#204 Beyond the Rhetoric: The European Council and the Misrepresentation of Sex Industry Exploitation

May 17, 2024 FiLiA Episode 204
#204 Beyond the Rhetoric: The European Council and the Misrepresentation of Sex Industry Exploitation
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#204 Beyond the Rhetoric: The European Council and the Misrepresentation of Sex Industry Exploitation
May 17, 2024 Episode 204

"It is not our job to question individual choices of women in prostitution. We must examine the system and the context in which women's choices take place" Anna Zobnina

In February 2024, Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, published a statement entitled "Protecting the human rights of sex workers". It was a problematic statement that undermined the efforts of hundreds of feminist organisations and dozens of prostitution survivor organisations to eradicate the sex industry.

In this podcast, Luba Fein, a FiLiA volunteer, discusses this statement and its consequences for women in the sex trade and society in general with two prominent feminist activists: Alyssa Ahrabare and Anna Zobnina from the European Network of Migrant Women (ENoMW)

Show Notes Transcript

"It is not our job to question individual choices of women in prostitution. We must examine the system and the context in which women's choices take place" Anna Zobnina

In February 2024, Dunja Mijatović, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, published a statement entitled "Protecting the human rights of sex workers". It was a problematic statement that undermined the efforts of hundreds of feminist organisations and dozens of prostitution survivor organisations to eradicate the sex industry.

In this podcast, Luba Fein, a FiLiA volunteer, discusses this statement and its consequences for women in the sex trade and society in general with two prominent feminist activists: Alyssa Ahrabare and Anna Zobnina from the European Network of Migrant Women (ENoMW)

Beyond the Rhetoric: The European Council and the Misrepresentation of Sex Industry Exploitation

Luba Fein from FiLiA in conversation with Anna Zobnina the Director of ENoMW (European Network of Migrant Women) And Alyssa Ahrabare also from ENoMW.

LUBA: My name is Luba Fein I am a volunteer with FiLiA. My primary focus within activism lies in combating prostitution. Today, I want to address a distressing development. The recent endorsement of the sex industry by a prominent European institution. As a feminist organization, FiLiA vehemently opposes such a stance.

What exactly happened? In February 2024 Dunja Mijatovic, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, published a statement entitled: ‘Protecting the human rights of sex workers’. It was a problematic statement that undermined the efforts of hundreds of feminist organizations and dozens of prostitution survivor organizations to eradicate the sex industry.

Some listeners probably ask themselves, who exactly is the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe? The Council of Europe consists of 46 member states established the position of commissioner for human rights in 1999. This role does not represent any specific country, but ensures that member states uphold and respect human rights principles.

The commissioner undertakes various responsibilities, including conducting visits to countries to engage with policymakers, conducting studies on human rights issues at local and regional levels, issuing reports, and raising awareness about the significance of human rights. Additionally, the commissioner Collaborates with diverse entities such as the European Union, the United Nations, and other organizations to advocate for human rights and support those who champion this principle.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe elects the Commissioner for Human Rights. Dunja Mijatovic, a legal expert and activist, was elected to this position in 2018 for a new non-renewable term of six years. With a background in media law and regulation, Mijatović previously served as OSCE representative, on freedom of the media from 2010 to 2017. 

Here is an excerpt from her statement. 

‘Sex workers suffer from the persistent stigma of sex work as shameful and dishonourable. The criminalization of sex workers, clients, or third parties has significantly reduced sex workers access to rights and essential services.

And has led them to live and work in hiding. Greater attention and visibility should be given to their voices and their rights.’

What concerns do we have regarding the statement she issued? Today, I have two great feminist activists with me, and we will discuss the statement and its consequences for women in the sex trade and society in general.

Anna Zobnina and Alyssa Ahrabare, thank you so much for joining me. Could you please introduce yourself, Anna? 

ANNA: Yes, I can introduce myself. I'm the director of the European Network of Migrant Women, and we are a platform of migrant women NGOs in over 20 European states. We work on a whole broad range of issues that has anything to do with rights of migrant refugee and also ethnic minority women, meaning they could be called diaspora women or those who are born into migrant families, but not necessarily they have first-hand experience of migration themselves, but they belong to migrant families or communities. 

And my personal, let's say, qualifications and my interest and my experience really has to do with male violence against women, in particular, sexual violence, sexual exploitation and prostitution, trafficking, different forms of trafficking, but also care and domestic work.

These are the sectors where migrant women are. segregated disproportionately with the latter one being the somewhat formal sector of economy and where we're demanding the formalization of labour rights and the former one, meaning the sex trade, we demand its abolition rather than formalization or regularization or harm reduction.

Yeah. So that's me, 

ALYSSA: Thank you Luba, for the invitation. I'm Alyssa Ahrabare, like you said. I also work alongside Anna with the European Network of Migrant Women. I am the advocacy and legal lead, so my portfolio relates to everything related to advocating for migrant women's rights and interests at the European Union level. 

We also consider the spaces of the Council of Europe and the United Nations, especially the CEDAW committee, because we think the CEDAW convention is a very important instrument when it comes to the implementation of women's rights and migrant women's rights.

Yeah, that's me. I'm a jurist. I studied human rights and fundamental liberties. I also work on the issue of access to fundamental rights by migrant women, and with the European Network of Migrant Women, we are currently working on the interpretation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights with a migrant women's rights perspective, because basically, what we keep saying through our analysis is that the current legal framework, whether it is at EU level or UN, it's what we call gender blind.

So it doesn't take into account the specific situations of women and girls and let alone migrant women and girls. 

