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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 26 2013 (IPS) - The age-old debate over how to regulate sex work has led to a rift between the United Nations and anti-trafficking organisations, which are pressuring the world body to rethink its position following two reports that advocate decriminalising all aspects of prostitution.
“When we saw the reports we became very concerned,” said Lauren Hersh, New York director of Equality Now, which is leading the public campaign that launched this week. “To have U.N. agencies call for brothel-keeping is egregious,” she told IPS.
The coalition of 98 groups is asking the U.N. to update and reissue the reports, which were published last year, to reflect the experiences of survivors of prostitution, and include a wider range of views on the impact of legalising of the sex industry.
The two reports, Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, backed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Joint United Nations Programme of HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and HIV and the Law, published by UNDP’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law, are focused on reducing HIV/AIDS while simultaneously protecting the rights of those involved in prostitution.
Survivors say that addressing the demand that keeps the cycle of prostitution in motion is imperative and is not adequately addressed in the reports.
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for UNDP said in a statement that the reports examined the issues of sex work through a specific lens of the HIV epidemic and strongly condemned sex trafficking.
“UNDP advocates and promotes the respect of human rights for all, especially the most excluded and marginalised. The report on Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific… clearly distinguishes between adult consensual sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation,” the spokesperson said.
Spokespersons from UNFPA and UNAIDS told IPS that the UNDP statement accurately reflects their agencies’ position.
The reports also see decriminalisation of the sex industry as a way to promote the ability of prostitutes to negotiate condom use, but Equality Now says that for many women in prostitution, there is an economic dependency, thus pressure, to have sex without a condom as clients will often offer more money for sex without one.
If women are trafficked or controlled by a pimp, they have less ability to insist on the use of condoms.
In a statement, UNDP said that the criminalisation of sex work increases vulnerability to HIV and limits access to condoms and sexual health services.
But Hersh says that, “Often it’s the pimps and buyers that dictate condom use as women can get more money from not using one.”
Hersh emphasises that the coalition is not trying to undermine the efforts of the campaign against HIV/AIDS. Equality Now has spent nearly a year reaching out to the U.N. through internal channels, including sending a letter co-signed with over 80 organisations, to Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.
Prostitution is legal in many countries, including Switzerland, where “sex boxes” were recently introduced in Zurich to promote the safety of prostitutes in what the city considers a more pleasant environment. But the situation for men and women in countries where prostitution is legalised and decriminalised remains dire, according to Equality Now.
“One of the major issues is that the reports did not consult with our partners on the ground, particularly survivor-led organisations,” Hersh told IPS.
Stella Marr, executive director and one of the co-founders of Sex Trafficking Survivors United, an international organisation of over 100 survivors of prostitution, is herself a survivor, first trafficked at age 20 and involved in prostitution for 10 years.
“If we don’t address demand, there will always be trafficking,” Marr told IPS, adding that she is “saddened” at the reports.
Marr believes the best solution is the Nordic model, which criminalises the purchase of sex, but decriminalises being a prostitute.
Marr left prostitution after a buyer offered to help her, giving her a safe place to live for two years. She is the only person she knows who this has happened to.
“The fact that I got out doesn’t mean I was strong. I was lucky,” Marr said.
Survivors of the sex industry do not have their voices heard as loudly as those who are currently involved due to the amount of shame around it, said Rachel Moran, a founding member of Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE) International, who was prostituted from age 15 until she was 22.
Another facet of the reports Equality Now wants to address is the definition of “trafficking” by the U.N. In 2000, in the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, commonly known as the U.N. Trafficking Protocol, members states agreed on a broad definition of trafficking that reflects a variety of experiences from sex trafficking survivors.
The 2012 U.N. reports recommend narrowing down and redefining the definition, which could mean many trafficked persons would no longer be considered victims and their traffickers would not be held accountable.
“I understand that it’s difficult… you have to have a way to help people out of that life,” Marr said. “People in prostitution need to be recognised as trafficking victims… We don’t believe anyone chooses.”
Equality Now is optimistic about future reports, including a recent study from Asia and the Pacific, launched by UNDP, UNFPA and U.N. Women, that reports the purchase of commercial sex in the region is strongly associated with widespread rape and sexual violence against women.
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