Canada: Pass Legislation To Prevent The Sexual Exploitation Of Women & Girls - Equality Now

Canada: Pass Legislation To Prevent The Sexual Exploitation Of Women & Girls

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On 20 December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada declared Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. The Canadian Parliament has until December 2014 to enact new laws or the inherently exploitative activities surrounding prostitution, such as brothel-keeping and pimping, will be decriminalized. Activists throughout Canada and around the world are calling on the Canadian government to seize the opportunity to enact legislation to protect women and girls from exploitation and violence.

“If we decriminalize [the] prostitution [industry] we’d be saying it’s open season on our women, especially our marginalized and vulnerable, when it’s them we should be protecting the most” says Trisha Baptie, a survivor of sex trafficking and founder of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices now Educating), a Canadian non-profit that advocates for the abolition of prostitution. Trisha was exploited for 15 years in the sex industry in Vancouver, starting from when she was just 13 years old, in illegal and legal “establishments” both indoors and outdoors. She has since become a leading activist working with others to end the sexual exploitation of women and girls, and is among the many survivors advocating for Canada to target the root of the problem by passing legislation decriminalizes and ensures support for women in prostitution while criminalizing those who pay for sex. Known as the “Swedish” or “Nordic” Model, this legislative and policy framework recognizes the power inequality between the buyer and the person in prostitution and seeks to rectify it by:

1.    Decriminalizing people in prostitution (i.e. people selling sex) 
2.    Criminalizing those who pay for sex acts, brothel-keepers, pimps and procurers
3.    Mandating robust funding for services for people in prostitution, including assistance for those who wish to exit prostitution

This framework is gaining traction throughout the world and has been adopted in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. Currently it is being considered by the parliaments of France, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and has been recommended by the Council of Europe, where Canada has observer status, and the European Union, with which Canada has an official partnership.

Right now, the Canadian government has a vital opportunity to better protect people in prostitution and help rectify the stark gender, race, ethnic and socio-economic inequalities evident in the prostitution industry. Precise numbers are difficult to obtain, but it is clear that the vast majority of those in prostitution in Canada are women, and that many – like Trisha – enter into prostitution as children. Further, women and girls from marginalized communities are disproportionately represented. For example, Aboriginal children and youth make up 90% of the visible sex trade in some communities where the overall Aboriginal population is less than 10%. The Native Women’s Association of Canada remarked on the impact of decriminalization of brothels on Aboriginal women: “The state has pushed Aboriginal women from one institution to another – residential schools, foster homes, group homes, and prisons…NWAC refuses to accept brothels as the new official institution for Aboriginal women and girls.”

While people in prostitution should never be criminalized, full decriminalization of the sex industry does not prevent exploitation or further the human rights of people in prostitution, especially in a context marked by inequality. As has happened in Germany and the Netherlands after they legalized pimping and brothel-keeping, it will only serve to empower and embolden pimps, brothel owners and the men who buy sex, and undermine efforts to combat sex trafficking and exploitation within the prostitution industry.

The exploitation of women and girls in the commercial sex industry is a human rights violation, and the demand for commercial sex is the main driving force behind sex trafficking. Canada, as a party to the UN Trafficking Protocol, has an obligation to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.” Seeking to normalize and legitimize the sex industry by decriminalizing its surrounding activities is in direct opposition to this obligation. Canada has also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which calls on countries to “suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women,” as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly calls on countries to prevent the sexual exploitation of children in prostitution.

By passing legislation in line with the Nordic Model, Canada will join other progressive countries by effectively advancing gender equality and addressing exploitation in the commercial sex industry, in line with its international legal obligations.

To learn more about Canada’s international obligations, please read Equality Now’s letter to the Government of Canada here:

Please join Equality Now and our Canadian partners EVE, Sextrade101, and the London Abused Women’s Centre in calling on the government to enact legislation in line with the Nordic Model that will protect the human rights of people in prostitution while preventing future exploitation in the commercial sex industry.

