21st November 2011
We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Senator Jillian Van Turnhout on the efforts of the Independent Group in the Seanad to criminalise the purchase of sex.
On 12 October 2012, the Independent Group of Senators tabled a motion in Seanad Éireann to criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland in order to curb prostitution and trafficking. The impetus for the motion was twofold. First, recognition that demand for prostitution in Ireland is intrinsically linked to increased cases of woman and girls being trafficked into and around Ireland for sexual exploitation. Second, recognition that trafficking for sexual exploitation is a modern form of slavery, an egregious human rights abuse and a violation of international law.
Having given my consideration to a number of arguments against criminalising the purchase of sex in Ireland, I find myself unconvinced by them. One argument contends that criminalising the purchase of sex violates a sex worker’s right to exercise self-determination over their own body. I must respectfully disagree. It is my belief that when we peel away the complex layers of how and why women, and to a lesser extent men and boys, sell their bodies for the sexual gratification of others, it is clear that the path into prostitution did not start with the simple exercise of their right to self-determination over their body. Indeed, research indicates that a significant number of women end up in prostitution as a result of poverty, debt, homelessness, addiction, or having been groomed by a partner, family member or friend. Many will have experienced serious abuse or neglect in childhood or early adulthood.
I believe that the inherent coercion, whether the result of violence or economic hardship, and the exploitative nature of the sex industry, which in Ireland alone is estimated to be worth €250 million each year, renders free and informed consent to prostitution all but impossible. Furthermore, for those who argue in defence of prostitution on the basis of consent, I would ask these people to be mindful that the age identified internationally for entry into prostitution is 14, an age at which consent cannot be given.
The Turn Off the Red Light Campaign (TORL) to end prostitution and sex trafficking in Ireland has done tremendous work in this area. Most TORL members are civil society groups and NGOs that have direct experience of the devastating effects prostitution can have on women, children and men involved in its practice. These devastating effects are physical, such as sexually transmitted infections, injuries sustained as the result of beatings and rapes, gynaecological difficulties owing to multiple terminations, and many other health complications relating to prostitution. There are also mental and emotional injuries, deeply embedded in the psyche of sex workers and victims of trafficking, which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. As devastating as these effects are for adults, the impact is almost unimaginable for children and child victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. I am particularly concerned about the vulnerability of homeless and separated children in Ireland to prostitution and trafficking.
Focus Ireland has estimated that as many as 1,500 children are homeless in Ireland each year. 800 of them are unaccompanied, and a quarter of these are under the age of 12. Inadequate resourcing in this area, coupled with an insufficient number of places for children in safe, sheltered accommodation, is said to be forcing some children to resort to prostitution to survive. An increase in substance abuse amongst homeless youths, particularly males, has also seen increased recourse to prostitution. There is evidence to suggest that boys as young as 13 are involved in prostitution in Dublin City. Cognisant of the link between youth homelessness and child prostitution, and in addition to the introduction of the legislation called for in our Seanad motion, I believe that the Government needs to breathe life into its pledge to address the issue of existing homelessness, with a specific focus on youth homelessness, by reviewing and updating the existing Homeless Strategy.
Separated children or unaccompanied minors are defined as being under 18 years of age, separated from both of their parents or their legal/customary primary caregiver, and outside their country of origin. Separated children are an extremely vulnerable group owing to their unaccompanied status. Many have experienced war and violence, and some have been trafficked into Ireland for sexual exploitation. There have been a number of improvements in the situation for separated children in Ireland under the Ryan Report Implementation Plan, particularly in relation to accommodation arrangements. Measures are also being taken to tackle false family reunifications through the use of DNA identification.
Nevertheless, instances of children going missing from care are of deep and ongoing concern. Minister of State for Disability, Equality and Mental Health, Kathleen Lynch TD informed the Seanad debate that there are 16 cases of children missing in Ireland still outstanding in 2010 alone, and 11 of those are unaccompanied minors. There is strong anecdotal evidence that a number of these children could have been trafficked into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation. In September 2011, the Children’s Rights Alliance submitted to the Department of Justice and Equality’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit collated case studies of suspected and confirmed child victims of trafficking in Ireland. The case studies paint a dreadful picture of exploitation and include:
A 15 year old Somali rescued from a brothel in 2006 after being trafficked into Ireland; a 16 year old Nigerian girl who arrived to Ireland as a separated child in 2009 and was enticed out of HSE residential care by a man who later got her involved in prostitution; and a 16 year old girl from Burundi, held captive in a house in Co. Louth and abused. She had been taken from her village in Africa at the age of 12 and introduced into sex slavery in different countries before being trafficked to Ireland for more sexual exploitation. I have also heard dreadful accounts by an NGO, which were subsequently documented, of Eastern European girls as young as 14 being trafficked to Ireland, brutally and systematically raped over a number of days to “break them in,” before being shipped off to various brothels around the country.
These are just a few examples, but I fear they represent just the tip of the iceberg. This is an intolerable situation. The sex industry in Ireland is extremely lucrative. Children continue to be victims of prostitution and trafficking because it is good business for organised criminals and traffickers.
After much research into the issue, I firmly believe that legislation is needed. I was very disappointed that our motion did not succeed on 12 October. Instead, the Government proposed a six-month timeframe in which to hold a considered public debate before the issue is revisited. I look forward to this renewed debate. As Leader of the Independent Group of Senators, I have extended a number of invitations to the Turn Off the Blue Light Campaign, a sex worker led association campaigning against calls to criminalise the purchase of sex in Ireland, to come and discuss their concerns with the authors of the motion. They have indicated that they will do so after completion of a survey they are currently undertaking with sex workers.
Readers may be interested in following the debate as it unfolded in the Seanad;