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Trailblazing new approaches to prostitution

More than a decade after adopting new policies on prostitution, two EU countries are discovering what works and what does not – and it is time for the rest of Europe to realise the urgency of breaking the status quo, writes women’s lobby

Changing the way things have always been can seem a daunting task. Often, the status quo seems not only normal, but also inevitable. This is certainly the case when it comes to prostitution, a system that is widely acknowledged to have dark links with human trafficking, violence, drug and alcohol addiction, child abuse and organised crime, yet to which policy-makers along with most of their constituents have tended to turn a blind eye.

In the European Union, two countries have been trailblazing exceptions to this rule: Sweden and the Netherlands. A bit more than a decade ago the Swedish and Dutch governments, in 1999 and 2000 respectively, came to a similar conclusion: the daily exploitation of increasing numbers of women and girls within the system of prostitution can no longer be ignored, both for reasons of human rights and for reasons of national security.

Indeed, what factual knowledge can be garnered from the shady underworld of global prostitution is alarming. For example in the United Kingdom, according to research conducted by the Women’s Resource Centre, 75 per cent of women in prostitution were underage when they started, human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation represents 79 per cent of the total, and 85 per cent of the victims are women and girls.

To tackle this dire situation, the two countries took starkly different approaches. In the Netherlands, a practical approach indicated that controlling the system by decriminalising procuring, and encouraging the integration of women in prostitution into the regular labour-market, would allow for the protection of the rights of prostituted persons while clearing the way for a targeted crackdown on organised crime.

In Sweden, the primacy of a human rights and equality analysis brought to the fore an understanding of prostituted persons as victims entitled to specialised support and the political choice to tackle demand – by banning the purchase of sex – so as to render supply redundant.

Women’s rights associations working with victims of prostitution and trafficking have been monitoring progress over the last 10 years, alongside police and security officials, as well as academics. While the public debate remains fierce, the results have led to a narrowing of opinion among these groups.

In the Netherlands, bringing prostitution into the legal economy and improving the well-being and security of women in prostitution has proven more difficult than expected. In 2008, the Dutch police reported that between 50 and 90 per cent of the women in licensed prostitution "work involuntarily". Official research for the Ministry of Justice found in 2007 that the average emotional well-being of women in prostitution had decreased while the use of sedatives had risen.

In Sweden on the other hand, the official data is far more encouraging. By 2010, the number of men who had bought sex had dropped by almost half as compared to 1996. Street prostitution halved and there are no signs of increase in more hidden forms of exploitation. Support for the law, at a meager 30 per cent upon its introduction, had risen to 70 per cent.

The experiences of the Netherlands and Sweden have shown that there are alternatives to the status quo. These countries, and those that have since imitated them, should be applauded for opening their eyes to the ugly realities of the system of prostitution for the vast majority of those women and girls – and a smaller number of men and boys also – trapped in its claws, and taking action to change this.

Their experiences have also clearly shown what works and what does not. It is time to take these lessons on board. It is time for the Netherlands to change its approach adopt the Swedish model, and it is time for the rest of Europe and the world to wake up to the urgency of action.

Last week some 200 women’s rights and gender equality associations from 29 European countries launched a call for action at the European level. Some 150 years ago, the French author Victor Hugo noted: "They say that slavery has disappeared from European civilisation. That is incorrect. It still exists, but now it weighs only on women, and it is called prostitution." How many more years will it take for this message to be heard?

Pierrette Pape is a policy officer and project coordinator at the European Women’s Lobby

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