Listening to Survivors: Europe Trend Towards Positive Change

Zsolt stands in front of St. Stephen's Basilica in the city center every night from 8:00 p.m. until the early hours. His job is to direct passing tourists toward a "gentleman's club" nearby. He earns 300,000 ft ($1,365 USD) per month in a country where the average wage is less than half this amount. He speaks five languages and is happy to answer questions during what he says is a "slow" evening. Even still, he talks to twelve interested English-speaking men within a 20 minute period. The commercial sex industry is not legal in Hungary, but it is tolerated and exists largely in plain view.

Sex trafficking has become a growing concern among Hungarians. Young Roma girls are trafficked domestically to supply sexual services for visitors and stag weekends in the capital. But Hungary plays a much larger role in external trafficking within Europe. It is a key "source" location for women and girls to be trafficked to countries where prostitution is legal, such as Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In those countries, women and girls are brought in to supply the legally sanctioned demand.

Those that support the legalization and decriminalization of prostitution often do so with the intended goal of making prostitution better and safer for those involved. Yet, survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking have repeatedly stated that the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution does just the opposite; it legitimizes the violence which is inherent in the trade.

Rebecca Mott, who entered prostitution in the UK at age 14, says that these approaches permit the rape and torture of women to be "non-crimes" and allow women in prostitution to be "thrown away." Irish survivor Rachel Moran describes the approaches as 'agonizing insults' to those in prostitution. A statement signed by 177 verified sex trafficking survivors from 'Sex Trafficking Survivors United (STSU)' also suggests that: "Without the buyers of commercial sex, sex trafficking would not exist. If we start penalizing and stigmatizing the buyers we could end sex trafficking in our lifetime... prostitution is not a victimless crime; it is a brutal form of sexual violence".

Europe is finally starting to listen to survivors. A new trend is emerging -- criminalizing the buyers, traffickers and pimps that fuel the inherently violent commercial sex industry, while decriminalizing and providing services and exit options to people in prostitution.

Starting in 1999, Sweden, Norway and Iceland implemented this 'Nordic Model' of prostitution policy. These laws aim to reduce all demand, recognizing that due to the widespread coercion within legal prostitution sectors, it is simply not possible to differentiate the demand which is exploitative from that which [supposedly] is not.

France has recognized this and its assembly voted in favor of adopting this model last week; Ireland is due to follow shortly; Finland's Ministry for Justice has called for the same. This positive wave is likely to strengthen as neighboring countries feel the increased ill-effects of their own harmful policies.

On the contrary, the Netherlands and Germany - which attempted to regulate prostitution in 2000 and 2002 respectively - are beginning to backtrack from their 'failed experiments' with politicians pushing for new laws to criminalize the purchase of sex from a victim of trafficking or coercion.

This European trend toward criminalizing the purchase of sex and decriminalizing people in prostitution is also consistent with the legal obligation of all EU member states to tackle the demand which fuels sex trafficking, as emphasized by EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator, Myria Vassiladou. It reflects too the recommendation by EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, for countries to take action to reduce the demand for sexual exploitation.

Back in Budapest, Zsolt does not realize his role in the violent and exploitative commercial sex industry. He does not understand that he is part of the reason why sex trafficking continues to flourish. He does not know that the 14-year-old girl from his hometown, who can't speak English or Dutch and thinks she is going to work in a hairdresser's in Amsterdam, ends up in a window on the city's Nyíregyháza street, purchased for sex by "Red Light visitors."

Implementing the "Nordic Model" throughout Europe, as proposed by Mary Honeyball MEP in her upcoming European Parliament report, would transform the lives of countless women and girls. It would also send out a strong signal to people like Zsolt, who do not fully appreciate that by enabling the commercial sex industry, they are concealing the exploitation and violence which is at its core.

To take action to ensure that the United Nations listens to survivors of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, please click here.

Help us spread the word -- please join our Thunderclap before Dec 20th: to ask @UNAIDS @UNDP @UNFPA to #ListenToSurvivors. #EndSexTrafficking