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Open letter to COE Human Rights Commissioner - Please do not ignore survivors of prostitution!

[Brussels, 5 March 2024]

Dear Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatović,

The European Women’s Lobby is the largest umbrella organisation of women’s associations in Europe with 32 national coordination organisations and 17 European-wide member organisations, representing a total of more than 2,000 women’s rights organisations. We are writing to you today to express our deep concern with your statement entitled “Protecting the human rights of sex workers”.

First, considering the inherent violent nature of prostitution, one cannot banalise it with the “sex work” vocabulary. Prostitution is a form of violence that nourishes itself from different forms of systemic inequalities based on exploitation, sex, poverty, age, ethnicity and migration status. Women and girls are the most affected by prostitution as they represent 90% of persons in prostitution while 97%of so-called “sex-buyers” are men. A report based on 9 countries found that 63% of women in prostitution have reported having been raped since entering prostitution and 71% of women reported physical assault while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes highlighted that women in prostitution are 18 times more likely to be murdered than women of similar age and ethnicity who are not in prostitution. For all these reasons, it is clear that prostitution can never be considered as work.

Second, as your comment refers to consultations that were organised with “sex workers across Europe, their representative organisations, relevant international organisations and experts”, we would like to insist on the need to consult and meet as well with survivors, survivors-led organisations and women’s rights organisations supporting survivors. It is regrettable that survivors’ voices are excluded and that their experiences are silenced and denied while you call for an approach guaranteeing “safety, agency and bodily autonomy” which are precisely what survivors are deprived from in prostitution. We invite you to consult the Brussels’Call organisations list if you would like to get in touch with survivors and women’s rights organisations and give them the opportunity to express their experience.

Third, while we could not agree more that persons in prostitution should have equal access to basic human rights, services, and legal protections, the issue of accessing rights has less to do with the legal status of prostitution than it has with the migratory status of the person: if someone is legally staying in a country, they can have access to basic rights including testing and health care. If they are undocumented, they will not have access to these rights including in countries that legalise prostitution and decriminalise sex-buyers.

Fourth, while we absolutely agree that persons in prostitution should never be criminalised, we invite you to consult more sources on the criminalisation of the purchase of sex, pimping, and brothel-keeping as studies prove that this legal model is efficient as illustrated in countries like Sweden, Ireland and France among others. On the contrary, several decision-makers in Germany and Netherlands recognised that their legal model of prostitution is a failure and that they regret having implemented it. In other words, the Equality model does not increase stigmatisation and violence as prostitution is inherently violent - on the contrary it puts the burden of shame and responsibility on sex-buyers and third parties that exploit women’s bodies and precarity. Besides, last September, the European Parliament recognised the measures of the Equality Model as the best ones to tackle the form of violence that is prostitution.

Regarding the link between prostitution and human trafficking, we are also concerned by the one-sided sources quoted and by the lack of consultation with survivors and women’s rights organisations.

Trafficking would not exist without the demand for persons - and most specifically for women and girls - in prostitution. According to the European Commission, 51% of trafficking in the EU is for sexual exploitation and 87% of those sexually exploited are women and the high-risk sectors for sexual exploitation remain the same as for previous years, i.e. prostitution, escort agencies, the pornography industry, massage services, bars and nightclubs. Does legalising prostitution help in reducing trafficking? No. Pimping and trafficking still take place in areas where prostitution is legal, and providing sexual services in brothels doesn’t give women much protection from exploitation. 95%of those in prostitution in the Netherlands are “self-employed” and rent rooms in brothels. This means that brothel owners do not provide them with employee protections, but instead, often exploit them in another way with extortionately high rents, meaning they must see multiple men every day in order just to earn enough to pay the rent. Brothel owners themselves have said that they don’t have the skills to check whether women are being exploited or abused when they come to their brothels. In other words, the more visible and normalised the sex trade becomes, the more opportunities there are for pimps, brothel owners and traffickers to expand their exploitation. For instance, the Netherlands have 9 times the amount of people exploited in prostitution than in Sweden, while Germany has 30-40 times the amount of people exploited in prostitution. Once established as a legal enterprise, we see that prostitution presents impossible challenges to law enforcement and a country that sees prostitution as a ‘job like any other’ will not have the impetus to provide budgetary support to adequately meet the severe support needs of those in or exiting prostitution in their countries.

Finally, according to the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention and according to the CEDAW general recommendation n°19, gender-based violence is defined as a form of violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman and/or that affects women disproportionately and it is a form of violence that seriously inhibits the ability of women and girls to enjoy their rights and freedoms on an equal basis with men. By this metric, prostitution in itself constitutes a form of sexual violence against women and girls. The normalisation of prostitution fosters acts of violence against women by sending the a message that women are commodities. It is not about sex: it is about power and about the purchase of sex as a result of the denial of the other person’s desire. Equality between women and men and genuine sexual freedom cannot be achieved as long as prostitution exists.


Iliana Balabanova, President of the European Women’s Lobby

Mary Collins, Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby

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EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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