For us, human trafficking, including for sexual exploitation, prostitution and all the forms of sexual exploitation, including online, amounts to torture, violations of human dignity, and other violations of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

LUBA: Okay, so you are the right people to talk about this. And now Alyssa, could you please explain first, who is the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe? What does this role actually mean? 

ANNA: Okay, maybe I should explain. The Commissioner it's an individual person, an expert who is elected by the PACE Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Council of Europe has its own parliament. Usually members of this parliament, the parliamentarians, they're also members in the national parliament. Unlike the EU parliament, where you get elected separately, just specifically for the EU Parliament. In the Council of Europe, it can be a combined role.

Once in a while, usually, it may happen like every five years, there is a mandate, a specific term for the Commissioner for Human Rights. The representatives from the Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, the parliamentarians, they are presented with several candidates and they make a decision. It is an important decision because this person ultimately will be expressing her or his opinion in the next five years about the issues of human rights pertaining to the European Convention of Human Rights. 

So the Council of Europe has its own convention and the signatories to the convention and the members of the Council of Europe, the states of the Council of Europe, they are all obliged to act accordingly without violations of those rights that are enshrined in the Human Rights Convention.

And in relation to the state's obligations to fulfil and to respect the convention of human rights, there was created this special mechanism inside the council, and it is called the Human Rights Commissioner. But again, it is not a committee, it is not made of States. It is a role filled in by a specific person.

Usually it has to be according to the terms of reference, the mandate of the commissioner. It has to be a prominent expert with a track record of, usually they're lawyers, usually they come from other positions. So for example, in this election that was very recent because actually Dunja's term has come to an end and there will be a new human rights commissioner.

There were three candidates. One of them was the former UN special rapporteur on torture. He didn't get elected. It was another person who got elected, but this is how the election happens. And so effectively. And the last, I don't want to make a mistake, how many terms Dunja herself served in this position. It could be one term; it could be two terms. But yes, she was the most recent Human Rights Commissioner whose mandate has just ended. So it will be taken over by another person. 

And what they usually do as commissioners, they express their opinion. It is an expert opinion. It is not just opinion of anybody from the street. It is supposed to carry a value and a weight, including to some degree a legal weight. But it is not a kind of a jurisprudence or the legal decision of the court. It doesn't have, it's not at the same level. 

However, those opinions are important. And then. They have also country missions, so they go to specific countries and they study specific questions and they then produce reports and they can make thematic reports on the specific subjects rather than the country. And they can also produce opinions and what effectively in this case was a kind of a blog post. 

LUBA: Thank you. So now let's go back to discuss in the statement itself. So as feminist activists who work side by side with the individual prostitution survivors and the survivor’s organizations, could you please describe the sex industry in Europe today?

What do we know about women and prostitution, about sex buyers, third party profiteers? Alyssa? 

ALYSSA: Thank you, Luba. What we know from the official statistics at the European Union level, first of all, is that About 95 percent of people in prostitution are women. So this for us is a very important number because it highlights for everyone who says that prostitution is a free choice.

Why would women be the only one making this choice? 95 percent of the people in prostitution are women. That's from the European Institute of Gender Equality. But 99 percent of sex buyers are men. This data is from what I know is not existing in a harmonized way at EU level. However, at the national level of EU Member States, such as France, Ireland and other countries that have made these statistics available, we can see that the numbers are always the same.

So it's about 99 percent which makes prostitution, according to our analysis, a form of male violence against women and girls. It's women in prostitution, but not only women. It's the most discriminated against women. For instance, we know from the European Parliament official numbers that 70 percent of the prostituted women are between the age of 13 and 25 years old. So that's very young women. 

And we also know that over 80 percent, 70 to 80 percent of the women exploited in prostitution are migrants. 

So we can understand from this that the prostitution system basically targets the women and girls that are the most vulnerable in European societies.

And this includes women that have experienced violence. Especially from a young age. So you will find in prostitution, and this is the testimony for every frontline professional working with women in prostitution in different countries. We can quote Izala in Belgium, which is one of the member organizations of the European network of migrant women.

You will find women and girls who have experienced sexual violence, incest, pedo-criminality, also social isolation. It's women and girls that have been sometimes kicked out of their houses, or they have lived in social child protective services. And unfortunately, it's also very poor women. And for this, we have the example of Greece during the economic crisis, where the number of women in prostitution increased exponentially, matching the increase of the level of unemployment of women in Greek society.

We also know that the women and girls that are the most targeted are the ones in conflict zones and the ones that are displaced. we have seen this very clearly at the moment of the beginning of the war, the current war in Ukraine. The organization for security and cooperation in Europe has measured an increase of 600 percent of the online demands for these women specifically.

Meaning men, it's mostly men, like I said, who go online to be consumer of pornography or online, or the form of online sexual exploitation, such as OnlyFans and that kinds of websites. They increase their demand specifically for Ukrainian women and girls of 600 percent after the beginning of the war. So yeah, I think that's it for now.

But basically in a nutshell, the most vulnerable women in Europe are targeted by the system of prostitution. 

LUBA: So I understand that ethnic minorities and migrant women and women in poverty are overrepresented in the sex trade. Is it possible that vulnerable women benefit from their involvement in the sex industry as a source of income?

ALYSSA: So that's an argument that comes back a lot indeed. So there are several level of response, I think. 

First of all, if we think about the most vulnerable groups in our society, they should have choices. That's what we're fighting for everyone to have options, which is not the case in prostitution. Once you enter prostitution, usually you experience violence and everyone will tell you this.

What is very interesting is that even the people who are supporting the, what they call sex work. We will come back on the terminology later, I believe. But the advocates for the legalization of the prostitution system, they will also tell you that women in prostitution experience violence. 

