A group of civil society organizations is warning that a growing global movement to decriminalize and rebrand prostitution as “sex work” could lead to more, not less, violence against the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.
The critics are petitioning UN Women, which is leading a review of the results of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, alleging that many dissenting voices against decriminalization have been shut out of the discussions.
The review will be the focus of the March 2020 annual conference of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), followed by two Generation Equality forums, held in Mexico City in May and in Paris in July. Ahead of the commission’s March 9-20 meeting, UN Women has been working with Mexico and France to form an advisory group to guide the agency’s policies in next year’s debates.
On Oct. 17, NGO critics of the UN decision-making process circulated a petition to more than 500 civil society organizations worldwide, asking them to sign a letter to be sent to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, and two associates who are working with her on charting the agency’s course. [As of Oct. 20, the petition has received 1,300 signatures, say the organizers.]
The associates are Delphine O, a French foreign policy expert who is secretary-general of the UN Women’s Global Forum — known as Beijing+25 — and Nadine Flora Gasman Zylbermann, the president of Mexico’s National Institute for Women (Inmujeres). PassBlue has seen a copy of the letter.
Central to the criticism from the civil society coalition is that applicants who want to participate in the UN Women advisory panel, called the Group of 21, are heavily weighted toward nine mainly Western and/or English-speaking countries, where support for decriminalization has been relatively strong. According to the coalition, 15 percent of the current applicants reportedly come from the United States.
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This seeming imbalance has raised the question as to whether Western feminists and women’s rights activists are the best judges of the circumstances in which millions of powerless girls and women live in poorer countries. The coalition is calling for a rethinking of the Group of 21 to make its composition more balanced, given that the poorest women have no role in the government-dominated deliberations at the CSW.
María Sánchez Aponte, speaking for UN Women, told PassBlue that the agency could not make changes to the Group of 21 because the selection of its members “was entirely led and coordinated by civil society, and UN Women had no role in this process at all.”
The functions of the advisory group, however, closely align with the broader responsibilities and activities of UN Women, especially the decisions being made in the Generation Equality forums, which will be convened by UN Women. In addition, two members from the Group of 21 will serve in the core group of decision-makers in the overall forum process.
Critics say that these two participants will most likely be supporters of decriminalization and do not reflect the concerns of the vast majority of the world’s most disadvantaged women.
“It is a tragic day when UN Women, by direct action or indifference, betrays its mandate and defies international law by allowing those who promote prostitution as the economic future for women and girls to guide their policies,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said in an interview with PassBlue. Her organization is coordinating the protest.
Bien-Aimé, a former Wall Street lawyer and a founding member of Equality Now, an international women’s rights NGO based in New York, added: “If UN Women is the purported champion for gender equality, it must recognize that endorsing the sex trade, including pimping and sex buying, destroys the rights of women and girls to health, safety, equal opportunities, and to live a life free from violence and discrimination.”
The letter written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which has networks across four global regions, also says that the campaign to decriminalize prostitution and promote the concept of sex work has received considerable financial support from private foundations and international health and development institutions that play integral roles in certain UN Women’s decision-making processes.
This situation, the critics say, makes it difficult for small organizations that oppose decriminalization to be seen and heard.
In the United States, the Open Society Foundations, created by the financier George Soros, has been a major contributor to efforts to decriminalize prostitution, and it explains why on its website.
Some of Open Society’s grants are generous. A recent grant application described awards up to $40,000 for “organizations, informal groups, and networks in France, Spain, and Sweden to apply for funding to challenge dominant narratives about sex work.”
Moreover, Open Society opposes partial or compromise models for laws governing the sex trade. Sebastian Kohn, the project director for sexual health and rights at the Open Society Public Health Program, argued in an article in 2017 that arresting only the buyers of sex — mostly men — did not help the women involved in the sex trade but may have worsened their lives.
“Advocates for this approach, sometimes called the Swedish or Nordic model, claim that it helps sex workers because it targets the market for sex work, not the sex workers themselves,” he wrote. “Reduce the demand, the logic goes, and sex work will go away, along with the human rights abuses many sex workers experience. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that things are not so simple. . . . Exempting sex workers from prosecution doesn’t exempt them from the negative effects of criminalization if the transaction itself remains a crime.”
[Update: The Open Society Foundations asked for a clarification on its position, saying: “We oppose laws that criminalize sex work, but support laws that govern sex work in the interest of protecting the health and human rights of sex workers, in particular labor laws and social protections.”]
The letter to be sent to the executive director of UN Women is accompanied by six explanatory annexes and lengthy comprehensive bibliographies of documents and reports. They include the declaration and plan of action adopted in Beijing in 1995, which the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argues are being dishonored or violated by the current decriminalization movement.
Ruchira Gupta is the founder of Apne Aap, an NGO in India that has rescued and helped girls and women in South Asia and beyond. An Emmy award winner for her documentary, “The Selling of Innocents,” Gupta is a coalition board member who supports the protest, based on her raw experiences with Asian traffickers.
“I wish UN women had thought about the women and girls who are the majority of victims of sex-trafficking when composing the Group of 21,” she wrote in an email to PassBlue.”These victims are the Last Girls — the most vulnerable of human beings because they are poor, female, low-caste teenagers. Their intersecting inequalities cut them off from access to food, housing, education and even protection.”
“Traffickers prey on their lack of choices. Prostitution chooses them, they do not choose prostitution,” she added. “I work in the red-light areas of India among caste communities trapped in inter-generational prostitution. They are poor, hungry, often homeless and always marginalized. Instead of seeing their prostitution as an absence of choice, many in UN Women see their prostitution as a choice.
“I wish they would come with me to talk to the girls and see their lives. I wish UN Women would choose groups that represent them. If UN Women does not champion the cause of the most marginalized girls and women, they will defeat the purpose they were set up for.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.