"We Could be Your Daughters", A New Mindset on Sexual Exploitation

By Natascha Schellen

The thirty-eighth session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) was held from June 18 to July 6, 2018, at the United Nations  at Geneva. The session covered a broad range of human rights issues and was attended by representatives of member and observer states of the HRC, as well as observers from UN entities, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations. According to the initial report published by the HRC, 20 resolutions were adopted during the 38th session, including the following pertaining to women’s rights: eliminating all forms of discrimination against women and girls; accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls; preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in digital contexts; eliminating female genital mutilation.

Women continue to be discriminated against and abused in many settings, especially in the sex trade. The Permanent Missions of Sweden, France and Ireland to the UN co-sponsored a side event entitled “The Nordic Model: A good practice to counter sexual exploitation and human trafficking” on June 22 to tackle this issue.

The Nordic model of dealing with prostitution was first adopted in Europe by Sweden. Ms. Karin Bolin, from the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN, explained that Swedish law punishes the buyers, not the sellers, of sex, as most prostitutes don’t go into the business by choice and need help instead of prosecution in a criminal court. Bolin added that prostitution should be eliminated entirely from society, arguing that it impacted women “physically, mentally, [and] psychologically” and that it was “against human dignity.”

France adopted the model late in 2016, according to Francois Gave from the Permanent Mission of France, and has seen some success with the law, although it is too early to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, Gave agreed with Bolin that prostitutes are primarily victims, not criminals, and the traditional policy of going after the prostitutes themselves has not helped to mitigate the problem. 

The most powerful voice at the event was a young woman from Nigeria who gave her testimony as a victim of human trafficking. Sonia (a pseudonym she used for the sake of anonymity) explained how she was lured to Italy by the prospect of an honest job after her parents fell into poverty, only to discover upon her arrival that she now had a 40,000 euro debt placed on her and the “honest” job she was promised turned out to be selling her body. It was a fate worse than death to her, as she painfully described it, and there was no escape, until one day, volunteers from the organization Associazione Comunita Papa Giovanni XXIII rescued her. Free from her exploiters, the message that Sonia wanted to pass on to the clients of prostitutes was this: “We are not there by choice. Every time you buy us, it can be considered rape. We could be your daughters. We women also have rights to freedom.” 

Millions of women like Sonia need to be protected and supported so that they can escape their traffickers and re-establish their lives with dignity.