Once you have experienced such extreme level of violence, it's increasingly difficult to escape because you have been further isolated, you face traumatic consequences, you can also be criminalized in some countries.

So for all of these reasons, vulnerable women do not benefit from this industry because their vulnerability factors actually increase while they are in prostitution.

 And regarding the poverty issue that we had read before what is also very striking is that the pimps and the people who are profiting from the prostitution, they are asking for rent and for money from the women that they exploit, whether it is from trafficked women, for instance, from Nigeria, who have a debt to repay, or for the women who are exhibited in the windows, for instance, in Brussels, where I live, there is a red light district where women are put in windows, and what we understand from the frontline service providers is that they have to pay rent that is up to 250 euros a day, which means that even to break even, they have to go through a high number of clients or men who are going to potentially rape them and be violent against them.

So it's really not a good way for anyone to exit poverty. I don't know, Anna, if you want to compliment what I just said. 

ANNA: Yes. I think when this question is raised and we do hear it a lot, that including from some prominent human rights advocates and or human rights organizations, that prostitution is a legitimate way out of poverty for migrant women specifically.

This argument would apply to all women, but in our case, because statistically migrant women are impoverished disproportionately. We can go into details why and how, but this is a fact. If we compare migrant women as a population with, for example, native born women or with the peer migrants in their own communities, with men, we see the disparity across all domains, whether it's the actual income or whether it's access to rights to have employment, because of course, a lot of migrant women simply do not have a legal right to work in particular, if they're undocumented and if they're legally dependent. So there is administrative relationship between her and her spouse, for example, or if she's a domestic worker, she would be dependent on her employer and she cannot change the employment and so on. 

So all of these obstacles and barriers really place migrant women at the very bottom of different groups.

And then we can go even further and look into single mothers, for example, among migrant women. They will be at the bottom of the migrant women group as a whole. But it's a large number.

 And of course, this is one of the major reasons why migrant women find themselves in prostitution and along with administrative reasons, such as not having a legal status, being undocumented.

And in this context, we do hear very often, as I said, including from some human rights advocates, that prostitution could be a solution. And it really requires unpacking the whole thing, starting from the very beginning roots and definitions that we're using here. 

When we say it benefits, what do we mean by benefit?

What do we actually mean by this? Do we mean it's some material benefit? They're able to accumulate enough wealth to save, for example, and buy a property when this woman is actually unable to open a bank account because she doesn't have a legal right because she's undocumented and prostitution in no country where it is legalized gives her regularized status. It's just a fact. 

In Germany, in Netherlands, in Belgium, in Austria, where it is legal or decriminalized business, a migrant woman who has no documents, if she turns up and says, I want to work in prostitution, she's not going to get a work permit. It's not allowed. And what is more, she will be thrown out of the country if she is found to be undocumented and engaging in prostitution.

No, it's from this perspective. She cannot benefit even from a basic legal rights, which she is entitled to. 

And then, okay, let's imagine what she's going to accumulate this bags of money under her bed. The old style, she doesn't go to bank. She doesn't need to open a bank account. But the reality is that there is no surplus, she is unable. We hear this story again and again from the women. Some of them are deceived into thinking that they may accumulate some kind of wealth, but in reality, what happens that from year to year, from month to month, from day to day spending and prostitution, there is impoverishment.

So they actually, women are. becoming indebted. And this is just the material part. 

And then we speak about what Alyssa was describing about. There is the psychological, physical, sexual impact on the women. So with what we combine, what is the benefit here? The fact that I have 10 euros to date to buy bread, by being subjected to an enormous amount of psychological, physical, sexual violence, we do not offer such benefits. Under any conditions, considering any labour market segment, we wouldn't be going there and saying, okay, here is what you get. And this is what you have to sacrifice. This is what you have to give. You have to give your mental health. You have to give up on your psychological health. And this is the benefits that you will get.

It will not be possible in any sector of economy with exception of prostitution. 

ALYSSA: And that's actually a mean to target women and to groom and coerce them into prostitution, right? If we go back to the example of Nigeria, there is a very widespread myth of lucrative prostitution, meaning that, although there is now an understanding because of the very well organized trafficking networks between Nigeria and Europe, there is an understanding that if as a young woman or girl you move to Europe, probably you will end up in prostitution.

But there is also a taboo around it, providing that the girl or the woman is able to send a lot of money to her family. 

LUBA: It's everywhere. They're selling another, they're framing another dream that some women who are successful who are better managing their funds so they can save and buy a house.

ALYSSA: It's very interesting in social media as well. You will see as a way to groom young girls and teenagers into especially Onlyfans and that's kinds of digitalized prostitution. You have a lot of videos, for instance, on Tik TOK, which is a social media where there is a lot of younger people in the videos, there is a woman walking in the streets and someone comes and ask her how much money is there on your bank accounts. And they always have huge amount of money like millions. And the person asks, how did you get all of this money? And they always say, Onlyfans. And there are tens and hundreds of such videos, which lead sometimes young girls to go and try, because maybe if it's that easy, why wouldn't they? 

ANNA: I think also it's important to mention here that when they say sex workers are able to get rich through prostitution, of course, partly the problem here is the conflation of all categories or actors within the sex trade. And we can discuss it later, what this means, sex worker, because it's not necessarily just women exploited in prostitution. And also, I think it's important to mention that if there are stories of whether maybe they're not mythical about some women accumulating some wealth, we have the situation of women exiting prostitution by starting exploiting other women.

And this is when women victims turn perpetrators and become pimps. The common word for them is Madame. They exist. And they exist within parts of trafficking, mafias, and they have a specific role. This doesn't mean that the women in prostitution becomes, it actually, as a matter of fact, it proves the point that the only way you can become rich to some extent is to fill your own position of exploitation with another woman, exit the situation of exploitation and start exploiting others.