UPDATE 12 NOVEMBER 2014: Fantastic news — Bill C-36 passed in Canada and received Royal Assent on 6 November, which will make it official law on 6 December! Many thanks to all of you who took action! Equality Now and our partners welcome the law's focus on buyers and pimps, and while certain problematic provisions criminalizing the selling of sex remain we hope these are addressed in the future as the law is reviewed. In the meantime, Equality Now will continue to support our partners in Canada to ensure the law is implemented and work toward a culture of equality where women and girls are free from exploitation. Thank you for all of your support!

7 OCTOBER 2014 UPDATE: Great news - On 6 October, Bill C-36 passed Canada's House of Commons. Thank you for all of your support and for writing to lawmakers! The bill now goes back before the Senate to be voted on. Stay tuned for further updates.

9 SEPTEMBER 2014 UPDATE: The bill to reform Canada’s prostitution laws, Bill C-36, is making its way through Canada’s legislature and is currently in the Senate, Canada’s upper house of parliament. In early July, our partners gave powerful testimonies at the House of Commons Justice Committee hearings on the bill, detailing the realities of prostitution and emphasizing that the decriminalization of people in prostitution, combined with the criminalization of buyers, pimps and brothel keepers, is the most effective way to reduce sex trafficking and exploitation (access videos and hearing minutes here). Though the House made changes to the bill, we remain concerned that Bill C-36 still allows criminalization of people in prostitution.

The Senate’s Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is holding hearings on the bill between 9 -11 September. Equality Now and our partners need your support to help ensure that the bill adequately addresses sex trafficking and protects the most vulnerable! Please take part in our social media campaign and call on the key Senators below to ensure that the bill fully decriminalizes people who sell sex, while maintaining criminalization on pimps, brothel-keepers and those who buy sex. During the upcoming hearings, please also watch and support our partners EVE, SexTrade101, and the London Abused Women’s Centre when they testify on 10 September (all hearings will be streamed live ). Thank you!

23 JUNE 2014 UPDATE: On 16 June, the government’s bill reforming Canada’s prostitution laws passed its second reading in the House of Commons and was referred to the Justice Committee (note: bills must undergo three readings and a committee stage in the House of Commons and also pass in the Senate, and then receive Royal Assent before becoming law). The Committee will meet the week of 7 July to hear testimony on the bill. This will be a good opportunity for the bill to be amended to truly protect the human rights of people in prostitution. Please continue to call on the Canadian government to ensure that the bill fully decriminalizes people who sell sex, while maintaining criminalization on pimps, brothel-keepers and those who buy sex.

6 JUNE 2014 UPDATE: Thousands of you called on the Canadian government to introduce a law to better protect women and girls – in line with the Nordic model – and we can report that we’re halfway there! On 4 June, Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced a bill to reform Canada’s prostitution laws. The bill criminalizes those who buy sex, pimps, brothel-keepers and those who advertise another person for prostitution. The government has also pledged C$20 million in funding for support services, with an emphasis on assisting those who would like to exit prostitution. Both measures are vital in helping to rectify the stark gender, race, ethnic and socio-economic inequalities evident in the prostitution industry.

Equality Now and our Canadian partners welcome these measures, but we are very concerned that the bill does not fully decriminalize those who sell sex. While the bill protects people in prostitution from criminal sanctions in many areas, it also maintains some criminalization. We and our partners – including survivors of sexual exploitation, many of whom entered prostitution as children – recognize that, more often than not, prostitution is not entered into out of choice, but rather through lack of choice. Any criminalization of people in prostitution would result in the added punishment, further victimization and increased marginalization of many who are already victims of heinous crimes and human rights violations.

We are working to ensure that Canada enacts legislation that will truly protect the human rights of people in prostitution while preventing future exploitation in the commercial sex industry. Stay tuned for further updates and information on how you can help.