Take a moment, close your eyes, imagine yourself as an 11-year old girl in India. You recently ran away from your abusive parents. You are welcomed by your aunt, only to have her sell you to a brothel in Sonagachi, India, a city with a well-known red-light district with legalized prostitution. You are told that women choose to live here and are able to keep the money they make. But the reality is that you are forced to have sex with men, do not see any money and all the while, police look the other way. These realities detailed in Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s book, Half the Sky, should inspire us to assertively work to end sex trafficking.
The same dull argument over legalizing prostitution has occurred for many years. Those in opposition believe it will lead to more sex trafficking, and those in favor see it as a way to empower women. While both sides relentlessly argue, there are an estimated 1 million children forced into prostitution every year and the total number of child prostitutes could be as high as 10 million. Reporting and tracking accurate numbers of sex trade slaves is difficult because of the stigmatization and criminalization of prostitution around the world. To effectively address the issue of sex trafficking and associated health outcomes, countries must take three steps: decriminalize the sale of sex, introduce harm reduction procedures to serve the health needs of prostitutes and institute regular, strict government checks of known brothels.
Instead of focusing on legalization, countries need to create policy that shifts criminality from the selling of sex to the act of buying sex. Most current policies place the blame of prostitution on women, and as a result, cultures globally have stigmatized sex workers but not the men who buy sex. One country that has implemented effective policy is Sweden. Swedish policy criminalizes the buying of sex, not the selling of it. Men who are caught pay fines and are subject to up to six months in jail. In the first five years of this policy, the number of prostitutes in Sweden decreased by 41 percent, and the price of sex also dropped, indicating the demand decreased. By creating policy that criminalizes those who buy sex, countries are able to change the misogynistic tone of the sex trade narrative.
Healthcare policy is also an essential step in addressing prostitution. Harm reduction actions lower negative health outcomes, such as HIV, infant mortality and maternal mortality, which come with the sex trade profession. Prostitutes are often uneducated, poor and fearful of seeking help from police or healthcare service. Harm reduction actions could include distributing free condoms to street workers and funding free clinics where women receive family planning advice, contraception, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections testing and treatment, addiction services as well as social services. Augmenting these services with education, skills training, a place to live and social support is a proven way to empower women to leave prostitution for better employment opportunities.
Government crack downs on brothels is effective in lowering sex trafficking, especially in countries where prostitution is coerced. Police corruption has long been a deterrent for women desiring to report rapes or pimps. But with the passing of the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) in 2000, which ranks countries on how they are addressing trafficking, governments choose between brothel payouts or being ranked last on the TIP. Government crackdowns are especially impactful in Asian countries where the sale of virgins account for a disproportionate share of traffickers’ profits.
Now, close your eyes again, you are that same girl mentioned above, but now you are 22, rescued from prostitution, taught how to weave baskets that you sell in the marketplace, you are also HIV positive, but because of the clinic in your town you have the medication needed to give birth to a HIV negative baby. All of this because your country decided to put your human rights first.