And this is the nature of the industry of prostitution. 

LUBA: Thank you, Anna and Alyssa. So we understand now that the sex trade is exploitative and the destitute women who enter the sex trade will exit, in best case scenario, they will exit at some stage, even poorer and probably with much worse mental and physical health.

But how does the commissioner's statement about decriminalizing the sex trade contradicts our goals? She just said that sex work, whatever she calls it, should be decriminalized. Probably it means that women in the sex trade should not be persecuted. 

ALYSSA: Exactly. So I was saying in the beginning, the model that we advocate for in the context of prostitution is abolitionism, which, first of all, recognizes that women in prostitution are victims of a system of violence.

This is very important because through this understanding, we can then provide them with support rather than criminalizing them. That's the first aspect. 

Abolitionist countries provide what is called exit programs to women in prostitution who wants to. So this includes money support, support to get training or to get a job, to get employed.

It has worked very well in France since 2016. Because over 80 percent of the women who had access to an exit program got a stable employment situation at the end of the program, which is usually two years can be flexible. What has worked less is the implementation across the country. There are a lot of disparities, but we can go back to that.

Anyway, regarding the abolitionist system, the other side of recognizing that women are victim of the system of prostitution is to understand that there are perpetrators and the perpetrators beyond the pimps and the traffickers are the clients. The People who buy access to women to perpetrate either sexual acts of violence, they are the ones who are the primary author of the violence towards the women, so they need to be criminalized or prosecuted or through fines in order for the demands to be discouraged. And if the demand is discouraged, we anticipate that this will help us tackle the system of sexual exploitation and also the trafficking for sexual exploitation, because the only reason this exists is because it's lucrative. 

The reason why it's problematic to have a statement such as the, one of the Human Rights Coalition of the Council of Europe, these statements, they can be called soft law.

There are statements or reports or any instruments that is not binding for states, but it's still participates in the jurisprudence and the legal culture around an issue. And the courts, the judges, the decision makers, they can refer to it. 

Right now, there is an ongoing procedure towards the European Court of Human Rights against the French abolitionist law dating from 2016.

And the European Court of Human Rights is the court that is related to the Council of Europe space. It does not mean that the judges of the court are not independent. They are fully independent. However, usually in their decisions they quote and they refer to statements and reports coming from the Council of Europe and other institutions.

The more we have soft law instruments promoting something that is not based on facts and evidence and something that is also issued without the simple requirement of objectivity, meaning that no survivor or survivors organizations or frontline professionals working directly with the women in prostitution, none of them were really included in any consultation process or so on.

This is very dangerous for the women in prostitution who are actually experiencing violence every day. 

LUBA – Let me make one thing clear, we partly agree with the Commissioner for Human Rights. We agree that women in the sex trade should be decriminalized. But we do not agree that also their pimps and sex buyers should be decriminalized.

So what do you think is the ideological base for this difference? Why does the Commissioner for Human Rights insist that sex buyers and third party profiteers should also be decriminalized? What's the idea behind protecting them? 

ANNA: Why does the Commissioner for Human Rights want to protect pimps? Is this the question?

LUBA: Yes, the Commissioner for Human Rights and many other activists and policy makers, this is a widespread opinion. So why do they want to protect not just women in prostitution? I agree with, but also pimps and sex buyers. 

ANNA: Yes, I guess that it's difficult to generalize because there are a few people who would share this opinion.

And in my view, a lot of them are simply misinformed and do not have sufficient understanding of what sex trade is, what prostitution is. And once you actually engage with them in a conversation and you deconstruct the mythology and look into sex trade, specifics and the actors inside the sex trade, then they quite quickly change their mind because it's very difficult to argue with facts and evidence and statistics and the reality of violence against women.

 It's sufficient to look at the sites where those men who were purchasing sexual access to women are leaving their comments and the misogyny is jumping into your face. And anybody who would deny this, they probably have to interrogate their own misogyny.

But I have to say that the Human Rights Commissioner, as well as some other representatives from institutions, policymaking institutions, the high level, do not belong to this category. And I really want to make it very clear. 

First of all, it is her or his duty when issuing such statements to get familiarized in depth with the issue.

You don't throw around casually things that concern a multi-million global industry with the an historic exploitation, really taking its roots in slavery to just publish an opinion just like this because I do not know. This is not how the Human Rights Commissioners or any other commissioners should be operating.

If that's the case, we should all question what she has been doing in this position for all these years. It's very worrying. So I do not believe for a second that the human rights commissioner actually belongs to this group of people who didn't know, who were misinformed, or who published such a statement because of best intentions and only if you tell her the truth, then she will understand my opinion. 

And of course, this is, let's say, a speculation because I never sat at the same table with the human rights commissioner, perhaps because we were not invited to this consultation. But my opinion is that it was an informed decision by the commissioner based on the lobbying that was done with her by the representatives and spokespersons and profiteers of the sex trade. 

We have quite a few organizations right now at the European level, at the global level, and at the national level, who historically, basically, they were collectives of pimps. And then some, men who particularly have sexual entitlement issues were also mixed in those groups, who are advocating for the rights of, it was not even sex workers, it was prostitution and prostitutes and so on. 

Now, in the last, let's say, two decades, what happened is that a lot of those organizations had reinvented themselves as non-profit associations, as human rights organizations and such. There are different legal forms that such organizations take. And they learned the language of the human rights and they became very presentable. And if you meet them in certain spaces before they used to come and throw red umbrellas and scream and be really quite aggressive and sometimes violent. What we have right now is that they figured out that such type of lobbying or advocacy does not really work.

