African leaders must protect women and girls from sex trafficking
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African leaders must protect women and girls from sex trafficking

Posted ANITA NYANJONG'

on  Wednesday, July 19   2017 at  16:17

Across Africa, governments have made legally binding commitments to protect and promote the rights of women and girls. They include protecting them from being trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Tragically, many throughout the continent remain trapped in sexual slavery and were being trafficked both within and across borders, with little being done to help them.

Last week marked 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 recognised the significance of ratifying the Maputo Protocol, implementation was still weak.

In many ways, it was 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 was frequently weak.

In Kenya, for instance, women and girls were trafficked and sexually exploited in prostitution linked to sex tourism along the coast. According to a study on sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism, minors were particularly exploited in the commercial sex industry by both overseas tourists and Kenyan nationals, the majority of who were from affluent neighbourhoods.

Minimum standards

In addition, a growing number of development projects around the country have lured women and girls in search of work but end up being sexually exploited.

Kenya ranks in tier two according to the United States Trafficking in Persons Report, an annual report released by the 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 was a manifestation of gender inequality and in order to affectively address the problem, there must be laws that criminalise the buying of sex, and that these laws were effectively implemented.

The trafficking of women and girls for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that roughly 4.5 million people worldwide were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and UNODC reports that 71 per cent of those trafficked worldwide were women and girls - 51 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. Of those, 79 per cent were trafficked for sexual exploitation.

Coercion or deception

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 was the commercial sex industry, which continues to expand and was closely linked to other organised criminal activity such as immigration crime, violence, drug abuse and money laundering.

Trapped in poverty and debt bondage, many women and girls remained 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 ensure that sexual exploitation and trafficking continue. Traffickers, pimps and facilitators profit from this demand by supplying the predominantly women and girls who were brutally exploited on a daily basis.

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

Buying and selling

International human rights organisation Equality Now is advocating a move away from total criminalisation - in which both the buying and selling of sex are criminalised - and for the adoption of the Equality Model (otherwise known as the Nordic Model), which involves the decriminalisation of selling sex.

This proposal recognises that prostitution was both a cause and a consequence of the disadvantaged and exploited position that women and girls often found themselves in, especially those living in poverty. The majority of those working in Africa’s commercial sex trade were there because of dire circumstances. They were from impoverished backgrounds, lacked education and did 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 was acceptable to buy women’s and girls’ bodies as long as a buyer could pay for it. It tries to redress the inequalities by promoting women and girls’ right to safety, health and non-discrimination, and by challenging men’s perceived “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.

Ms Nyanjong’ is the End Sex Trafficking programme officer for Africa at Equality Now.

@equalitynoworg

Twitter @equalitynow