Amnesty International – how their new policy devalues the rights of vulnerable women and girls globally

I used to be a member of Amnesty International – an active member, who went along to meetings and AGMs, who donated monthly, and who contributed to human rights debates.  As an international human rights advocate, this was an important contribution for me.

I have now withdrawn my membership, my regular financial giving and my support for Amnesty International for their recent amended policy approach to prostitution.  

At the Amnesty International 2014 Canberra AGM -where the resolution calling for the global legalisation of prostitution was to be discussed – a member of Scarlet Alliance – which is a lobby group for sex workers – spoke to the benefits of being a stay-at home single mother to a toddler while working from home as a prostitute as a reason for endorsing the resolution. These prostitutes are referred to as ‘sole operators’ under the ACT Prostitution Act (1992)

Besides being terribly worried about the best interest of the child in this scenario, I was also worried about the safety and wellbeing of women being exploited or abused in such unregulated environments.

It was also concerning to me that Amnesty International simply arranged for a representative from Scarlet Alliance – who is a lobby group for sex workers – to speak on the benefits of the legalisation of prostitution, without hearing from anyone from the other side, and without considering all of the facts in the debate. 

I was not the only one who questioned the procedural integrity of the resolution.

Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty received a complaint about the conduct of the International Secretariat (IS) and the International Board of Amnesty International regarding the fast tracking of the development and consultation process for the Sex Work Policy discussion paper.

Salil Shetty has been requested to establish an independent investigation into the role of the IS and the Board during the development of the Sex Work Policy discussion paper and the consultation process. In an internal document sent to Sections, Structure Chairs and Directors and the International Board, the International Secretariat admitted that…. ‘There is no question that the consultation process could have been handled much better.’ 

As a long term supporter of the Nordic approach to curb human trafficking – which is now recognised as the international best practice model to curb human trafficking, I am appalled that a donor-based organisation, such as Amnesty International, who seeks the good will of citizens to support them financially as well as supporting their campaigns, would violate procedural protocol in such a profane way. 

At the meeting, I raised some concerns about such a proposal from the floor, quoting statistics, facts and case studies on the prevalence of human trafficking and sexual slavery and servitude that existed in Australia as a result of laws that facilitated such exploitation of vulnerable women and girls. 

I then proceeded to write a Submission to the Amnesty International Headquarters in London on the pitfalls of the legalised model of prostitution, and the evidence for the international best practice model for curbing human trafficking, known as the Nordic Model, which was considered in France, Canada and Ireland just last year by their parliaments. 

So, what’s wrong with Amnesty International’s now passed resolution and proposed global policy approach to the legalisaiton of prostitution?

Amnesty International’s resolution in favor of the legalisation of prostitution globally favours pimps and Johns (men who purchase sex) over and above the victims of prostitution through human trafficking, sexual servitude and debt bondage. 

The proposed Amnesty International global policy on prostitution fights for the rights of men to purchase sex off women, stating that a man’s access to prostituted women is their fundamental human right, and that criminalising a prostitute’s client is an attack against both privacy and an individual’s free choice.

The Amnesty International resolution passed just this month recommending that:

‘Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.’ (Amnesty International, 2015)

You might think that this sounds reasonable and fair.

Let’s look at this issue more closely:

Douglas Fox, a former pimp – has been campaigning for decriminalisation of prostitution in Amnesty International from within the organisation since 2008 and was in fact the author of the resolution.

The Amnesty International resolution was written by Douglas Fox, an Amnesty International employee, and former pimp, who  defines himself as “sex worker” for owning a British escort agency, and is also spokesman of an association of “sex workers. He proudly claims authorship of Amnesty’s internet document, and is not shy about admitting that he asked ‘associates to join Amnesty International in order to press for decriminalisation from within.

In effect, Amnesty International have just this month passed a resolution, making a global stand for the legalization of prostitution penned by those who have a vested financial interest in ensuring that prostitution is leaglised for business purposes. What other reason would a pimp have to join an international human rights organisation?

For an organisation that was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer with the aim of obtaining an amnesty for prisoners of conscience – working for the release of women and men who have been arrested for their convictions, the question of the intent of Amnesty International’s involvement in prostitution laws globally also has to be raised.

So, let’s look at who works in prostitution:

It is estimated that 50 to 90% of prostitutes do not practice the profession voluntarily (SPIEGEL, 2013) and those who do have come into it as a last resort. 

