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Ending the Global Sex Trade

Ironically, the disappearance of one scourge, the Iron Curtain, has aided the growth of another, international organized crime. There's no more-telling evidence of this than the traffic in women from the former Soviet Union headed for the sex industries in Western Europe, the Middle East, the United States, and Japan.

Yet this trade in human beings, estimated at hundreds of thousands of women over the past decade, represents only a fraction of the worldwide prostitution market exploited by mobsters on every continent. They pocket an estimated $12 billion each year from the sex trade.

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Eastern European women are a growing part of this trade (one expert estimates 500,000 women have been trafficked out of Ukraine alone in the last decade). Asia is a major center for the trade, with hundreds of thousands of women trafficked each year.

To combat this terrible commerce and other forms of global gangsterism, United Nations members meeting in Vienna are working on a new Convention on Transnational Organized Crime. This treaty follows up on others drawn up by 20th-century diplomats to condemn and discourage the traffic in human beings. None, unfortunately, has had much success.

The Vienna convention includes some needed measures, such as stronger provisions for monitoring and reporting on the sex trade, which will aid law-enforcement efforts. But the treaty has run into some problems concerning its language.

Some countries, including the United States, back wording that prohibits trafficking of people across borders for "forced prostitution." That wording is a concession to countries with legalized prostitution. But it could offer traffickers a defense. They can argue that the women they transport come voluntarily.

In many cases, indeed, impoverished women are willingly lured by promises of high-paying work abroad - although the type of work is misrepresented. Beyond that deception, a coercive environment envelops the women. Travel documents are often seized by traffickers, who may also threaten physical violence. This makes testifying against their "employers" problematic. Most women continue in virtual slavery until they can repay the debts concocted by traffickers. Then the women return to their home country poor as they left. Under these circumstances, the question of what's "forced" and what isn't becomes academic.

Breaking this cycle of bondage should be a legal and moral priority for the world's nations. The UN convention should be ratified with the strongest wording possible. Cooperation between law-enforcement agencies in countries involved in the sex industry has to be strengthened. This may not be easy, since officials in the countries of origin are sometimes implicated in the trade. Police in countries where the women are brought often limit their enforcement to deporting the women, if they're arrested.

Local laws against prostitution can be strengthened to reduce demand. Moves to legalize the sex trade, on the other hand, are likely to increase demand and heighten the trafficking.

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This problem should be attacked from every angle - treaties, national and international law enforcement, and efforts by religious groups to counter the moral decay that underlies the trafficking in women. Countless individual lives hang in the balance, as do the chances for real democracy in countries whose citizens are now routinely forced or lured into sexual slavery.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society