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What is the scale of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the UK?

Today is UK Anti-Slavery Day, and EU Anti-Trafficking Day. Despite international law prohibiting trafficking in human beings, an estimated 2.45 million people annually - 1.2 million children - are still being trafficked globally. Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is the most profitable form of human trafficking. 96% of its victims globally are women and girls.

Equality Now is committed to ensuring that women and girls are free from sexual exploitation and violence inherent in, and arising from, sex trafficking and the commercial sex trade.

Rebecca, a survivor of sex trafficking, from the UK, shared her story with us: “I was prostituted from 14 till I was 27. On the first night, some men took me to a flat and gang raped me for 6 hours. I don’t know how I made it out alive.

One day, I decided to catch a train and leave without knowing where I was going. I was in prostitution on and off for 3 years after that, but that was the beginning of my exit.

Most of the guys who bought me were very rich - some of them are now in positions of power. One actually resuscitated me and then carried on. People disconnect prostitution from other rights abuses. If you’re going to be a bastard, it’s easier with prostituted women because no one listens or believes prostitutes.

When I got out, I got a lot of backlash from people who talk about prostitution being a choice, or say I couldn’t have been a prostitute because I’m middle-class or too educated. Within a month, however, I started getting a strong response. Now I use it to be political and to talk about the trauma associated with prostitution.”

What is the scale of the issue in the UK?

In 2017, 1,115 women were identified as victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in the UK, a number the National Crime Agency (NCA) says represents just a fraction of those trafficked into the country. The true number could run into the tens of thousands.

Of those women officially identified, an estimated 3.3 million sexual assaults have been committed against them. These assaults are primarily committed by men who pay for sex.

The scale of this sexual abuse and exploitation by sex buyers in the UK is a human rights scandal. Women trafficked for sex are being subjected not to a form of forced labour, but to repeated rape.

Existing legislation is neither being enforced, nor is it adequate to respond to the severity of the issue. Laws should be put in place to stop men from buying sex in all instances in order to successfully tackle the form of modern slavery which is sex trafficking.

Those selling sex should be fully decriminalised and provided with support services. Current levels of victim support for sex trafficked women is inadequate and must be improved. Those who are exploited in prostitution are likely to experience PTSD and self-blame. Some don’t initially recognise themselves as a victim and only disclose trafficking later after receiving support and counselling.

“Victims, especially adult women in prostitution, are often prejudged as being responsible for their situation, that they have ‘chosen’ to sell their bodies. This results in moral approaches being employed to ‘rescue them’, and ensuring that they become ‘responsible’ individuals. We must consider the socio-economic factors that lead to men buying sex, and women and girls’ socio-economic vulnerabilities. They are not criminals, but victims who require protection and support."                                                                                                                                           (Tsitsi Matekaire - Program Manager, End Sex Trafficking)

Equality Now campaigns around the world to end sex trafficking. Join us to hear more about you can support these campaigns.