Amnesty’s proposal to legalise prostitution is wrong – we can’t let men who exploit women off the hook

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At the end of January I wrote for Mumsnet, the popular parenting forum, on the subject of prostitution. It’s a subject which really seems to have caught people’s imagination, and there was an extensive discussion on the Mumsnet forum afterwards. Some argued from a libertarian stand-point, and many others seemed to share my disappointment in Amnesty. Given that reports have suggested a rise in single-mums turning to prostitution following the 2008 crisis, I was particularly interested to see the different ways that mothers engaged with the issue.

My full piece is printed below:

An Amnesty International document leaked this week argues for the legalisation of prostitution. It says that approaches like the Swedish Model – which criminalise buying sex, but legalise selling it – are guilty of “devaluing” prostituted women and “criminalising the contexts in which they live”. In essence, the proposals say that most women who become prostitutes make a rational, informed choice – effectively , that they enter into a relationship of equals with the men who purchase their bodies.

I’m really disappointed in Amnesty. I’m a long term supporter of the Swedish Model and, for me, the idea that we should simply accept prostitution as a fact of life is totally wrong. It is particularly irresponsible at a time when it’s being reported that austerity is driving many women – and in particular single parents – into prostitution.

I believe Amnesty have got it wrong. Firstly, I don’t believe prostitution is, in most cases, “consensual sex between adults”, as the policy document describes it. The idea that women who go into prostitution are exercising ‘free choice’ just doesn’t stack up. Abuse and lack of alternatives are almost always a factor – many enter the sex trade young, and come from backgrounds fraught with suffering and abuse. Of course there are exceptions to the rule but, all things being equal, I believe most women don’t ‘choose’, in the true sense, to become prostitutes.

Secondly, I disagree with the idea there can be any real equality between a woman who sells her body and a man who buys it. As Amnesty admits, the conditions of the sex trade are “imperfect” to say the least. British ‘prostitute review’ sites like ‘Punternet’ – as well as the male-led ‘Hands off my whore’ campaign in France – show what so-called clients think of the women they buy sex from.

A large proportion of prostitutes say they experience aggression while working, and nearly seven in ten suffer the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The dynamic between buyers and sellers of sex ranges from the disrespectful to the downright abusive – but there’s almost always an inequality at play.

Of course, there’ll always be some who say that prostitution is “the oldest trade” and that there’s not much we can do about it. But this argument is as untrue as it’s depressing. In Sweden, for example, stopping the purchase of sex changes social attitudes, making men less likely to purchase sex and more likely to support prosecutions for others – and there’s no reason why this can’t happen in the UK. Amnesty need to aim much higher. We can do better, surely, than just make the exploitation of women better regulated.

The role of charities like Amnesty should be to lift standards up, not drive them down. Amnesty are supposed to be an ambitious organisation. They shouldn’t just shrug their shoulders and say “c’est la vie”. Over the years they’ve done an indispensable job in ending exploitation, improving human rights, and reducing inequalities. Legalising prostitution runs counter to all these things. It has turned Germany into a “giant Teutonic brothel”, as the Economist puts it – and, according to Equality Now, has “empowered pimps and traffickers” in Amsterdam.

Women at risk or in economic need require more opportunities and better protection – not to be told their only option is a demeaning last resort. For the sake of women and mothers everywhere I sincerely hope Amnesty will rethink their position.

The discussion is still going on among Mumsnet users. You can read it in full by clicking here.

Coalition Goverment says no to EU Anti-Trafficking Measures

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As regular readers of my blog will be aware,  I have written before about the EU’s new human trafficking directive and also ran a campaign against the Metropolitan Police Authorities proposed closure of their specialised unit dealing with this matter.  This issue has never seemed to me to be particularly partisan, it being widely accepted that trafficking causes untold misery and ruins the lives of many, especially women and children.  So I could not believe it when I heard about the coalition government’s plan to ‘opt-out’ of the new directive specifically designed to help combat trafficking.

For me,  and I hope everyone else, the most important aspect of the directive is its focus on protecting the victims of trafficking.  Such protection would mean that people who are trafficked into criminal enterprises in the UK, such as the sex trade or cannabis farming, could not be charged over false immigration papers forced on them by the gang responsible for their move. 

The new directive,  still currently in committee, also looks to create a single EU wide definition of trafficking and allow for the law courts to try people who commit trafficking offences in another EU state.  This is crucial to the combating of trafficking since many of the crimes that help sustain the practice, such as document forgery, kidnapping, intimidation and violence will occur in another country before the victim has reached the UK. 

The directive will allow for trafficking crimes to be prosecuted in UK courts, thereby helping to stop the industry of trafficking as well as bring criminals to justice.  The anti-trafficking measures seem right and proper to me.  However,  a Home Office statement in early August said that there were already ample measures in place to combat trafficking in the UK.  An interesting view since, in June this year, an umbrella group of charities and NGOs released a study saying that the anti-trafficking measures in the UK were woefully inadequate.   

I am not alone in my outrage, with leading charities criticising the decision as well as Denis MacShane writing to Nick Clegg, asking him to persuade the Tories to change their mind. 

It is deeply depressing to think that the Conservatives would make a decision that could have a huge impact on the effectiveness of our police force in combating human trafficking on the basis of the odious and irrational anti-European stance.  David Cameron and William Hague have said that they will not cede powers to the EU without a referendum (though they have already put the lie to that particular promise), so I can’t help but feel that the rejection of a powerful and necessary tool in the fight against such an egregious crime is all part of some pathetic political posturing. The idea we would even have to ask the (supposedly) pro-European Clegg to persuade the Tories to think again on this crucial issue is very, very worrying.

