A couple of months ago, Swati Maliwal, the Chairman, Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), summoned brothel owners of GB road with an aim to end prostitution in Delhi. But the continued thriving of brothels in the national capital today indicates another failure of sincere efforts. We hence suggest Ms.Maliwal and the likes of her try Sweden’s unconventional approach which has been praised and adopted by many countries.
Known as the world’s most feminist society, Sweden introduced “Sex Purchase Act” in 1999 that made buying sex a crime, but not selling it. That means, cops could arrest male clients but they could not arrest women involved in sex trade.
The logic being that sex workers face greater stigma than their male clients do. Plus, vast majority of women choose prostitution not out of willingness, but because of poverty, exploitation or compulsion, and if given an option, most of the workers would leave the sex industry.
The feminist-led government hence argued that prostitution, as a trade, inherently victimizes its women participants and should be shunned by the society, which aspires to treat all genders equally. In other words, instead of approaching sex trade as an issue of “moral deviance” as had been done in the past, women right activists shifted the dialogue to “social inequality”.
“The goal is to criminalize the demand side of the equation, rather than putting emotionally and physically imperiled women behind bars,” says Jonas Trolle, an inspector with the Stockholm police who belongs to a police unit dedicated to curbing the sex trade.
The lawmakers also ensured that offenders pay fines on the basis of their incomes; so the more you earn, the bigger penalty you face if caught buying sex. [Minimum fine of $400, if you’re unemployed]
The radical idea such as this was then opposed by conservative parties, cops and many people with equal fervor, but in past sixteen years, their views have changed, after the results started pouring in.
Since the law came into force, the prostitution and trafficking have reduced greatly. Not a single prostitute has been killed on the job in the past sixteen years. According to the latest population survey, only 0.8 percent of Swedish men bought sex in 2013 as compared to 14 percent of them buying sex in 1996.
Plus, contrary to popular beliefs, incidences of rape and domestic violence have not increased after the ban on sex purchase. Buying sex in Sweden is now costliest in the entire Europe since they have less number of people in prostitution.
But the efficacy of the law doesn’t rest on this single factor. “It is a comprehensive model that includes a strong welfare state, exiting services for women who wish to quit the industry, the retraining of police officers, so that they understand that prostituted women are victims, not criminals, and public education,” says journalist Meghan Murphy, who has written extensively on anti-prostitution laws.
“I was fighting with myself inside. I was afraid. It took me three years to trust the people who wanted to help me,” says Daniella, who left prostitution and got the pimp who had brought her into prostitution convicted and jailed. In the mid-1990s, Sweden had about 3,000 prostitutes and recently, the figure stood at 600.
But not all support the Sweden model. “Adult women are legally unable to give consent, just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape,” says former sex worker Maggie McNeil. Some critics also attribute the falling figures in the sex trade to data inaccuracies. The government, however, contests these allegations.
In an evaluation report published in 2010, the Swedish government pointed out that assessing the outcomes was difficult as prostitution and trafficking are complex issues which occur in secret and that they collected data on “as far as we can see” basis.
Experts confess that the Swedish Model is not perfect but it does make life better for the women involved in sex trade. More importantly, despite all criticism, the law continues to find support among masses. In a survey conducted in 2014, 85 percent of women and 60 percent of men in Sweden favored the law. The model has been adopted by several countries including France, Norway, and Iceland, and is under consideration in Canada and the UK.
Back home, contrary to common perception, prostitution in India is legal. The condition is that it should be a private residence and no third-party (pimps) should be involved. The Swedish law prohibits sex purchase in totality.
Figures on prostitution and human trafficking in India are grand and disturbing, and whether the Swedish model could reduce them is both a matter of debate and an experiment worth trying!