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UN Women Is Criticized for Appearing to Take Sides on Decriminalizing ‘Sex Work’


A coalition of civil society organizations is petitioning UN Women, which is devoted to promoting gender equality worldwide, to think twice about supporting the decriminalization of prostitution, as UN preparations begin to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing women’s rights conference in 2020. 

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.

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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.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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.

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UN Women Is Criticized for Appearing to Take Sides on Decriminalizing ‘Sex Work’
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Elly Pradervand
4 years ago

We wish to remind that all UN Member States have signed on to CEDAW, a binding UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW Article #6 should be used in finding a solution to the understanding of legalized sex work. “Article #6 states: “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”

Vinanti Sarkar
4 years ago

I have been reading the brilliant, thoroughly researched articles by Barbara Crossette and congratulate her for educating me … a professional multimedia journalist who has been following her writings for the past two decades !!! She has been so inspiring …

Anne-Marie Goetz & Sanam Amin
Anne-Marie Goetz & Sanam Amin
4 years ago

4 November

We are the co-chairs of the 5-person selection committee that selected the 21 members of the Civil Society Advisory Group (what this PassBlue article calls the ‘Group of 21’) to the Core Group for the Generation Equality Forum 2020. We are writing because this article contains some factual inaccuracies and encourages incorrect assumptions which we list below:

· Generation Equality Forum 2020 and the Beijing + 25 review are separate processes. The Beijing + 25 global review is at CSW64 in March 2020. The Generation Equality Forum was initiated by UN Women and the governments of France and Mexico. It is a new modality and it is not an intergovernmental process.

· The selection of the Civil Society Advisory Group (CSAG) was wholly civil society shaped. UN Women reached out to the chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, New York (NGO-CSW/NY) which in July reached out to several groups that had been engaging in CSW for a number of years, to form a broad Working Group. The NGO-CSW/NY chair repeatedly asked for suggestions of more civil society groups to invite. This broader Working Group has hundreds of members, is still open, and regularly meets to hear updates from NGO-CSW/NY, UN Women and the CSAG on what is happening in the Generation Equality Forum planning. More information on this process is available here:

· The members of the ‘Group of 21’ who make up the CSAG, cannot accurately be described as “mainly Western”: there are dedicated regional seats, and an assessment of the diversity can be made from the publicly available list:

· The article guesses that the two representatives of the CSAG to the core group “will most likely be supporters of decriminalization”. It’s to be noted that the two representatives are not speaking for themselves individually but represent civil society voices as a whole.

· The CSAG has not endorsed or discussed the issues in the Passblue article or the petition, and unfounded assumptions have been made in this article that there is a position on the matter. The NGOs quoted in the article – and the article’s headline — also suggest that the Civil Society Advisory Group is promoting a position on this issue in relation to UN Women, Mexico or France; again, this is unfounded.

· The quotes from NGOs working on trafficking in this article show appear to be under the misapprehension that they are not able to engage in the Generation Equality processes. They should be informed otherwise. This process is highly participatory and inclusive and there are many opportunities to engage.

We are surprised that PassBlue published such a one-sided story without interviewing anyone on the Civil Society Advisory Group. We have written twice to inform PassBlue of these inaccuracies and we recommend that in future that PassBlue gives members of the Civil Society Advisory Group the opportunity to respond to allegations such as these.

1 year ago

Actually, Barbara’s article was very balanced and fair. You need to accept the criticism and carefully consider the matters that she has raised.

Last edited 1 year ago by Selena
4 years ago

Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the purpose of profit. A victim is forced, beaten, drugged, and in other ways, cohersed into a situation of dependency on their trafficker(s) and then forced by their trafficker(s) to give sexual services to customers. It’s not uncommon for victims to die at the hands of their sex traffickers. Most victims are lucky to come out of trafficking alive.

Men are fueling the demand. Women must educate men of the violence that’s involved in prostitution, massage parlors and dance clubs. We must make men accountable.

Sex buying promotes sex trafficking, promotes pimping and organized crime, and sexual exploitation of children.”

The traffickers
( pimps,criminal organizations ) themselves are posing as ” sex workers ” who want prostitution legalized so they can profit and victimize.

Survivors and feminist groups are against decriminalization.

Fight the “sex work” lobby ( pimps, criminal organizations…)

No to legalizing prostitution.


Brooks Anderson
Brooks Anderson
4 years ago

Thank you, Barbara Crossette, for reporting on this. In 2016, UN Women said their policy on prostitution would be made public in 2017, but they’ve not done so. The normalization of prostitution, as advocated by UNAIDS et al., would be a human rights disaster for girls and women. Please keep reporting on this.

Peninah Mwangi
4 years ago

All concerns here are valid and have the best interest of young women, in the best interest, I would also make similar arguments against certain harmful practices including wife inheritance, back breaking mining, extreme sports etc. I am by no means making comparison or trying to play down the reality of sex workers whom I work and identify with. I am trying to appeal for interventions that maybe out of the realm of law enforcement, recognizing that law will play a smaller role in redeeming millions of girls around the world who have been forced into sex work directly and indirectly.

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