Photo by filadendron

A catastrophic global human rights crisis

The abolition of the sex trade can’t come soon enough

Artillery Row

A breaking news story has exposed the years-long systematic exploitation of vulnerable women and children by UN peacekeepers in the disaster-torn country of Haiti, with men fathering a rather conservatively estimated “dozens” of children before abandoning them upon departing the country. Tragically, these stories of human rights violations are nothing new to those of us working in the sector. Indeed, the public may be all too aware of the prevalence of this harrowing exploitation given the recent report exposing Oxfam for its involvement in such abuses, as well as other organisations such as Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and Christian Aid Ministries.

As Buzzfeed reports, the current exposé pertains to the issue of peacekeepers fathering children, but this is simply one aspect of what must be understood as endemic sexual exploitation, and specifically, a form of prostitution. Further, this exploitation isn’t just confined to the developing world, but extends globally to wherever men in positions of power are able to capitalise on the vulnerability of women and children, which includes the UK.

The true nature of the global sex trade is something many will be unfamiliar with, particularly when the media presents sanitised “Pretty Woman” style portrayals but the reality is a far cry from such idealised versions as the crisis in Haiti accurately demonstrates. The exploitation and abuse meted out by “peacekeepers” is rooted in the power-imbalance between being able to offer something such as food, water, money, or jobs and the destitute and impoverished woman or child needing whatever it is being offered.

Reports from Haiti highlight that peacekeepers would “offer food in exchange for sex”, a practice that was impotently “discouraged” by the United Nations. Oxfam also failed to investigate allegations that aid workers raped girls as young as 12 during their time in the country. There were also reports that Oxfam aid workers were offering to pay teenage girls’ school fees in exchange for sex during their occupation of Africa. During the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aid workers from the World Health Organisation, Oxfam and MSF were accused of trading sex for jobs.

Make no mistake, if a woman or child is forced or coerced into having sex on the pre-condition that the man will subsequently provide her with something that she is in desperate need of in order to literally stay alive, this is rape. It is recognised as such in both domestic and international law.

This would strike many although not all as being uncontroversial. If women and children in a war- or disaster-torn country are sexually exploited by morally bankrupt aid workers, few would be daring enough to try to re-frame this as an empowering career choice, or indeed argue for its recognition as gainful employment. The question must be posed then, why does this analysis not transfer over to the endemic abuse and exploitation of prostituted women and children outside of the developing world, including the UK?

The narrative of “sex work is work” has become the go-to rebuttal against the abolition of the sex trade, surreptitiously re-framing all manner of different “sexual services” into a palatable yet incoherent and fatuous monolith, one in which child victims of sexual exploitation and rape are deplorably rebranded as “child sex workers”. Clearly, there is a difference in terms of the concrete reality of the individual who sells risqué photos on a global corporate platform such as OnlyFans, and the woman or child raped and abused by an aid worker notwithstanding the myriad social, emotional and psychological ramifications for those “content creators”. But the experiences of the latter are not confined to the developing world.

Whilst the currency with which men bend vulnerable women to their will may differ, the exploitation does not

For example, a 2002 study across five countries found that: “Rates and frequency of violence and control are extremely high, with physical harm (almost 80 per cent), sexual assault (over 60 per cent)… leading the indicators”; a 2018 APPG report stated that “…modern slavery and human trafficking are far more prevalent than previously thought”, and that there were “growing reports of organised crime groups sexually exploiting women around the UK in so-called ‘pop-up’ brothels”; and during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was found that all types of modern slavery including sexual exploitation were increasing, the most common type being sexual exploitation.

Physical violence is also rife, with one 2018 report finding that 46 per cent of all prostituted individuals reported experiencing some form of violence; 17.8 per cent reported rape and/or attempted rape; and a multi-city study of 240 prostituted individuals found that 63 per cent had been subjected to physical violence over their lifetime, 47 per cent reported being “slapped, kicked, or punched”, and 28 per cent reported “attempted rape”.

This is not confined to the UK either. For example, at a conference in Munich to discuss the effects of the legalised prostitution regime endured by women in Germany, horrifying situations such as the following were highlighted: “…another spoke of the case of a 19-year-old, heavily pregnant woman who was hired for a gang-bang in a German brothel by six men, four of whom wore horror masks. One woman talked about women she knew who had been used by 60 men a day.”

Additionally: “[There is] a growing demand for pregnant women in prostitution…(who) have to serve 15 to 40 men a day continuously until they give birth. Very often, they abandon their child and go to work as soon as possible. Sometimes 3 days after birthing the child.” 

The global system of prostitution is fundamentally driven by a power-imbalance where men utilise their position of control to impose their will on women and children, for nothing more than sexual gratification. This is the case regardless of where it occurs: Haiti, DRC, Vietnam, the US, the UK, Germany, New Zealand. The list is truly endless. Whilst the currency with which men bend vulnerable women and children to their will may differ, the exploitation does not. As human rights activists, we must argue for an end to the sex trade, and ultimately for its abolition, not for its continuation and expansion under euphemistic slogans.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover