasises the links between prostitution, gender inequality, sex trafficking and violence against women, and the need to reduce the demand for prostitution. Mary Honeyball, Equality Now and others have been calling on the individual countries of Europe, including the UK, to follow suit. Meanwhile, the largest regional body in Europe, the 47-member state Council of Europe, is considering a similar resolution recommending the Nordic model and confirming that legalisation has failed.  

For several years, a coalition of over 200 organisations, including Equality Now, led by the European Women’s Lobby and united under the Brussels’ Call, have been calling for the Nordic Model to be adopted throughout Europe and beyond.