They need to work properly. They need to be presentable. They need to write reports. They need to use all the right terms like intersectionality inclusivity and diversity and so on. And of course, they have a lot of also funding and support, part of which comes directly from the profits of the sex trade, as we know, as Red Umbrella Fund in Amsterdam, for example.

They have succeeded in influencing, infiltrating, and lobbying very high institutions who have decision making powers. And let's not forget that Those institutions are very removed from the reality on the ground. The higher you go on this ladder, so you have some, I don't know, municipalities who might be better informed, not necessarily, but at least they have better access to what's happening on the ground.

And then we have the City Town Halls and the national government and then Council of Europe. And when you come to the UN and the Council of Europe, really, the gap becomes very wide. It is very difficult for women's rights organizations, for survivors especially, to access those spaces, to present their argument, to meet those commissioners.

However, those organizations that I mentioned that have been representing the sex trade interests, they don't work with women on the ground. They do not spend days and nights supporting women and providing alternatives for them so that they're not raped and prostituted. They have all the time in the world to go from door to door of policy makers and decision makers and speak to them and present their arguments. This is what they're doing. 

And this is the result. And again, to repeat, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has no excuse whatsoever to be placed in the category of not knowing. She did know. She did it on purpose. I do not know. We can speculate. It's a corruption issue for me. And I think it should be taken very seriously. And there should be consequences for such things. 

And another thing to note that, the statement was issued just as her mandate was coming to the very end. This is not a singular precedent of doing it like this. We had a similar kind of situation with UN working group on this. 

LUBA: Yeah, I wanted to ask about it.

We worked on it together. It was about half a year ago. And the UN related working group on discrimination against women and girls, issued a document entitled: Eliminating Discrimination Against Sex Workers and Securing their Human Rights. And the idea behind the document and the language arguments were very similar to the statement by the Commissioner for Human Rights.

They are not the same body, not the same people. Is this a coincidence? 

ANNA: No, it's of course not a coincidence and I would leave to Alyssa to discuss more why it is not a coincidence in relation to the French case and in court with the European Court of Human Rights, but from our perspective, even without this case, which is very significant because it sets the context for what is going on and we really have Keep our eyes on this case, but even if it was not because of this case, it is absolutely not a coincidence because those lobbies and groups, they operate in those spaces that I was describing before.

And in relation to the working group of, which was absolutely shameful, embarrassing, not based on facts, without any consultation, no transparency. The statement, which in the beginning did not have a kind of any status whatsoever because they just published it. They had a kind of, I don't know, little event on the sides of human rights council. It was not official. The statement was not on the agenda of human rights council. 

And then all of a sudden they found the way inside the massive bureaucratic machinery of the United Nations and Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, to publish it on the paper that has the heading of the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, despite the fact that it was never officially discussed by the States of the Human Rights Council.

So they found this loophole. So if anybody who doesn't know, who doesn't understand, they look at this paper and they think, oh, this must be a resolution from the United Nations, which it is not. But the fact that those spaces become really endangered, and by becoming endangered by these kind of lobbying groups, by the sex trade representatives, they become danger themselves.

And so they actually can produce more harm than do good, which is why they were set up. And we have observed similar incidents and precedents in different spaces of a similar nature. We have also instances like this within the European Union institutions. This is our major kind of interlocutor as an EU platform.

But it is happening, and again, for me, as I said, it's a matter of corruption and it's a matter of influence of those powerful, very powerful actors who have a lot of money behind them and a lot of free time on their hands. I don't know if Alyssa wants to add on the relevance of the French case.

ALYSSA: Maybe just add that in the past couple years there has been a lot of debates at the European Union level on prostitution, sexual exploitation, and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. There has been the revision of the Trafficking in Human Being Directive. As well as a proposal for a new directive on violence against women and girls.

And in this context, because the European Parliament is the democratic institution of the EU, there was a lot of consultation with both sides, let's say, different point of views. And this has led to several victories. So first of all, we have a new resolution from the European Parliament that is dated from last September.

And this really emphasizes that prostitution is both a cause and a consequence of violence against women. And that's to truly protect the women in prostitution, exit programs must exist. 

That's also we need to discourage the demands for prostitution, which I was talking about. earlier. So what we can emphasize through this is that when there is an actual democratic process where we can bring facts and evidence, then the outcome is going towards the abolitionist solution because now the data that we have in the States that have legalized prostitution such as New Zealand or Germany in the EU. The situation is absolutely catastrophic and there are many voices within these countries that are calling for going backwards and adopting another model. 

I was just finished by saying that what we see in opposition with the working group paper that Anna was mentioning from the Human Rights Council as well as the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe paper is that in opposition to the democratic processes that I was mentioning these views

are highlighted in situations where there is lack of transparency in the process, lack of consultation with relevant actors, lack of inclusion of the survivor's voices, and so on. In my opinion, this is also a very important aspect. You are going to say something? 

LUBA: Yeah, I wanted to ask you in her statement, Dunja Mijatovic mentioned Belgium.

Belgium decriminalized prostitution in 2022/23, not long time ago, and you currently live in Belgium. Dunja Mijatovic mentioned Belgium as an example of success because according to her, decriminalization added the necessary protection to individuals in prostitution. For instance, she mentioned the legal requirement to install emergency buttons in brothels.

Am I right? As someone who lives in Belgium, I know that there was still no follow up research or no document, we cannot, we still cannot base arguments about impact of decriminalization, but as someone who lives there and works a lot with the sex trade survivors, do you have any conclusion about the situation in Belgium?

Did it become better, worse, the same? What do you think about this emergency buttons that Dunja Mijatovic has mentioned? 

