United Nations: Listen to survivors – don’t jeopardize efforts to prevent sex trafficking

Printer-friendly versionSend to friend
Date: 
20 Sep 2013

2 DECEMBER 2013 UPDATE: On 4 November 2013, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé sent an email to individuals and organizations who had signed our petition calling on the United Nations to listen to survivors and to clarify its position regarding pimping, brothel-keeping and buying sex. In this email, Mr. Sidibé stated that “UNAIDS is not advocating for the decriminalization of pimping or brothel ownership.” This is an important clarification, as recent UNAIDS-backed reports (see below) had called for the decriminalization of pimping and brothel-keeping. While this is a significant victory, Equality Now is continuing discussions with UNAIDS and other UN agencies to ensure that their policies on the commercial sex industry take into account the experiences and perspectives of survivors of sexual exploitation and that they are consistent with UN human rights standards. Please continue to call on UNAIDS, UNDP and UNFPA to listen to survivors and to ensure that efforts to prevent sex trafficking are effective by addressing the demand for commercial sex.


view as pdf

UN New York Headquarters
UN New York Headquarters

"When people tell me that women choose this life, I can’t help but laugh. Do they know how many women like me have tried to escape, but have been beaten black and blue when they are caught? To the men who buy us, we are like meat. To everybody else in society, we simply do not exist." – Ayesha, India, survivor

“Society’s understanding of human trafficking and prostitution needs to change. In my country, people believe that prostitutes are criminals and buyers are the victims. This is wrong…We need to change this thinking and educate young girls about the abuses of the sex industry, to let them know that they do have choices. Women are human beings, not commodities to be bought and sold.” – Alma, Philippines, survivor and activist


Combating sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation around the world requires the insight and leadership of survivors who have experienced these human rights abuses. Survivors know first-hand the human rights violations inherent in sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, and are of vital importance in informing effective anti-trafficking efforts. Equality Now has worked for more than 20 years to help ensure that survivors’ experiences shape international policy on these issues.

Equality Now and 97 anti-trafficking organizations worldwide, many of which are survivor-led, are gravely concerned about two reports released last year with the backing of the United Nations (UN) and which are being seen as official UN policy. These reports not only make recommendations in direct opposition to international human rights standards, but also largely ignore the experiences and views of survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking.

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

These two reports, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (2012), published by UNDP, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS-backed report, Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (2012), tell countries that in order to support efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS and to promote the human rights of people in prostitution, all aspects of the commercial sex industry should be decriminalized. While the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (the International Bill of Women’s Rights) calls for countries to “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women,” the UN reports at issue call for the opposite: the decriminalization of pimping, brothel-keeping and the purchase of sex. In addition, the recommendations of the reports go against mounting evidence that decriminalization and legalization – including of brothels – does not protect people in prostitution or improve their situation.

In 2000, Equality Now, sex trafficking survivors and our partners worked to ensure that the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the “UN Trafficking Protocol”) defined trafficking to reflect the wide variety of sex trafficking survivors’ experiences. The UN Trafficking Protocol’s definition was the result of years of discussion and negotiation by countries and reflects a carefully drawn political consensus that should not be challenged by UN agencies. However, the two UN reports recommend revising and narrowing this definition, which would prevent many victims of trafficking from being recognized as such. This would also jeopardize their ability to access support and justice, and reduce accountability for their traffickers.


"I believe the clients should be fined or [there should be] some other deterrent to stop them paying for sex. If there were no clients, then traffickers and pimps wouldn't be able to do what they do.” – Michelle, survivor from New Zealand, where prostitution is decriminalized

"I believe that Australia should adopt the Swedish Model in regards to prostitution. The demand should be criminalised. Women are in a position in society where circumstances push them into prostitution, but men have a choice. They don’t need to have sex available to them. By legalising prostitution men are being told by the government that it’s perfectly ok to purchase a woman. Women are not commodities to be bought and sold. Legalisation normalises something that is far from normal.” -- Sam, Australia, survivor


Survivors have long said that to combat sex trafficking, we must address the demand for commercial sex that fuels it, including through laws that criminalize the purchase of sex. The effectiveness of combating sex trafficking through addressing demand for commercial sex has been affirmed by the UN Trafficking Protocol, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the former head of UN Women.