The Dark Side of Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day fell this year in Belgium on 9th May.  Dutch MEP Sophia in ‘t Veld, who is the President of the European Parliament working group on reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and development (EPWG), used Mother’s Day as a way of introducing a roundtable discussion entitled ‘The Dark Side of Mothers’ Day: Maternal Mortality’.

Unsafe motherhood, and its disastrous consequences, are wholly preventable. As Nicolas Beger, Director Amnesty EU Office, explained, the situation would be much improved if national governments, development agencies and international actors put safe motherhood and reproductive health initiatives at the top of their agendas. 

Burkina Faso-based representative, Madame Traore, who works for Family Care International, one of several non-governmental organisations seeking to make pregnancy and childbirth safer around the world explained that while improving maternal health is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) agreed by the 192 United Nations Member States in 2000, it remains the most off-track of them all. This, in her opinion, says a great deal about the way that the world views women. The issue of maternal mortality is too often deemed as ‘women’s business’, and not something about which everyone, both men and women alike, should be concerned.

The situation as it stands is extremely bleak. In sub-Saharan Africa the chances of dying during pregnancy or childbirth can be as high as one in eight, compared to one in 8000 in Western Europe, and pregnancy and childbirth remain the primary cause of death among women of childbearing age. Women in developing countries make up almost all of the 500,000 mothers who die each year from either being pregnant or giving birth, with many more deaths falling off the medical map given the difficulty of measuring them. Unsafe motherhood is caused by a number of factors, including poor hygiene and care during labour, poor health and nutrition prior to pregnancy, and inaccessible or unaffordable healthcare. Social, economic and cultural issues, including poverty, female genital mutilation and early marriage amplify the risks.

Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Whose Justice?

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Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is today a flourishing European state, which looks set to secure its place as a member of the European Union in the next few years.  Its current image stands in stark contrast to that of the 1992 to 1995 period, which witnessed a bitter war and countless human rights violations. Among them were rapes, killings, forced displacement, and other crimes against humanity.  During the war, women comprised a large proportion of the total victims, with rape being actively used against them as a tool of war.  Estimates of the numbers of women raped range between 20,000 and 50,000, though the actual figure has proved difficult to determine.

Fourteen years on, and justice in the majority of cases has still not been served.  In an attempt to reverse this lack of progress, a unique event organised by Amnesty International and chaired by my fellow Socialists and Democrats Group member, Emine Bozkurt MEP, was held yesterday in the European Parliament.  Its aim was to provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians to hear first-hand the experiences of women who were directly affected by this issue, so that MEPs might find a way of moving things forward.

This initiative is not a new one.  In fact, Amnesty International has been working for six years on the current project and on helping victims of rape to fight for the justice they deserve.  In September it published a report entitled Whose Justice? Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Women Still Waiting, which highlights the on-going struggle women are experiencing in trying to obtain justice in BiH, and which seeks to offer some hopes for the future.

The report is shocking in parts.  It notes first of all that rape is a crime under international law and that it is the only crime of sexual violence recognised explicitly by the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Yet to date there have only been 18 rape convictions at the international level for the 1992 to 1995 period in BiH.  Even more disturbing is that many perpetrators have now found themselves holding high positions in the region, be it in municipalities, banks or schools, and victims are rarely in a position to stand up to them.

Achieving justice is not the only important consideration.  A significant issue identified by Amnesty and other NGOs is that the ICTY has by and large failed to address the long-term psychological, social and economic needs of the survivors of sexual violence.  Unlike at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where survivors have the right to be represented thoughout criminal trial proceedings, at the ICTY survivors can only participate if they themselves provide evidence at The Hague.  Understandably this can have a damaging impact upon victims, who risk their personal safety and expose themselves to added trauma in their determination to see their violators brought to justice.

The question, then, is what can be done in the light of this report?  One idea put forward by Amnesty is to encourage the Bosnian authorities, NGOs and victims to meet together, and to set up a state strategy on reparations for victims.  This is something the authorities have been avoiding for some time.  The European Parliament and other legislative bodies must push the issue up the agenda, and ensure that the Bosnian authorities face up to the needs of victims.  It has been 17 years since the start of the war in BiH, and it will be many more years before a reasonable number of convictions have been secured.  I believe that it is up to those who have the power, including myself, to speak up for the victims of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to ensure that those responsible for grave crimes against humanity and war crimes are held to account for their actions.

Iranian Woman sentenced to Death by Stoning

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Kobra Babaei, an Iranian woman, is feared to be at imminent risk of stoning to death after her husband Rahim Mohammadi was hanged for “sodomy” on 5 October.  According to an interview given by the couple’s lawyer Mohamad Mostafaei, earlier this year, they had turned to prostitution to support themselves financially after a prolonged period of unemployment.

Rahim Mohammadi and Kobra Babaei, who have a 12-year-old daughter, were both unable to find work for prolonged periods and were very poor.  Reports state that “they realised that certain officials were willing to help them in exchange for sexual relations with Rahim’s young wife” and had therefore turned to prostitution in order to support themselves.

They were both convicted of “adultery while being married”, which carries a mandatory sentence of death by stoning.  According to the lawyer, Kobra Babaei is at imminent risk of stoning now that her husband has been executed.

It really is totally unacceptable and completely appalling that both stoning to death for adultery and hanging for sodomy are still around in this day and age.  Please make your views known and try to save Kobra by signing the petition organised by Amnesty International here.