ALYSSA: So first of all, following up on what you just said, I think it's very important to say that intellectually it is dishonest to call this a success or even a failure because we just don't have enough time since the new law to actually evaluate it.

So this is the first preliminary thing that I want to do. In my opinion, this sheds discredit to the whole statement because this is not intellectually proper. 

But that being said, as a person, like you say, living in Belgium, the comment also from my personal experience that I want to give is that when you go in the red light district, what you see, men, a lot of foreign men, you can see the cars with foreign plates. A lot of young men as well, like a sea of them and you can see young women exhibited in windows and you can see that for the women and girls and who live in Brussels going through this space during the day or even worse during the night, we don't feel safe.

I personally don't feel safe. I feel like there is an issue that goes beyond just the system of prostitution, and that extends to the entire society. When you normalize the commodification of women to that extent, that women are sitting in windows all days while kids are playing in the streets. Because let's not forget the people who actually live in this neighbourhood, and usually it's poor people, of course, because the rent is very low.

So this is an issue for the whole of society, and it's often not taken into consideration by statements like the ones of the Human Rights Commission. 

And finally, what I want to say specifically on this red button that you mentioned. Women in prostitution are victimized not only by the bias, not only by the pimps and the traffickers, but by the whole of society.

Prostitution must be understood in a continuum of violence. Like I mentioned at the beginning, a lot of women and girls in prostitution have experienced violence before, they will experience violence. After they are experiencing violence during, and this is including by law enforcement, simple emergency button that will bring maybe the police or maybe different actors to the place, the brothels, or whatever, where the situation is happening. There is no guarantee that the woman would actually be protected because there is no understanding that what she is going through is inherently violent. And that the relationship, the act, the sexual acts within the prostitution encounter is paid rape because the content is bought. Without this shift in understanding and paradigm, there is no possibility that the law enforcement will actually protect the women.

If we compare with the situation in France, I've seen then this after the 2016 law was implemented, the police, the law enforcement in general were very reluctant to apply it, not because they think it's a bad law, but just because it's much more harder to identify women as victims provide a higher number of criminalization and directly understanding that the, sorry, that the women not necessarily, they do not need to be protected, but if they are undocumented, they would be kicked out of the country and so on and so forth.

So what we had to do in France was for several years and still today, after the implementing of the law, we had to educate and to train the law enforcement and even with the law that has a normative and pedagogical impact on society, we still have to do this. So let's imagine in a country where pimp and prostitution is recognized as a normal activity.

How can women expect to be protected? 

LUBA: Yeah, I must add that mention in the statement, the mention of the emergency button, this red emergency button was a big red light for me. Because I am a freelancer. I'm a freelance writer and the customers are coming to my house and I never had the emergency button for more than 20 years.

The very idea that someone needs an emergency button for, to be protected from customers, maybe it is an evidence for extreme danger in this sort of activity. 

ANNA: I think it is also the evidence that they really don't care. It's such a lowering of human rights standards for a specific group. And this group is women in prostitution.

It's like we have one set of standards and expectations for one group in society, and for this specific group, it's another one. And it is at the very bottom. And I can only compare it like if you have a segregation, which we have, ghettoization of migrant communities in some areas, and we know that the police wouldn't go there, they wouldn't enter there. And they would say, Oh, this is their culture.

 I heard it myself from some police officers who, when we ask them in the refugee camps, how do you deal with the situation of domestic violence? And it's, oh no, this is their culture to batter women. We don't do anything. 

So it's the same kind of racist, I don't know, classist, and obviously deeply sexist and misogynist attitude to these women that to solve their problem of whatever might happen with them, and we know the rates of murder of women in prostitution is higher than those men who go to a battlefield, that is to equip them with some bloody emergency button that that this is going to save anything at all.

Disregarding the fact that not one undocumented woman, and there are so many of them in prostitution, is going to press any button and call the police because this is her first abuser within the system, the State system is the police who will incriminate her and will send her out of the country.

LUBA: I agree that this position that sex workers work is, it is very classist. Because it is obvious for everyone that this work is not work, not for all the women in the UN related working groups or human rights commissioners or high rank lawyers. It is not work for them. It is only work for women like me, which is some inferior sort of women.

It is work for us, for our children, for our sisters. It is not work for them and their families. Yes, we successfully divided our society. Women who are eligible for a respectful occupation and women for whom being sexually coerced is work.

 But what I wanted to ask you about both the UN related Working Group and the Commissioner for Human Rights, both of them have mentioned consulting sex worker’s organizations, groups, individuals.

Like they insist that the position is not there’s. They formulated this position after asking. actual people who are affected by the policy, the people whom they call sex workers. So what can you say about that? 

ANNA: I just want to say that it's appalling that any group or institution or representative from those structures could say that this is not their position.

Of course it is their position. They wrote it, they put the stamp on it, they organized the events, they made sure that they consulted specific actors as opposed to other actors. So this abdication of responsibility, this is not our position. It's just we're expressing something. What are they? Some kind of the voice of God and who's speaking through them.

This is nonsense. This is not how those institutions are supposed to work. What they're supposed to do. Okay, fine. They want to consult whoever they want to consult and it has to be absolutely a representative consultation, but then their actual duty and obligation is to examine the issue that was presented to them by whoever, by whatever actors through the eyes of the human rights law.

This is their job, the job of those organizations. And I just to clarify the job of the working group on violence against women is to examine laws that discriminate against women. So we still have in this world, in some countries, the situation where discrimination is legally entrenched at the legislative level, sometimes at the constitutional level.

So a woman might inherit half of what her brother will or maybe nothing at all. It's this kind of legal discrimination. So we're striving to achieve legal equality and de facto equality. And so their role is to really look at the laws. And so they decide, okay, let's look at the laws that govern or regulate prostitution.