Dr Melissa Farley has written over 35 books on prostitution across 40 years of research and activism with persons in prostitution. Some of Dr. Farley’s statistics on prostitution are complied below: 

  • the average entry age into prostitution is 13;  
  • 65% to 95% of prostituted women have been sexually assaulted or raped before they entered prostitution;
  • nearly half of prostitutes were victims of incest;
  • 83% of prostituted women are addicted to substances such as heroin, cocaine, cannabis and alcohol;
  • 54% of prostitutes suffer from very severe depression;
  • 42% of prostitutes had at least committed one suicide attempt, many suffering from psychological disorders;
  • 75% of women in prostitution are or have been homeless at some point in their lives;
  • 70% to 95% of women in prostitution working in the street have been physically assaulted during the exercise of prostitution;
  • 41% of women were attacked in brothels;
  • 60% to 75% of people were raped while in prostitution; and
  • 85% and 95% want to leave prostitution, but have no other means of survival. 

In a study conducted on 859 people in 9 countries, over 68% of women working in strip clubs, massage parlors and street suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comparable to war veterans, rape victims and survivors of state torture.

According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, the murder rate of prostitutes is 12 times that of the general population, and the general risk of premature death for a prostitute, including illness, or overdose, is 77 times higher.

These statistics brings into question the voluntariness or choice a person has to becoming a prostitute.

Prostitution allows the commodification of women’s bodies, reinforced gender based violence, and endorses the legalised victimisation of trafficked persons within the industry.

Legalised prostitution increases tolerance for violence against women and children, including sexual violence, and increases child prostitution and creates a demand for human trafficking.

I wonder if Amnesty International had considered the fundamental human right of women not be exploited, not to be commodified, and not to be subject to slavery, abuse or rape when considering the resolution to legalise prostitution.

Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, signed in 1979 by the United Nations states:

State Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women

The Universal Declaration of Human Right’s Articles 4 and 5 are also relevant here, which call for the prohibition of all forms of slavery and servitude, declaring that no one is to be subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

So, can human trafficking be linked to legalised prostitution?

Contrary to Amnesty International’s statement that there is no evidence as to the links between the legalisation of prostitution and the trafficking of persons, this exact fact has been established in an international academic research study that concludes that the legalisation of prostitution leads to a rise in the exploitation of vulnerable women and girls through human trafficking.

The 2012 study published in ‘World Development’ titled: “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” investigates the effect of legalised prostitution on human trafficking inflows into high-income countries. 

The study’s findings concluded that countries with legalised prostitution are associated with higher human trafficking inflows than countries where prostitution is prohibited.

The study also concluded that the type of legalisation of prostitution does not matter — it only matters whether prostitution is legal or not, and that there is a 13.4% higher probability of receiving higher inflows in a democratic country than otherwise.

Human trafficking is fuelled by a demand for prostitution – it works on the simple economic principle of supply and demand, and as a former victim put it: men paying for sex are addicts using women’s bodies as drugs, and that men believe the time they have purchased to be with a woman puts them completely in control, which makes the woman vulnerable to abuse – and worse. The Trafficking Protocol is our reference point for the criminalisation of human trafficking, in all its forms globally.

So, how prevalent is human trafficking in our world today?

In a world where no country is immune to human trafficking according to the UN, and where the trafficking of children is on the rise according to the United Nations, there are at least 152 countries of origin and 124 countries of destination affected by trafficking in persons, and over 510 trafficking flows criss-crossing the world. 

 There is no place in the world where children, women or men are safe from human trafficking as stated by the UNODC Executive Director, Yury Fedotov.

According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 36 million known slaves in the world today.

Every year, 1.2 million children are being trafficked according to the International Labor Organization’s 2002 estimation in the Every Child Counts, New Global estimate on Child Labour Report. 

Do we need any more evidence that human trafficking of vulnerable women and children is on the rise, and that the legalisation of prostitution is creating a demand for the trafficking of such persons?

So, why is Amnesty international endorsing the legalised policy approach to prostitution, which is known to: 

  • increase trafficking and violence against prostitutes;
  • lead to a cheaper, more widely available “commodified trade” – the price per act decreases- devaluing the person as a prostitute and as a human being;
  • give law enforcement permission to turn their backs on this issue, making it is extremely hard to regulate the sex trade;
  • give pimps and johns free reign over their victims and almost no legal recourse for the exploited; and 
  • give traffickers more legal ways to exploit women and children – including exploiting the vulnerable so that they live without any enforceable housing standards, proper healthcare, wages –without basic rights for personal subsistence.

So, who gets caught up in human trafficking?

According to the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime, trafficking often occurs from less developed countries to more developed countries, where people are rendered vulnerable to trafficking by virtue of poverty, conflict or other conditions.

Vulnerable women and children are the easiest targets for traffickers, and indeed, make up the majority of the world’s known slaves today.

Vulnerable victims are exploited in the sex trade on a daily basis across the world. 

According to a United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Report, the crime of trafficking in persons affects virtually every country in every region of the world. Most victims of trafficking in persons are foreigners in the country where they are identified as victims – more than 6 in 10 of all victims – have been trafficked across at least one national border.

