The surprising controversy over women in the sex trade — tangled in issues of legality, terminology and competing feminist visions — has produced an unequivocal statement from the executive director of UN Women that the agency is not taking sides in this debate.
The acrimonious dispute has erupted just as the United Nations is preparing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and its expanded international commitment to women’s equality and rights.
The heart of the issue is prostitution. Is it a choice to be supported, not demeaned or vilified in law but decriminalized? Or would decriminalization only increase violence and exploitation for vulnerable women and girls who are trafficked into lives of sexual slavery? Laws vary from country to country. The most recent chapter in the long debate over the buying and selling of sex grew out of an unofficial memo that emerged from UN Women in late 2013.
The note, which was widely circulated in UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations, said that UN Women would not use the word “prostitution” and instead adopt the terms “sex work” and “sex workers.” The agency also said that it would “recognize the right of all sex workers to choose their work or leave it and to have access to other employment opportunities.”
On Oct. 25, 2019, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women’s executive director, overruled the 2013 memo.
“We are aware of the different positions and concerns on the issue of prostitution/sex work and are attentive to the important views of all concerned,” Mlambo-Ngcuka wrote. “UN Women has taken a neutral position on this issue. Thus, UN Women does not take a position for or against the decriminalization/legalization of prostitution/sex work.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka was responding to a letter she received days earlier, signed by more than 1,400 individuals and organizations around the world. They are concerned that UN Women is allowing civil society groups advocating for decriminalization of both buyers and sellers of sex to influence future debates about women’s equality and rights.
In March 2020, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, will hold its annual session. Newly formed regional Generation Equality forums will follow, beginning in Mexico City in May and Paris in July. Mexico and France are partnering with UN Women to plan these events.
The letter to Mlambo-Ngcuka from the concerned civil society groups, which was circulated by the New York-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, also said that the selection of a 21-member advisory group to guide forum discussions in 2020 was not transparent or equally weighted geographically. The letter said that the advisory group was dominated by Western and/or English-speaking countries where the decriminalization of the sex trade is widely advocated and that candidates for participation that did not share that view were eliminated.
In her response, Mlambo-Ngcuka repeated the assertion that the advisory group had been formed entirely by a civil society network, NGO-CSW, and that it was not created by UN Women. Yet she also wrote that the Generation Equality forums will be “convened by UN Women” and co-hosted by France and Mexico, “with the leadership and partnership of civil society.”
The agency’s website says that the advisory group will report to an agency-appointed “core group.” UN Women has added Generation Equality’s logo to its letterhead.
Critics of the 21-member advisory group report that they are being denied entry to preparatory meetings, most recently in Europe, where street protests erupted. Numerous NGOs in Europe and Africa have refused to sign outcome documents of the meetings, some of which are still using the 2013 “sex work” terminology.
Currently, there are 3.7 billion women and girls in the world — just under half of the total global population based on 2018 data, according to the World Bank and the UN population division. The majority of them do not live in countries of the global North. While trafficking of women and girls takes place on a global scale, in rich and poor countries, evidence from various studies suggests that most women who are lured or conned into prostitution come from countries in conflict or economic depression. They do not have “access to other employment opportunities,” as the 2013 UN Women memo said.
Separately, the International Labor Organization reported recently that 15.4 million people, mostly girls and women, live in forced marriages with few or no chances to escape.
Trafficked women are part of the more than 40 million people trapped in contemporary forms of slavery, according to Urmila Bhoola, the UN’s special rapporteur on the phenomenon. “Of the female victims involved in forced labor, 98 percent have experienced sexual violence,” Bhoola wrote in her 2019 report.
Whether those who are trapped in brothels in the slums of Mumbai or cities in the developed world — about 400,000 women in Germany alone, hailing from Africa, Eastern Europe and elsewhere — would call themselves sex workers seems unlikely.
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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.