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The UN agency for women recently announced its neutrality on whether prostitution should be criminalized. The announcement came in response to a letter signed by over 1,400 civil society representatives criticizing its apparent stance in favor of decriminalization in recent years.
The signatories of the letter, provided by the independent news publication PassBlue, pointed out that, in defiance of international law, several agencies funded by UN member States are already promoting “sex work” and campaigning for its decriminalization. Among them are the United Nations Population Fund, the International Labor Organization, and the United Nations Development Program.
“Member States must not allow UN Women to follow suit,” the letter’s authors wrote.
Also listed was UNAIDS, a joint agency cosponsored by multiple UN agencies, including UN Women. Among the UN entities favoring decriminalization of prostitution, UNAIDS has taken the most outspoken position, based on the controversial argument that “the decriminalization of sex work is key to changing the course of the HIV epidemics among sex workers and in countries as a whole.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, responded by declaring the agency’s neutrality on the issue. “UN Women does not take a position for or against the decriminalization/legalization of prostitution/sex work,” she wrote in a response letter, also provided by PassBlue.
UN Women’s critics expressed concern that civil society groups consulted in advance of the twenty-five-year review of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action disproportionately featured organizations seeking to legitimize “sex work,” a term they strongly rejected. The signatories, many from the global south, also criticized the overrepresentation of applicants from the United States and other English-speaking countries.
Many of the leaders—and much of the funding—of the movement to normalize prostitution comes from wealthy countries, although national strategies differ. Some, like the Netherlands, attempt to legalize and regulate the sex trade. Others, like New Zealand, have opted for complete decriminalization. Amnesty International and philanthropist George Soros promote the latter position.
Among advocates for women’s rights, opinions are deeply divided. Some oppose the use of laws to impose a moral standard with regard to consensual sex, while others focus on the close linkage between prostitution and sex trafficking. As PassBlue journalist Barbara Crossette points out, “Whether those who are trapped in brothels in the slums of Mumbai or cities in the developed world … would call themselves sex workers seems unlikely.”
Many of those sold for sex in developed countries were brought from other, poorer, countries. But the sex trade is also grueling and dehumanizing for native-born people who are prostituted. Irish activist and survivor of prostitution Rachel Moran shared her own story at a UN side event co-sponsored by C-Fam. She was sharply critical of Amnesty’s newly-announced position in favor of decriminalization and rebuffed the notion that legitimizing “sex work” is good for women: “It’s nonsense to say a person can be empowered by allowing their body to be as open to the public as a train or bus station.”
UN Women’s cautious move toward neutrality is far from the full-throated condemnation of the sex trade its critics desire. It represents a line drawn between it and other UN agencies, including the far-from-neutral UNAIDS, which counts UN Women as a sponsor and supports decriminalization. It remains to be seen if UN Women’s position has implications for these other agencies and programs.
Rebecca Oas, 21 Nov. 2019.