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Decriminalizing prostitution will not improve the security of prostituted women

11 avril 2005

par Diane Matte, Coordinator of the International Secretariat of the World March of Women

The World March of Women is a global feminist action network committed to fighting poverty and violence against women. We represent over 5300 women’s groups located in 163 countries and territories. These groups are concerned about escalating poverty, especially its feminization, and the omnipresence of violence against women in every region of the world. We struggle every day to change this situation.

We address the issue of prostitution and the expansion of the sex industry from the perspective of sexual exploitation, the subjugation of the poorest women, racism and the international division of labour.

We remind you of these two statistics about the situation of women planet-wide ; they should guide the sub-committee in its deliberations :

 according to official UNDP data, almost half the world’s population lives in conditions of extreme poverty : less than US$1 per day. Of this number, 70% are women.

 according to the World Bank, violence against women equals cancer as a cause of death and disability in women of reproductive age.

We could put it more strongly still and say that women are much more likely than men to die of malnutrition and lack of health care-especially reproductive health care ; and more likely to die at men’s hands, usually men they know, whether they are prostituted or not.

Why ? Because we still live in a world where the lives of women and girls are valued less. We live in a political, social, economic and cultural system that is based on unequal, gender-based based treatment of its citizenry. The patriarchal system, here and elsewhere, persists and resists every attempt women make to change it. We have made gains and continue to advance but many obstacles still stand in our way. The task is indeed an enormous one and the system is as old as the "oldest occupation in the world."

The institutions of the patriarchy

The patriarchal system is rooted in four institutions that simultaneously perpetuate and increase its strength : marriage, maternity, heterosexuality and prostitution-four institutions whose purpose is to control women’s bodies and their sexuality. As feminists we have succeeded in shaking up these institutions, with one exception : the institution of prostitution. It must be stressed that this is true of Western countries in particular ; it is hardly true for the great majority of women around the world.

Marriage in Canada and Québec is no longer viewed as the only career plan for young women. Now there are even new types of union that are breaking with tradition. In many other countries, however, girls are forced into marriage (especially in Africa) ; and women are burned alive on their husband’s death (Asia).

The right to decide on the number of children we wish to bear, end an unwanted pregnancy, or simply not to have children, was won after long hard struggle by women in this part of the world. Although we must fiercely guard this right, it does represent a step forward. It is not a choice that the majority of women in the world can make. Witness the pressure exerted by the Vatican, supported by the United States, a world superpower, to deny women’s right to bear the children they desire and to control their reproductive lives ; the forced sterilization of Aboriginal women in Latin America ; or the criminalization of abortion in many countries, including countries in the North like Portugal and Ireland.

The institution of compulsory heterosexuality was also shaken although these gains are among the most fragile. For a woman, the right to love who we choose still requires the most arduous struggle. Bringing homosexuality out of the closet, especially freeing it of its stigma as a mental illness or sign of abnormality, allowed numerous women to make different life choices. These choices are unimaginable in many countries where non-heterosexuality is repressed, even penalized by death.

The institution of prostitution, meanwhile, has prospered. The sex industry, pornography, and sexist advertising have seen to that. In this market-driven era, selling women’s bodies-in the virtual or the real world-is an extremely lucrative activity, and in fact, is ever more lucrative. The traffic in women and girls, mostly for the purposes of prostitution, is rising. Despite the obvious links between this traffic and prostitution, there is strong resistance to the notion of attacking these links, especially attacking the demand.

It is useful to remember that defying any of these institutions means exposing oneself to repression and violence. In fact, violence against women could be defined as the ultimate tool of repression when women refuse to be at the service of men.

Why decriminalizing prostitution is not the answer to violence against prostituted women

Because the main goal of violence against women is the control of the Other by denigration, terror, blows, torture and death. Women in prostitution are more vulnerable to this violence because the men who buy women believe they have paid for the right to do what they like to them. Even if women try to establish limits, men believe they can legitimately disregard them because they have bought control.

If we truly want to address the issue of violence against prostituted women, then, we must tackle inequality between women and men in a much broader way. We must above all challenge the demand, i.e., the fact that men want to purchase sexual services, and make the necessary links with the maintenance of women’s inferior status. Remember, too, that the institution of prostitution concerns all women. Under patriarchy, the man/buyer does not wonder if the woman wants to be a prostitute. He prostitutes her.

Since this sub-committee was created in response to the violence perpetrated on prostituted women in Vancouver over the years, it is useful to recall that numerous times during the investigation the women themselves reported details to the Vancouver police that could have led to arrests of the murderers and a reduction of the numbers of victims. Law or no law, women victims of violence, especially women in prostitution, are not believed when they report violent incidents.

The consequences of total deciminalization in Canada

Canada boasts a strong international reputation for fighting violence against women. It was the first country to accord refugee status to women fleeing violence. It was one of the first countries to define rape within marriage as a crime. We have developed practices and adopted legislation which are the envy of many across the world. The Canadian government is a signatory of the Palermo Protocol on the sex trafficking of women and children.

We believe it would be a mistake for Canada to decriminalize prostitution as a means of countering the violence committed against prostituted women. This would send the wrong message and would diminish Canada’s credibility on the issue. There are no reliable data we know of that show that violence against prostituted women has decreased in countries that have decriminalized or legalized prostitution. On the contrary, the trafficker networks enjoy much more latitude to sexually exploit the legions of women and girls who are desperately trying to improve their quality of life .

Why is it that since the sex industry was legalized in the Netherlands most of the women in the windows come from countries in the South ? This is why we believe that connections must be made between prostitution/sex trafficking and the subjugation of poor women, racism and the international division of labour. In fact, when we observe the movement of the traffic in humans (especially sex trafficking) it is quickly apparent that the traffic moves from East to West, South to North, following the route of poor countries’ debt repayments to rich countries. With dread, we observe institutions like the World Trade Organization propose to a country like Thailand that sex tourism revenues be counted in its gross domestic product. And, in Germany, not long ago, an unemployed woman was obliged to take a job in the sex industry.

Needed changes

We are nevertheless of the opinion that current Canadian law is not adequate to fight the pimp networks and the institution of prostitution. We are aware that women-especially women in the street-are doubly penalized by the stigmatization/marginalization of which they are victims, police repression, and, of course, the potential violence of male buyers. We denounce the treatment of Aboriginal women who are ignored by the system and left in a condition of extreme vulnerability. We are above all aware that it is time to stop trying to control women in prostitution and start addressing this issue from another perspective, that of the demand and the industry.

This is why we recommend the following priorities to the Canadian government :

 totally decriminalize prostituted and trafficked women (including the possibility of according them refugee or immigrant status, where applicable) ;

 begin a process to adopt framework legislation focussing on the demand and attacking pimping networks. This legislation should provide for massive public information campaigns and education programs for boys and girls in the schools concerning the causes and consequences of prostitution ; it should link gender equality policies with the struggle against pimping and sexual exploitation of others ; and review the sections of the Criminal Code and the Immigration Act that facilitate the expansion of the sex industry and sex trafficking in Canada ;

 take the needed measures to eliminate poverty in Canada with specific programs to combat women’s poverty ;

 respond favourably to the demands of Aboriginal women to recognize their Aboriginal status in their communities and give them the tools they need to assume leadership ;

 evaluate the impact of the sex industry on equality between women and men in Canada.

Text of a presentation made by Diane Matte, Coordinator of the International Secretariat of the
World March of Women
, to the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws of the Standing Committee On Justice, in Montreal, March 16, 2005.

Online on Sisyphe April 11th, 2005.

Diane Matte, Coordinator of the International Secretariat of the World March of Women

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