And for this, they spoke to a bunch of representatives of the sex trade. Pimps. Let's be clear. They are pimps and we know them. We know them by names. We know them because they took the cases, their pimping cases to courts to legalize their own brothels. And so they consulted them. Fine. They collected this evidence what are they supposed to do next?

Next, they have to look at the law. And the law, international law is crystal clear that there is no such thing as a sex work. There is no such thing as a manager who is exploiting in a nice way and nice traffickers. They are criminals. Sexual exploitation is actually a crime under international law.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is a crime. These are the frameworks that we have. So they're supposed to use them just as the commissioner from the council of Europe. 

They were supposed to take the law and say, okay, this is the information that we received, fair enough. Now let's analyse it from the perspective of human rights and as the UN body. They absolutely have to think from the perspective of protecting the most vulnerable and applying the sustainable development goal framework of leaving no one behind.

And what they did is exactly the opposite. They left all the women exploited in prostitution with the pimps and the buyers at the front and say, let's protect their interest. This is what happened. 

LUBA: And I think that what I know about people who support blanket decriminalization. They would say that you are confusing between voluntary prostitution and sex trafficking.

Are you confusing? Alyssa, you want to take this? I spoke a lot of it.  

ALYSSA: Yes, so this argument also, like you said, Luba comes back a lot. There is a will to blur all of the lines between what is forced and what is free, what who is being exploited and who is actually profiting. So that's what you were saying before, between confusing third parties, pimps and the women in prostitution and all calling them sex workers.

So, for us, according to our analysis, women in prostitution, and according also to the testimonies that we have from survivors of prostitution, there is no real difference between victims of trafficking and all the women and girls in prostitution for the simple reason, like we explained before, that they are all targeted because of their vulnerabilities and the vulnerability factors we listed them.

The consequences of what they go through in the prostitution industry is the same for all of them. They have to take drugs and the pimps are giving them drugs to enhance the dissociative states for them to accept and to endure the violence and the pain that they go through. There are physical consequences, psychological consequences, and using this idea that some women choose to do it, again, it's leaving behind all of the women who say they choose to do it, but it's actually due to lack of choices when they don't have any other options to feed their children, to feed themselves. No option to exist in a country where they have migrated. Maybe they don't have a legal status and so on and so forth. This is the reason why some women choose prostitution. 

But so what is choice and what is consent and why is consent always used against women to just legitimate the violence that is perpetrated against us.

This is applicable in prostitution, but also in many other forms of violence against women and girls. 

ANNA: Yes, speaking of which, we know from the violence against women sector, how many women do make the so called choice to stay with their abusers. We know the attrition rates for women who are victims of domestic abuse. We know how extremely difficult, we know that women report the perpetrator, next day she turns up to the police to withdraw the file, to close the case because he has promised he will be good. He loves her. And we know the cycle of violence. We know. We studied. There has been how many, 60 years of women's movement studying in depth this issue.

So how come that with all this knowledge and understanding of what is violence against women, what psychological path the victims go through, and they can end up in a situation of complete dependency on their perpetrators. And it may take years and years for women to come out.

 But we're unwilling to apply this when it comes to specifically sexual exploitation, everything that has to do with women's sexuality, sexual exploitation, but also forced marriage, prostitution, pornography.

Now, another aspect of prostitution online, as Alyssa said, everything is predicated on consent. She agreed she made this choice. Effectively, our business is not to investigate every woman's individual choice. It is irrelevant. What we are studying is the context, is the system, is the society in which choices take place, is the context that we look at and say what choices exist.

I do not even need to have a woman to examine what kind of choices a woman hypothetically might have, economic opportunity, educational, the possibility to enter into a relationship with a non-violent man, even those choices are reduced for most of the women. 

LUBA: Okay, yeah, I understand, but there is also another argument, both in the UN Working Group Statement and the Commission for Human Rights Statement, one of their arguments is that you cannot eliminate the sex trade.

And this is true. We have, we still have sex trade in Sweden, in France, in any Nordic model country. So if we cannot eliminate the sex trade, we can at least make sure that it doesn't happen underground. And Alyssa's description of women in windows, it was, which is horrible. It is, which is shaking for me for every woman, I think.

But maybe it is better that women will be in the windows and not underground where horrible stuff can happen to them. 

ALYSSA: Horrible stuff happens to them in the windows and in the brothels. And there is no evidence that regulating prostitution is decreasing the amount of violence that they go through. On the opposite, we have the numbers from Germany now stating that the women in the brothels, lower than one person, have actually signed a work contract, and most of them go through physical violence, sexual violence, harassment, and so on.

This is hypocritical arguments. There is no other topic where we say, okay, it has always existed. It will always exist. So we don't tackle it, such as murders. They have always existed. They are forbidden. And I feel like this is used a lot as a parallel with the wars on drugs. And it's true that in the countries where there has been a strong prohibition while there was pandemic and the people who were addicts were treated as criminals, it did not help, of course, to tackle the issue.

And then when there was an understanding that these people need healthcare and they need support rather than being criminalized, this is when the States were able to tackle the issue. 

However, we're not advocating for prohibitionism. We're advocating for abolitionism, which is again, similarly to this example with the drugs, understanding who is the victim needing support and who is the criminal perpetrating this violent system.

So it might be the dealers, the traffickers, the ones profiting in prostitution, the pimps, the traffickers again, and also again the sex buyers. 

ANNA: Can I add that When they speak about underground, I really want to ask what, how does this underground look? Is it some kind of bunker underground where all women are going to sit?

Because, okay, in this system, that is not underground. It is over-ground Belgium that Alyssa just described. Germany, where we have huge buildings dedicated to brothels. Netherlands, of course, that anybody knows. And we have plenty of examples what it means to apparently not to be underground, but why, I want to ask in this over-ground, perfectly transparent, de stigmatized system where it is all called work and it is, they're supposed to be entitled women and prostitution to rights and whatnot.

What about the buyers? I would like to know in which over-ground they live in. In Germany, we're supposed to now believe, or in Belgium, that all of those men who go to brothels, to those windows, what they then come home to their wives, and majority of them do have wives and they do have families, and they do have daughters and son.

They go home and they say, oh, it's wonderful. I spend my evening chugging another woman who is just the same age as my daughter. Fantastic. And so is this what over-ground and underground means? Because as far as I know, the majority of men, unless they are concentrated in some hunters, but buyers with website secret, where they're always anonymized, always, they have some the names, those men are not particularly proud that maybe when they meet in a bar and the drink and they can I don't know, boast about their sexual encounters, especially the young men.

But overall, those men who have a job that they care about, who have a reputation, and we know that the buyers are come across all social classes. And it's not just poor or lonely or isolated or handicapped men. They actually, the majority of them have sexual relationship with women. They continue operating in this underground regardless what system you have.

Because the system is designed in a way as to keep those men in shadow.  Maybe with pimps. We come to this, yeah, like we have this interviews on German TV and there are those guys sitting there, they're pimps and they're proud that they're exploiting women and they have their business model and in the Netherlands the same.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Periodically they would catch one guy, like there was a story with his Pasha brothers in Germany because he was jailed for trafficking. Yes, he was. But it was because it overflown all limits even for Germany. The crimes were so much and they were so obvious. So they said, okay, let's have an example.

We need to have statistics. Germany needs to have statistics on trafficking. So they took one guy but the brothel keeps running, no matter that he's in prison. The women are in the brothel, the men are coming to buy them, and the ads are on. The industry keeps running just the same way, protecting the men and keeping those shady managers off the grid so they're not so visible, and only the most horrific cases end up in jail.

LUBA: Thank you Anna, Alyssa, I just wanted to ask the last question. 

We feminist organizations, survivor groups any kind of activists, what can we do now with this tendency of policy makers and human rights activists to support the sex trade. What can we do practically? What we are going to do, as FiLiA as feminists?

ALYSSA: I think keep doing what we are doing. Meaning we have to bring the facts when the facts do exist, but sometimes we don't have the data. We have to rely on the lived experiences of the survivors. and free spaces for them. I remember a survivor; her name is a blessing. She spoke at the European Parliaments in an event that we organized the European Network of Migrants Women.

And she said, the reason why you should listen to us and not the women that are still in the system is because the sex workers that are still in the system is because we have exited. So we are not anymore under the power and the influence of the pimps of the traffickers of the economic dependency and so on.

So now we can tell you the truth of what we experienced, the truth that we were not even able to tell ourselves at some point when we were in the system.

 So I thought that was very important in my opinion providing the spaces to amplify these voices is key and then it's about organizing and systematizing our response at the levels where we are still absent.

 I feel like in the abolitionist movements because most of the organizations that have these positions, they are actual frontline service providers working to support the women.

They don't have the money or the capacity to spend a lot on advocacy because their money and their human resources go to helping the women. On the other hand, we have the sex work lobby, which is very well funded, and they don't have these actions towards the women in prostitution that takes a lot of time and resources.

So we have to find ways to still organize into networks to collaborate to share resources and to have stronger voices, especially towards the U. N. And the Council of Europe. 

ANNA: I don't know. It's a difficult struggle, I think. I feel that awareness raising is extremely important, including among those actors who are not immediately concerned with the issue of prostitution.

Because they have been very successful in influencing the spaces that appear to be apparently irrelevant to our cause and what they achieved by this, they accumulated masses of supporters who actually do not understand nothing. They never engaged with the issue, but they heard something.

And this something came from somebody who called themselves sex work and therefore they know, and those are different spaces. Art spaces, right? Incredible nonsense came out of some artistic projects. We ended up once in a project that had to do with how do we bring opera closer to migrant communities?

Who would think that we would end up fighting with our partners who decided to involve somebody sex worker’s opera? Like I didn't even know they existed. You can Google. Yes. There is some organization called Opera for sex work or sex workers for opera, or it's just put the sex workers and opera in the Google search and you will find them.

And I think they're in the UK. So we ended up pulling out of the common joint final event that we were supposed to have because we said there is no way we're going to just sit there quietly looking at the artistic promotion of something that we spend so much time and energy on advocating for its abolition.

And this is one example of the art spaces. Academia, I'm not even mentioning this. I think there is a complete disaster what's happening, but yes, I think that from our perspective is working on a policy on laws, it is extremely important to be in the spaces that Alyssa mentioned, that I feel that with some women, there is not even, there is lack of resources, there is, but there is also, it's not on their radar as a priority as such.

And this is understandable, because they're not confronted by this issue immediately. We see it because we work in those spaces every day. And we know that what happens in those very high policy level, you will not know about it immediately. It will not be shown on media. It will not be translated into national legislation, but it will be a very useful tool, this statement here, this report here in the hands of really ill intended actors who will take those reports and they will go to your government or to your local municipality and say, this is what big experts from the United Nations said.

And a lot of those decision makers at a national level, they're looking up to those United Nations Council of Europe institution and without knowledge, they would say, Oh, yeah, okay, this is the best international practices, as they say, it is important for us to be in these spaces. And it is important to be, I think, really vocal because we are in a very dangerous situation.

We need to be quite forceful. 

Luba - Thank you, Anna, Alyssa.