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BUENOS AIRES, Feb 25 2011 (IPS) - An Argentine government proposal to crack down on clients benefiting from the trafficking of persons for the purposes of sexual exploitation has unleashed a heated debate between feminist organisations that support the idea and sex workers who are opposed to it.
The proposal by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights has the support of organisations whose aim is to abolish the commercial sex trade. These groups want prostitution to be condemned as a form of exploitation, and are calling for measures like the promotion of alternative sources of employment.
The concept of going after the client has received the backing of the United Nations and the Organisation of American States (OAS), which will study it to recommend its inclusion in the national laws of each country.
The idea is to discourage demand by sending clients convicted of hiring the sexual services of a trafficking victim to prison.
Women’s rights and human rights groups seeking to abolish the sex trade back the idea, although they express doubts because of the difficulties of implementing it.
Monique Altschul with the Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad (Women in Equality Foundation) told IPS that her organisation agrees with the government’s proposal, which is similar to Sweden’s law against the purchasing of sex services, and said “it would be difficult to implement, but not impossible.”
Trafficking in persons is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion…for the purpose of exploitation,” according to the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which has been signed and ratified by Argentina.
“Prostitution is not decent work, because people are subjected to humiliation, and they never know what to expect in each transaction,” Altschul said. “And in the case of trafficking, it is obvious that sexual exploitation is involved.”
Many women’s rights groups thus believe that not only the clients of trafficking victims should be penalised, but anyone who pays for sex.
But the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina (AMMAR), which has more than 4,000 members, is opposed to the proposal and has promised to make its voice heard at the next OAS General Assembly, to be held in June in El Salvador.
“This confuses trafficking, which we condemn, with sex work, which is an option followed by some women, as consenting adults,” Elena Reynaga, president of AMMAR, told IPS.
She also complained that the “abolitionist” groups have not listened to their concerns. “They don’t respect us, they don’t listen to us,” Altschul said. “Bans only hurt us and expose us more than we already are.”
The groups that want to abolish the sex trade argue that no woman really chooses prostitution of her own free will, and that women fall into it because of a history of violence and abuse, and a lack of opportunities.
But Reynaga rejects that argument. “Domestic workers or women who are scavenging for cardboard on the streets didn’t have opportunities either, but no one is going after them. There are many women who did not have the chance to study, and we had to make choices.”
The problem is that in Argentina trafficking in women is a hot issue. In its annual report, the U.S. State Department warns every year of the lack of effective measures to combat human trafficking in this South American country.
The organisations working against trafficking say women are lured or seized in other countries in the region, mainly Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru, as well as in Puerto Rico and the provinces of northern Argentina, the poorest parts of the country.
The media periodically report on raids of brothels in provinces in central Argentina, which turn up women from Paraguay or the impoverished northern provinces who denounce that they were deceived with promises of a good job, and ended up being sexually exploited.
There are also hundreds of reports filed of missing girls and women, who are assumed to be victims of trafficking rings.
In 2008, Congress passed a law to prevent and criminalise the crime of trafficking. But the legislation has many flaws and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, called for its “urgent” reform.
In a statement issued after her fact-finding mission to this country in September 2010, the special rapporteur said the current law stipulated that victims over the age of 18 had to prove they did not initially consent to engage in the activities they were subjected to.
Ngozi Ezeilo also called for stiffer sentences for convicted traffickers and improved assistance for and follow-up of victims, including adequate witness protection before and after trials.
“Trafficking in persons in Argentina is unfortunately growing in scale and repercussions. It is complex, dynamic and hugely underestimated, especially internal trafficking,” the special rapporteur said in her statement.
In the meantime, other measures have been taken. The Attorney General’s Office recommended that prosecutors seek to cancel the operating licenses of businesses that offer prostitution services, and some newspapers have stopped carrying sex-oriented ads.
Classified ads run in the main national and provincial newspapers frequently refer to the women’s place of origin, young age or youthful looks, such as “hot Paraguayans,” “blonde Brazilians,” “new bunny fresh from the countryside,” “just in from the north,” “erotic little doll,” or “wild university girls.”
Both the abolitionist groups and the sex workers’ associations agree that the underlying problem is corruption among politicians, judicial workers and police, who boycott and stymie measures aimed at cracking down on trafficking.
For example, when prosecutors show up at a brothel, they find that the place is “clean” because the police who were supposed to cooperate in the raid have already tipped off the owners.
Reynaga also said the laws are used to harass sex workers. “The police haul us in and bring charges against us, and force our clients to pay them bribes.”
She also questioned the concept of clients being able to distinguish between sex workers in the trade of their own accord and victims of trafficking. “What, do they expect the clients to ask the women?
“The problem is corruption — that is why the networks are mushrooming. The police already have tools and don’t use them — or rather, they use them against us.”
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