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African Leaders Must Do More to Protect Women From Sex Trafficking

Posted on Aug 3, 2017

Across Africa, governments have made legally binding commitments to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. That includes protecting them from being trafficked for sexual exploitation. Tragically, many throughout the continent remain trapped in sexual slavery and are being trafficked both within and across country boarders, and yet little is being done to help them.

This week marks the 14th anniversary of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as the Maputo Protocol. This is the main legal instrument for the protection of the rights of women and girls in Africa and has been adopted by most members of the African Union. It includes specific provisions that compel Member States to put in place measures that eliminate trafficking and protect women from violence and exploitation.

Despite this, the barriers to ending sex trafficking and sexual exploitation remain. Whilst many African countries have recognized the significance of ratifying the Maputo Protocol, implementation is still weak. In many ways it is a classic example of a sound legal framework coupled with extremely problematic implementation structures – African countries have adopted elements into their national legislation but implementation is frequently weak.

In Kenya, for instance, women and girls are trafficked and sexually exploited in prostitution linked to sex tourism along the coast. According to a study on the sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism, minors are particularly exploited in the commercial sex industry by both overseas tourists and Kenyan nationals, the majority of whom are from affluent neighborhoods. In addition, a growing number of economic development projects around the country have lured women and girls who come in search of work and end up being sexual exploited.

Kenya ranks in tier two according to United States Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual report released by the United States Department that monitors and combats human trafficking. This means that the country has made significant efforts to address human trafficking but is not fully compliant with the minimum standards to address the issue.  A main challenge is the lack of inter-agency coordination.

There also needs to be greater understanding that prostitution is a manifestation of gender inequality and in order to effectively address the problem there must be good laws in place that criminalize the buying of sex, and that these laws are effectively implemented.

The trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. The United Nations agency that deals with global labour issues, the International Labour Organisation, estimates that roughly 4.5 million people worldwide are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and UNODC reports that 71 percent of those who are trafficked worldwide are women and girls – 51 percent and 20 percent respectively. Of those, 79 percent are trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Sex trafficking involves recruiting, transporting or holding a person by use of threats, coercion or deception in order to sexually exploit them. Frequently, the end destination is the commercial sex industry, which continues to expand and is closely linked to other organized criminal activity such as immigration crime, violence, drug abuse and money laundering.

Trapped in poverty and debt bondage, many women and girls remain in the sex trade to pay off “debts” accumulated by the pimps purportedly to pay off their transportation or recruitment.

The commercial sex trade operates on the market principles of supply and demand. The demand is created by men who pay for commercial sex, ensuring that sexual exploitation and trafficking continues. Traffickers, pimps and facilitators profit from this demand by supplying the predominantly women and girls who are brutally exploited on a daily basis.

Like many other African countries, Kenya‘s laws fully criminalize prostitution. This means that both buyers and sellers of sex are liable to prosecution, although the reality is that it is only the women who face prosecution. Authorities usually turn a blind eye to those who buy sex.

International human rights organization Equality Now is advocating for a move away from total criminalization – in which both the buying and selling of sex is criminalized – and for the adoption of the Equality Model (otherwise known as the Nordic Model), which involves the decriminalization of selling sex.

This proposal recognizes that prostitution is both a cause and consequence of the disadvantaged and exploited position that women and girls often find themselves in, especially those living in poverty. The majority of those working in Africa’s commercial sex trade prostitution are there because of dire circumstances. They are from impoverished backgrounds, lack education and do not have alternative economic opportunities and resources to help them survive. Many have also experienced other forms of sexual or physical abuse, leaving them particularly vulnerable.

The Equality Model challenges the idea that it is acceptable to buy women’s and girls’ bodies as long as a buyer can pay for it. Ittries to redress these inequalities by promoting women and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived – but nonexistent – “right” to buy women’s bodies for sex.

It also calls on governments to do more to address the issues that push women and girls into the commercial sex industry, and for better support and exit services to be made available.

The buying and selling of sex is intrinsically linked to sex trafficking. By focusing on demand as a route to curtailing both prostitution and trafficking, African governments can become more effective in finally achieving the commitments they have made to women and girls by signing up the Maputo Protocol. Their time to act is now.