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ARGENTINA: Activists Criticise New Law on Trafficking in Persons

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Apr 10 2008 (IPS) - Women’s rights groups that fought hard for a new law to crack down on trafficking in persons in Argentina are opposed to the legislation that was finally passed by Congress after years of debate because it requires victims over the age of 18 to prove that they did not give their consent to be sexually exploited.

"It’s not what we wanted; we are going to ask the executive branch to veto it," feminist lawyer Marta Fontenla, with the Women’s Association for Work and Studies (ATEM), told IPS.

ATEM forms part of the Red No a la Trata de Mujeres (No to Trafficking in Women Network), which also rejects the new legislation.

The law, which makes trafficking in persons a federal crime, was approved late Wednesday by the Chamber of Deputies by a vote of 157 to 35, with six abstentions, based on a draft law introduced by ruling Justicialista (Peronist) Party lawmaker Vilma Ibarra with the backing of the Interior Ministry.

The new legislation had already made it through the Senate. It must now either be signed into law or vetoed by President Cristina Fernández.

Ibarra and other advocates of the law say it protects women’s right to voluntarily engage in prostitution.

However, the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina (AMMAR) was also opposed to passage of the new law, Elena Reynaga, the head of the group, told IPS.

"To put an end to trafficking in persons, we have to put an end to hypocrisy, because in Argentina there are a number of crimes related to trafficking that are already punishable by law, but the problem is that these laws are not enforced, whether due to negligence or intentionality on the part of the political powers-that-be or the judicial authorities. For example, procuring is a crime, but it is practiced anyway," she said.

The No to Trafficking in Women Network has worked for over a decade to raise awareness of the problem and increase its visibility.

In Argentina, around 90 percent of the cases of trafficking in persons involve commercial sexual exploitation, while the remainder involves slave labour, domestic servitude, illegal adoptions or organ theft.

According to the Network, some 500 missing women in Argentina are presumed to have fallen prey to forced prostitution rings. In some cases they were kidnapped, but the majority were lured in by promises of well-paid jobs or other forms of deception.

The Network and other human rights groups, with support from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), lobbied for a federal law against trafficking, in order to accelerate legal cases that often run into hurdles and are bogged down because the victims are moved from one province to another.

The penal code now establishes prison sentences of three to six years for those convicted of participating in the entrapment, recruitment, transportation or reception of people for the purposes of sexual or labour exploitation or organ harvesting. If the victim is younger than 13, the maximum sentence climbs to 15 years.

The women’s organisations agree with that part of the law. But the new legislation also states that in the case of victims over the age of 18, the state or the victims themselves must prove that they were recruited by means of deception, fraud, violence, threat, intimidation, coercion or abuse of authority.

"This law is a setback, because it creates the idea that there is illegitimate trafficking that is penalised and legitimate trafficking in which the victims supposedly give their consent to be prostituted," said Fontenla. "But we believe that no one can consent to their own exploitation."

The lawyer said the highest profile cases of trafficking, in which women are kidnapped, actually make up a small portion of the total. Much more common, she said, are girls or young women who are recruited by means of deception or who knowingly enter into prostitution out of necessity. "Those cases are also crimes; you shouldn&#39t have to prove that violence was used," Fontenla argued.

Sara Torres, coordinator of the Network, told IPS that the new law runs counter to international treaties that establish that trafficking in persons is a crime regardless of the victim’s age and whether or not they gave their "consent."

Argentina is a signatory to the American Convention on Human Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which means they have the force of law in this country.

The women’s groups and human rights organisations are considering asking President Fernández to partially veto the law.

But the representative of the IOM in Argentina, Eugenio Ambrossi, said the approval of the law was "excellent news," above and beyond the criticism it has drawn.

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