The Swedish (or Nordic) model on prostitution addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps. This approach recognizes the inherent inequality in the power dynamic between the buyer and the person bought in a commercial sex transaction, and that demand for commercial sex is the main driving force behind sex trafficking. In fact, UNDP, UNFPA, UN Women and UN Volunteers issued a report in September 2013 which found that rape perpetration is strongly associated with the purchase of commercial sex, and noted that both stem from gender inequality. This recognition of the connection between various forms of violence against women and the importance of addressing its root causes has been a central component of the UN’s work. However, the two UN reports at issue seem to ignore this, instead calling for laws that address the demand for commercial sex to be repealed.

Promoting the human rights of people in prostitution – including their right to health, safety and freedom from violence and exploitation – and protecting them from HIV, are imperative. However, the UN reports’ recommendations are in direct opposition to efforts and policies that have been and are widely supported throughout the UN. They also jeopardize efforts to prevent and address sex trafficking and promote gender equality. These cannot be side effects of efforts to prevent HIV.

What You Can Do: 

TAKE ACTION NOW! << Click on this link to send all letters below online.

Please join survivors such as Ayesha, Alma, Michelle and Sam, Equality Now, and a coalition of 97 survivor-led and anti-trafficking organizations worldwide who have been disputing the UN reports since November 2012, in urging UNAIDS, UNFPA and UNDP to:

  • Clarify their position on the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and buyers;
  • In all future development of policies and programs on issues that affect people in the commercial sex industry, consult, involve and reflect the views of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation as well as a more diverse range of groups working on the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking.

Letters should go to:

Michel Sidibé
Executive Director
Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)
20 Avenue Appia
1211 Geneva 27
SWITZERLAND
Email: sidibem@unaids.org
Fax: +41 22 791 4179

Helen Clark
Administrator
United Nations Development Programme
One United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
USA
Email: helen.clark@undp.org
Fax: +1 212-906-5778

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin
Executive Director
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
605 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10158
USA
Email: osotimehin@unfpa.org
Fax: +1 212-370-0201

With a copy to your country’s Ambassador to the UN, and to:

H.E. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General
United Nations, S-3800
New York, NY 10017
USA
Email: sg@un.org
Fax: +1 212-963-2155

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Executive Director
UN Women
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
405 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
USA
Email: phumzile.mlambo-ngcuka@unwomen.org
Fax: +1 646-781-4444

Letters: 

Dear […],

I am deeply concerned about recommendations contained in two recent reports: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (2012), published by UNDP, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS-backed report, Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (2012). These reports not only make recommendations in direct opposition to international human rights standards, but also largely ignore the experiences and views of survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking.

These two reports tell countries that in order to support efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS and to promote the human rights of people in prostitution, all aspects of the commercial sex industry should be decriminalized, including pimping, brothel-keeping and the purchase of sex. However, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women calls for countries to “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” In addition, there is mounting evidence that decriminalization and legalization – including of brothels – does not protect people in prostitution or improve their situation.

Furthermore, I am concerned with the two reports’ recommendation to revise and narrow the definition of trafficking in the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (UN Trafficking Protocol), which would prevent many victims of trafficking from being recognized as such. This would jeopardize their ability to access support and justice, and reduce accountability for their traffickers.

The Swedish (or Nordic) model on prostitution addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps. This approach recognizes the inherent inequality in the power dynamic between the buyer and the person bought in a commercial sex transaction. The effectiveness of combating sex trafficking through addressing demand for commercial sex has been affirmed by the UN Trafficking Protocol, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the former head of UN Women, yet the two reports at issue call for laws that address the demand for commercial sex to be repealed.

Promoting the human rights of people in prostitution – including their right to health, safety and freedom from violence and exploitation – and protecting them from HIV, are imperative. However, the two reports’ recommendations are in direct opposition to efforts and policies that have been and are widely supported throughout the UN. They also jeopardize efforts to prevent and address sex trafficking and promote gender equality. These cannot be side effects of efforts to prevent HIV.

In November 2013 UNAIDS clarified its position, stating that it does “not advocat[e] for the decriminalization of pimping or brothel keeping.” I respectfully urge you that (1) UNFPA and UNDP clarify their positions on the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners and buyers, and (2) all agencies include the views of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation as well as a more diverse range of groups working on the issue of prostitution and sex trafficking, in the future development of policies and programs on issues that affect people in the commercial sex industry.

I thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,