The majority of trafficking victims are subjected to sexual exploitation.

The UNODC Report goes on to reveal that approximately half of all detected trafficking victims are adult women. 

Women comprise the vast majority of the detected victims who were trafficked for sexual exploitation.  In some regions, particularly in Asia, most of the victims of trafficking for forced labour were women.

Since UNODC started to collect information on the age profile of detected trafficking victims, the share of children among the detected victims has been increasing. Globally, children now comprise nearly one third of all detected trafficking victims. Out of every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy.

The UNODC Report also revealed that for nearly all crimes, male offenders vastly outnumber females.

 Human Trafficking starts with Pornography.

The exploitation of a woman or a girl trough sex trafficking begins with the download of pornography – in turn creating a demand for trafficked persons through prostitution.

Porn has been referred to as the industry of torture and greed, and is worth about 100 billion dollars per annum.

Porn glorifies the abuse, degradation and the violence of women, most of them very very young.

Mainstream porn would be impossible without a massive exploitation, violence and abuse of women. Porn star deaths – videos from Ms. Shelley Lubben – available on her website

Amnesty defends porn as art, in the name of freedom of expression, once again disregarding the victims of this horrific industry that preys on vulnerable girls.  

But, I digress.

The fact is, decriminalising ‘sex work’ will make it easier to exploit women and children. 

This is a setback for those of us who oppose exploitation. 

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote an open letter to Amnesty, because such a policy is destroying years of progress in the fight against sexual exploitation. 

Amnesty’s advocacy for the right of men to purchase sex places the victims of human trafficking, sexual servitude and debt bondage in danger: making a conscientious stance against the criminalisation of the purchase of sex – often referred to as the Nordic Model policy approach to curbing the demand for human trafficking.

Under the Nordic Model, violence against women decreased substantially.

Many reviews of the Nordic System are available, including an analysis of its success and revealing its limitations here:

  1. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia
  2. The official report from the Swedish government, or
  3. Abolish Now

 The Nordic Model, or the criminalisation of buyers allows women to seek care, support, and report if a client is violent. 60% of women who enrolled in the Swedish social programs – where the Nordic Model originated – were able to leave prostitution, and the stigma was shifted from the act of selling sex to the act of buying sex.

This shift in social norms in our society away from seeing the victims of trafficking as criminals, but rather criminalizing the demand for the commodification of women and girls is key if we want to curb human trafficking and reduce the prevalence of sexual violence against women.

Thank goodness the survivors of sexual slavery and human trafficking are speaking out about this ridiculous international policy position that Amnesty International has taken without thorough research, consultation or consideration given to the matter. 

Women rescued from prostitution have criticised UN agencies and Amnesty International for trying to legalise prostitution insisting legalisation would lead to more girls being trafficked, and transform pimps into legitimate businessmen.

“What the hell are they [Amnesty International] thinking,” said Rachel Moran, a former prostituted woman from Ireland.

Rachel Moran is the author of ‘Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution’.

UN agencies recently released reports telling countries to decriminalise all aspects of prostitution to reduce HIV/AIDS and promote human rights. A UN Development Program (UNDP) report on HIV and the Law and Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, a UNDP, UN Population Fund and UNAIDS-backed report, called for the decriminalisation of prostitution.

At a recent UN event  in New York, women rescued from prostitution criticised UN agencies and Amnesty International for trying to legalize prostitution insisting legalisation would lead to more girls being trafficked, and transform pimps into legitimate businessmen.

The UN reports imply prostituted women “work” by choice. In response to this statement, Natasha Falle, who is a Canadian sex trafficking survivor and founder of SEXTRADE 101 who has helped hundreds of women escape prostitution said upwards of 95% of women working in prostitution want to exit but need assistance.

The UN reports suggest legalization provides safeguards for prostituted women.

In response to this statement, survivors of the industry insisted that men paying for sex are addicts using women’s bodies as drugs, and that men believe the time they have purchased to be with a woman puts them completely in control.

I hope that the above evidence has led you to conclude that if we are to stand up for the rights of women and children, that if we are to achieve gender equality, and if we are to curb human trafficking and put a stop to sexual violence against women in our generation, we need to address the demand that is created though pornography and prostitution in the ‘adult industry’, calling for the criminalisation of the buyer of such services.

I also hope that the above evidence has made you start thinking about this issue in greater depth, has urged you to do your own research, and moves you to discuss this issue with someone, or moves you to advocacy for the many victims of sexual violence.

If you want to stand against gender violence, against the trafficking and sexual slavery of women and girls, and if you want to tell Amnesty International that it is not ok to legalise the abuse of women through prostitution laws, please sign this petition.

You can write to Amnesty International at or Tweet them @amnestyonline – to let them know the stand that you have taken. 

A copy of this article was also printed in Transform Sydney’s Monthly here

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