The Elimination of Violence Against Women

12 December 2017

Member's debate in Rhoda's name in the Scottish Parliament

The motion debated :

That the Parliament recognises that 25 November each year marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women; acknowledges the inclusion of commercial sexual exploitation in the Scottish Government’s definition of violence against women in the paper, Equally Safe, Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls; considers that prostitution is both a form of such violence and a barrier to gender equality; notes the view that those who purchase sexual services should be held accountable for their part in this violence, and commends the many organisations across Scotland and internationally supporting women to exit prostitution.

Rhoda's speech :

This debate comes at the end of the global 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.

The core message this year is that women’s rights are human rights.

It is about the right of women and girls not to suffer violence, discrimination, humiliation or harm, and the right to be treated as a human being who has the same value as everyone else.

Commercial sexual exploitation is a glaring example of how women and girls are treated differently, with their right to be protected from violence and humiliation set aside in favour of the sexual gratification of others.

In “Equally Safe: Scotland’s strategy for preventing and eradicating violence against women and girls”, the Scottish Government recognises that commercial sexual exploitation, including

“prostitution, pornography and human trafficking”,

is a form of violence against women.

We all support the Government in making that clear statement.

However, when it comes to the strategy and the work that flows from it, the approach to tackling commercial sexual exploitation lacks the vision, commitment and resources that are rightly directed at other types of violence against women.

Prostitution is profoundly harmful, violent and exploitative.

The Scottish Government has conducted research with professionals who work with women in prostitution, and in “Summarised Findings—Exploring Available Knowledge and Evidence on Prostitution in Scotland Via Practitioner-Based Interviews”, which was published in December last year, the researchers reported:

“most respondents who provide services and support to those involved in prostitution emphasised a range of risks and adverse impacts associated with prostitution in the short and longer term in relation to general and mental health, safety and wellbeing and sexual health.”

Research into women in prostitution in Glasgow, which was published in 2010, found that 21 of the 33 women who were interviewed reported violence from men who purchased sex.

Another study has shown that women who are involved in prostitution are 16 times more exposed to rape and 12 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

There is a telling example of the damage that prostitution causes to women’s mental health in a study of female drug users in Glasgow, which found that the women who were engaged in prostitution were more likely to show symptoms of anxiety and depression than the drug users who were not in prostitution.

Another study with women in prostitution found that 68 per cent of those surveyed suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The reality of those statistics comes home when we hear women talk about their experiences.

In a Women’s Support Project video, a woman called Stephanie says:

“A lot of people think it’s easy money, but it definitely isn’t cos there’s a lot of psychological problems, a lot of violence.

"I’ve been attacked four times, raped twice, there’s just a lot of danger in it.

"They’re just treating you like something they’ve bought and you will do what they say.

"And if you don’t agree, tough. Just get on with it.”

In no other circumstances of life would such a high risk of physical and mental harm be tolerated.

The equally safe strategy says that that should not be accepted and that prostitution is a form of violence against women, yet too often the response is that prostitution has always existed and will always exist, and there is nothing that can be done about it.

The truth is that something can be done about it.

We can hold to account those who use others for their sexual gratification. We can send a clear message that it is not acceptable in Scotland for women’s bodies to be bought and sold.

In western Europe there has been a sea change in attitudes to prostitution over the past three years and, since late 2014, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, France and Canada have adopted laws that make it a criminal offence to purchase sex.

The laws draw on the experience of Sweden, which pioneered that progressive approach in 1999, followed by Norway and Iceland in 2009.

The official evaluation of the Swedish law in 2010 found that on-street prostitution had halved and there had been no increase in off-street prostitution since the passing of the law.

A 2014 evaluation of the Norwegian law concluded:

“The ban on purchasing sexual services has reduced demand for sex and thus contribute to reduce the extent of prostitution in Norway.”

If we are to fulfil the vision of the equally safe strategy and create

“a strong and flourishing Scotland where all individuals are equally safe and respected, and where women and girls live free from such abuse—and the attitudes that help perpetuate it”, we must work to eradicate prostitution.

We can do that only by addressing those who perpetuate it: the men whose demand for paid sex creates a market in which vulnerable women and girls—and indeed some vulnerable men—become objects for sale. We must also make greater strides towards helping women to find routes out of prostitution. The motion that we are debating particularly commends organisations that support women to exit prostitution but, sadly, that area is all too often underfunded. A woman who is referred to as Katy told the Women’s Support Project:

“If there had been a chance earlier to get out of what I was doing, I would get out of it. I would have took that chance. Changed my life earlier.”

The Government’s research shows that organisations supporting women to exit prostitution are facing serious challenges due to insecure and short-term funding.

Many of those organisations are known to us all.

They include the Women’s Support Project, whose work I have quoted, and TARA—trafficking awareness raising alliance—which does a huge amount of work with people who have been trafficked into sexual exploitation.

There are also others whose work is less well known, including organisations such as the Co-op.

I am a member of the Co-operative Party, but I was unaware that it provides support and employment opportunities for people escaping modern-day slavery, which comes in the form of a 12-month paid employment and support project.

That is just one example of what can be done to support people.

We need to realise that people who are exiting prostitution will have complex problems—the problems that drew them into prostitution in the first place and the harms that prostitution has since caused them.

Project TurnKey CIC offers alternative support to victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

It provides legal information, workshops to boost confidence and links to partners that offer employment and training, and offers that support to women who are often in prison and who are either involved in or at risk of becoming involved in prostitution.

We must ensure that such services are available to all those who need them.

The 16 days of activism have been great at raising awareness.

However, gender-based violence is still happening and is not limited to 16 days.

That is why we must act now to fulfil the vision of the equally safe strategy.

We must work to prevent exploitation through prostitution by challenging the notion that sex can be for sale, by making it a criminal offence to pay for sex, by helping women to exit prostitution through services and by ensuring that women are not criminalised for being victims of exploitation.

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