11/04/2016 06:56 BST | Updated 08/04/2017 06:12 BST

France Bans Purchase of Sex

On Wednesday, France voted for gender equality by making the purchase of commercial sex illegal, while decriminalising and providing exiting services and support to people in prostitution. It was a conclusive verdict, with 64 politicians voting in favour and 12 voting against the new bill.

The news is welcomed by feminist organisations such as Equality Now, which has been advocating for this Nordic or 'Equality' Model of laws for many years. Its passage is thanks in large part to years of hard work by our partners CAP International, Mouvement Du Nid and the European Women's Lobby, as well as the coalition of over 60 French organisations that make up Abolition 2012.

Starting in Sweden in 1999, several countries have enacted laws based on this model. France joins Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada - and likely soon, the Republic of Ireland, in a growing list of countries, which acknowledge the high levels of sexual exploitation within the commercial sex trade.

They also recognise its links with sex trafficking - and the gender inequality inherent in the practice of predominantly men using their power to buy access to mostly disadvantaged women's bodies. In Canada for example, Aboriginal children and youth make up 90% of the visible sex trade in some communities where the overall Aboriginal population is less than 10%.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Germany - which attempted to regulate prostitution in 2000 and 2002 respectively - are beginning to backtrack from their failed experiments, with politicians pushing for new laws to criminalise the purchase of sex from a victim of trafficking or coercion. This is an attempt to stem the widespread trafficking and exploitation in their legal and illegal prostitution sectors. 

There is also discussion in the United Kingdom and elsewhere on re-examining existing laws - particularly in the face of change in Ireland and France. This positive wave is likely to strengthen further as neighbouring countries that have legalised brothel-keeping, pimping and buying sex feel the increased ill-effects of these harmful policies. 

At the continental level, in 2014, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe both adopted resolutions, which recommended member states to consider the Nordic Model. Around the world too, an increasing number of activists and organisations - many of which are survivor-led - in countries such as South Africa, India, Lebanon, Germany, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand and the US, are calling for lawmakers to recognise the realities of prostitution and to enact the Nordic model. They see this approach as the only effective way to tackle commercial sexual exploitation and the inequalities it is based on.

Accurate statistics on prostitution can be difficult to find, but media reports estimate that 80% to 90% of those (mostly women) in prostitution in France are believed to have come from abroad - including many victims of trafficking. From our work on the issue, we know that many of these are likely to have come from the African continent or from Eastern Europe, largely due to coercion, deception, or lack of choice.

The Nordic Model recognises that people in prostitution experience a disproportionate risk of violence, physical and psychological harm and that prostitution is based on - and reinforces - gender, class, race, ethnic, economic and other forms of inequality. It is not the same as full criminalisation, where everyone involved is criminalised - including the person selling sex - often under the rationale that they are doing something 'indecent'.

It is becoming increasingly evident too that attempts to regulate the commercial sex trade through legalisation or decriminalisation do not make things safer for people in prostitution.  Instead, these policies legitimise the violence and exploitation in the sex trade - an industry in which brothel-keepers, traffickers, pimps and those who buy sex are in the main the people who benefit.

The world is finally beginning to listen to survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking. It is crucial now more than ever to learn from experiences on what has and has not worked elsewhere when developing and implementing policy, to ensure that we do not repeat failed experiments.  This will send a strong signal to buyers to think about how their actions are contributing to and enabling exploitation of those selling sex - and to focus on their responsibility for ending the violence at the core of the commercial sex trade.