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Special Rapporteur urges global action to recognise and combat prostitution as a system of violence against women and girls

21 June 2024

GENEVA (21 June 2024) – Prostitution must be urgently recognised as a system of violence, exploitation and abuse, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, Reem Alsalem, said today.

“Prostitution reduces women and girls to mere commodities and perpetuates a system of discrimination and violence that hinders their ability to achieve true equality,” Alsalem said in a report to the Human Rights Council.

The report explores how patriarchal norms, economic inequalities, and globalisation contribute to the proliferation of prostitution. “Prostitution sexualises and racialises poverty, and targets women from marginalised backgrounds, who often lack access to protection services or viable livelihood opportunities, increasing their vulnerability to further exploitation,” Alsalem said. “The underlying structural inequalities that mostly affect women and girls must be addressed.”

She underscored the severe human rights violations inherent in prostitution, including physical, psychological, and economic violence. She argued that prostitution results in grave and multiple human rights violations, such as torture, inhumane and degrading treatment, and that it violates the right to safety, dignity, privacy, highest standards of health, freedom of movement, and family.

“Given the immense harm experienced by women and girls in prostitution, it is important to use terminology that aligns with international human rights law and standards. Terms like ‘sex work’ sanitise the harmful reality of prostitution,” she said.

Alsalem also sounded the alarm at how the perceived right of men to purchase sexual acts normalises systematic violence and erases the boundaries between consensual sex and sexual violence, having far-reaching impact on shaping the sexual expectations of men and boys. “The normalisation of prostitution, including pornography, creates harmful sexual expectations for men and boys and undermines the safe and equal participation of women and girls in society,” Alsalem said. “Many girls feel distressed by the pornification and sexualisation of women and girls, particularly in pornography.”

Based on an extensive review of legal and policy models presented in the report, Alsalem advocated for an abolitionist legal framework, and stressed the responsibility of States to protect and assist victims in a gender-sensitive manner.

“States should decriminalise prostitution for women and girls, who must be treated as victims, provide comprehensive support and exit pathways, as well as criminalise the purchase of sexual acts, and apply stringent actions against pimping. Anti-trafficking policies that create an artificial distinction between ‘forced’ and ‘free’ prostitution should not be misused,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur also presented a report on her country visit to Poland.

Reem Alsalem is the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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