UN Special Rapporteur urges global action to recognise and combat prostitution

UN Special Rapporteur urges global action to recognise and combat prostitution as a system of violence against women and girls

Reem Alsalem Special Rapporteur

Reem Alsalem, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls has criticised New Zealand’s decriminalised sex trade in her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council presented in Geneva on 21 June 2024. Ms Alsalem called for urgent recognition of prostitution as a system of violence, exploitation, and abuse. She highlighted how prostitution commodifies women and girls, perpetuates discrimination, and exacerbates structural inequalities, particularly affecting those from marginalised backgrounds.

Ms Alsalem underscored the severe human rights violations inherent in prostitution, including physical, psychological, and economic violence, and criticised terms like “sex work” for obscuring these harms. She emphasised the detrimental impact of normalising prostitution on societal sexual expectations and advocated for an abolitionist legal framework. This would include decriminalising those in prostitution, providing support and exit pathways for victims, criminalising the purchase of sexual acts, and taking stringent actions against pimps, while ensuring that anti-trafficking policies do not artificially distinguish between “forced” and “free” prostitution.

In reference to New Zealand, Ms Alsalem’s report states “the decriminalisation approach in countries like New Zealand … removes restrictions on third parties, buyers, and prostituted individuals while leaving local controls in place. This method has facilitated trafficking, increased sex tourism, and expanded the prostitution market, creating incentives for exploiters and failing to deter unsafe practices. It has led to low prosecution rates of traffickers, increased legal burdens on prostituted women, and heightened violence, while lacking mechanisms to help individuals exit prostitution or integrate socially and professionally.

In a press release issued the same day, Ms Alsalem stated “Prostitution sexualises and racialises poverty, and targets women from marginalised backgrounds, who often lack access to protection services or viable livelihood opportunities, increasing their vulnerability to further exploitation,” Alsalem said. “The underlying structural inequalities that mostly affect women and girls must be addressed.”

Wahine Toa Rising supports Ms. Alsalem’s report as it aligns with our mission to combat the systemic violence, exploitation, and abuse inherent in prostitution. We agree that prostitution commodifies women and girls, perpetuating discrimination and structural inequalities that disproportionately impact marginalised communities. Wahine Toa Rising endorses the call for an abolitionist legal framework, emphasizing the need to decriminalize prostituted individuals while criminalizing the purchase of sexual acts and punishing traffickers and pimps. They also support the report’s emphasis on providing comprehensive support and exit pathways for victims, and its critique of “harm reduction” approaches that fail to address the root causes of exploitation and violence in the sex trade.

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