Wednesday, March 5, 2003

p. 9

Leading the way

ONE of the more exciting speakers at the recent conference on "Pathbreaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking" held last week in Washington D.C., was the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, Margareta Winberg.

Former US Congressman John Warner, one of the organizers of the conference, said that when they were discussing the line-up of speakers, one of their consultants said that "if you're really looking for pathbreaking strategies, then you can't overlook Sweden." And as Winberg's talk illustrated, many exciting initiatives not just in the fight against human trafficking, but in righting gender relations as well, are indeed taking place in Sweden.

Since the 1940s, said Winberg, Sweden has "worked to improve the conditions of women… We are now actively pursuing a specifically feminist analysis and approach to gender inequalities."

Winberg made no apologies: "Yes, you heard me correctly. Sweden has a feminist government." Everyone of their ministers, including the Prime Minister, she said, undergoes gender sensitivity or awareness training.

Before making any decision, she added, government officials have pledged to ask themselves "In what way will this affect women, and in what way will it affect men?" "We intend quite simply, with gender mainstreaming as our method, to change the power structures that bind and restrict us to traditional gender power relations…"

Sweden truly takes a pathbreaking approach on how it defines prostitution, and how it is linked to trafficking.

"It is very obvious to us that there is a very clear link between prostitution and trafficking," asserted Winberg. "Without prostitution there would be no trafficking in women."

Why the need to make explicit what would seem an obvious conclusion? Because elsewhere in the world-but especially in Europe-various groups, including feminist organizations, have sought to delink trafficking from prostitution, insisting that while trafficking is a crime that must be eradicated, prostitution is simply a line of work and a "choice" that must be respected.

But according to Swedish authorities, "prostitution is a form — a serious form — of male violence against women." Said Winberg: "Many men see it as their 'natural' right to be able, in return for payment, to exploit women and children, mostly girls, for their own pleasure. Some do it secretly, others openly brag about it and are not at all ashamed of their actions."

Far too many men, noted Winberg, "see women as objects, as something that can be bought and sold."

So while previously the debate over prostitution and trafficking tended to focus on the women and the reasons they are drawn to and remain in the trade, Winberg said increasingly there is recognition of "where the true problem lies — it lies with the buyers, the customers, the men."

Added Winberg: "Unless we dare to get to the heart of the problem, we will never be able to solve it. We would merely be curing the symptoms, that is, 'taking care' of the victims, the women. Which would mean that men could continue to exploit women and children."

* * *

THAT is why, said Winberg, Sweden recently enacted a law prohibiting the "purchase of sexual services," where "it is no longer permitted to buy another human being for prostitution purposes."

In practical terms, it means that the customers, the "johns," in street parlance, would be considered equally criminal as the prostitutes. Sweden is the only country in the world so far to enact such a statute.

Consider present Philippine law on prostitution. Under the law, the only criminal among the various parties involved in an illegal "sex-for-pay" transaction (including the client, the pimp, the club owner) is the prostitute. And under Philippine law, only a woman can be a prostitute.

Contrast this attitude with the philosophical (and dare I say moral) underpinnings of Sweden's law. "We have clearly recognized that women and girls are not commodities and that the men who treat them as such should be criminalized," said Winberg. "It is the purchasers, that is, most often the men, who are committing a criminal act. According to our point of view, the women — the prostituted women — should not be regarded as criminals. Their actions are viewed from a social perspective. They should be offered education opportunities, health care if necessary and support, allowing them to lead a life with a job that allows them to make an adequate living without having to be sexually exploited… Prostitution is one of the most serious expressions of the oppression and discrimination of women; largely upheld by the economic and social structures of society."

* * *

THE NEW global "war" against trafficking, Winberg cautioned, faces obstacles arising from a backlash against women and women's rights that manifests itself in three areas: deteriorating economic conditions that have affected women the worst, the rise in the international drug trade that uses trafficking of women as an adjunct enterprise, and the growing influence of fundamentalism in various forms and across religions.

Of the last, Winberg says "Religious forms of fundamentalism… affect the situation of women and girls in a negative way and encroach upon their rights… They are joining together in their opposition to women's rights, in their unwillingness to provide resources for women's reproductive health and in their opposition to the right and access to abortion and contraceptives."

In other words, to fight trafficking, you must fight FOR and WITH women and women's rights, including reproductive rights.

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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