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Sweden's success in
combating sex trafficking



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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November 2, 2010

The country most advanced in dealing with the interrelated problems of child trafficking and prostitution is Sweden.

Helene Karle, the secretary general of the Swedish branch of Ecpat, a world wide organization based in Bangkok to counter the commercial sexual exploitation of children, told me of two horrific incidents. The first was of a brothel in Thailand which caught fire. They found the bodies of 12-15 year old girls tied to the beds. A second was of an 11 year old girl killed by a man with a vibrator that broke inside her vagina. Neighbours, hearing her cries in the dark, rushed her to hospital but it was too late. She had lost too much blood.

Both of these incidents were girls “serving” foreign tourists. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “Several million people are the victims of human trafficking every year. About 80% is related to trafficking for sexual purposes. This trafficking is the third most profitable illegal activity after drugs and arms. In Europe alone 500,000 young women and girls are trafficked [usually from the east to Europe]. Overall there are 2 million child victims a year and 1.2 million of these are trafficked- that’s 2,700 a day”. The rest are usually to be found in holiday places where they are abused by foreign paedophiles and others who can’t resist the opportunity they are confronted with. In Europe, the EU estimated in 2003 the problem of child porn had increased by 1,500% in the previous ten years.

What was a rather small problem escalated from the time of the Vietnam war, argues Ms Karle, when resting American troops relaxed in Thailand and the Philippines. Heavy drinking and sex were the most common indulgence. Some also got involved in the porno film industry, often featuring children. Then they sold the films back home.

“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the basis of our activity”. she told me. “All the countries in the world have ratified it, apart from the US and Somalia.”

Besides dealing with the issue at the receiving end, Swedish law enforcement cooperates with local authorities in Thailand, the Philippines and Eastern Europe. But the most important work has to be done at home, where the young girls work alongside older women who were often trafficked children when they started here.

Since 1999 Sweden has had a law that hits at the demand side. It prohibits the purchase of sexual services. Without demand there would be much less supply. Prostitutes are not punished, only the men. The reason for that law, as Detective Inspector Trolle, head of the Trafficking Commission of the Stockholm police, explains it, is “because prostitutes are the vulnerable ones in any sexual transaction.”

The penalties for convicted men are not that severe. More important is the shame, when their families, friends and work colleagues learn of the transgression. They are paying a high price for their sexual appetite. This is the first law of its kind. Norway and Iceland have since emulated it.

Trolle estimates that one out of fourteen Swedish males have bought sex at least once in their lives. The men come from all classes, all age groups and married or not. “Some are addicted to sex. Some do it because they seek power over a woman.” Every other buyer of sex is married or in a relationship, and some 40% have children.

When the law was introduced it was controversial. It criminalizes an old-age right to look at women’s bodies as if they were goods to be bought or sold. Even many women went along with the old practice- perhaps blithely assuming it is not their man who would ever look for a prostitute.

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To measure Sweden’s success one should compare it with the easy going attitude of the government in Holland (although this is beginning to change with some brothels and sex shops being closed down). Holland has 20,000 prostitutes and there is no penalty for prostitution. The Dutch have long argued that it is best to keep it over ground than underground.

The Swedish legislation does work. Cases of street prostitution have fallen by more than half, although trafficking on the net has increased the numbers again.

Before Sweden’s ban, street prostitution and the trafficking of minors was about the same in all three Scandinavian countries. But after Sweden introduced its law Norway and Denmark found they had three times as many prostitutes as Sweden.

Not penalising the young woman or the teenage girls but punishing the men in a very visible way brings some significant success. Why don’t other countries come and take a look at how they do it in Sweden?



Copyright © 2010 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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