U.S. to strengthen laws protecting sex trafficking victims

Friday, 9 January 2015 23:14 GMT

A prostitute waits for customers along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, November 29, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

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Survivors of sex trafficking argue that countries should focus on criminalizing those who exploit rather than those who are exploited

Dina was 14 when she ran away from her New York home and started a relationship with a man who manipulated her into selling sex to strangers.  When the police found her, instead of arresting her pimp and the men who sexually exploited her, they arrested Dina.

Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry, not only in the US but globally.  According to the Department of Justice, the average victim is trafficked between the ages of 12 and 14.  Those who fuel this exploitative trade – buyers, traffickers, pimps and brothel-keepers-- are rarely prosecuted.  Sadly, it is more likely that the victim – often a young girl like Dina – will be arrested instead. 

In the 10th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, Ambassador Luis CdeBaca stated that while we continue to see the devastating effects of sex trafficking, services for survivors are as rare as programs that address the demand for their victimization.

This week, in an effort to deal with tragic scenarios like Dina’s, where victims are prosecuted instead of the real criminals, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Rob Portman introduced the Combat Human Trafficking Act.  It aims to strengthen the efforts of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute those who pay for sex with trafficking victims, thereby reducing the demand for sex trafficking.

This is a significant step towards ensuring justice for adolescent girls, a segment of society which can often fall through the cracks of the legal system.  It also builds on an emerging global trend towards enacting and implementing laws which criminalize pimping, trafficking, brothel-keeping and the buying of sex, while providing services and opportunities to victims of exploitation and trafficking.   

The U.S. government has long recognized the link between buyers of commercial sex and victimization.  There are Zero Tolerance laws and policies in place that make it illegal for the military, contractors, and foreign service personnel to procure commercial sex.  However, there has been little priority on implementation, as incidents like one in Cartagena, Columbia clearly show.  Zero Tolerance should mean just that, not result in a promotion to another government department.

With time, we hope that the U.S. will reflect the trend set by Sweden in 1999, followed by Norway and Iceland ten years later, which criminalizes pimping, brothel-keeping and the buying of sex, while providing appropriate exit strategies and support to those who are exploited.

This approach, known as the ‘Nordic Model’ – or as some call it, the ‘Equality Model’ – recognizes the realities of prostitution and sex trafficking, where exploitation and violence are rampant.  It reflects first-hand experience and expertise from the growing number of voices from the survivor movement , significantly strengthened by international networks such as Sex Trafficking Survivors United and Space International and their national-level partners. 

Survivors and their allies argue that countries should focus on criminalizing those who exploit rather than those who are exploited.  There is growing evidence from countries which have enacted laws reflecting the ‘Nordic Model’, that this is the right approach to take.  At a recent Equality Now event at the United Nations in Geneva, Jan Knutsson, Sweden’s UN Ambassador, noted that since its law came into force, Sweden has become much less attractive to human traffickers because they do not see it as a profitable place to do business.

 Hilde Bjørnstad from the Women’s Front of Norway emphasized that ‘we cannot resolve trafficking without addressing demand for prostitution’.  It is noteworthy that Sweden, Norway and Iceland – the three countries which spearheaded this approach – are all near the top of the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender equality rankings

The trend has gathered pace quite significantly over the past year.  ‘Nordic Model’-based laws recently passed in Northern Ireland and Canada, while draft legislation has been proposed in the Republic of Ireland and France – although it has been delayed in the Senate of the latter country.

Every year, the U.S. collects information and publishes a Trafficking in Persons report that ranks each country on its efforts to address human trafficking.  What we should be measuring is the real improvement in the lives of women and girls, i.e. what are we doing in the U.S. to prevent victimization, criminally prosecute exploiters, and provide protection and services to survivors.

Last year, the Obama Administration made a great start by introducing the Federal Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking.  However, a key element still missing from this strategy is the prioritization of ending the demand that fuels exploitation and sex trafficking.  

The U.S. Senate should be commended for its recent move towards reducing the demand for paid sex with trafficking victims and we call on all members of Congress to pass the Combat Human Trafficking Act.  However, states still have a long way to go in terms of legislation and practice, which continues to criminalize people in prostitution who are over 18 – even if they entered the trade as a child. 

Understanding the various modes of coercion and exploitation that surround prostitution, the role of buyers in fueling the demand for commercial sex that leads to exploitation and victimization, or the common belief that a victim becomes a willing participant on her 18th birthday, are conversations that still need to be had - in the halls of our government, in our communities, in our schools and in our homes.

January 11th is Human Trafficking Awareness Day.


--Shelby Quast is Policy Director for Equality Now