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Article on Sex Trafficking

It is the prejudice which women face in many parts of the world, their lack of rights and control over their own bodies and lives which helps create the conditions where sex trafficking can flourish.

I remain doubtful about blanket calls to criminalise men who pay for sex. I understand the motivation. I am simply not sure just how effective or practical such a change in the law would be or whether it would increase protection for vulnerable women.

I am, however, in no doubt that the Government is absolutely right to step up efforts, as was announced recently to tackle the trafficking of women into Britain for the sex trade. And that means ensuring men face up to the consequences of what they are doing.

I simply don’t see how you can believe a woman is giving consent to sex if it is clear on a visit to some massage parlour that she speaks little or no English. In these cases, it is both common sense and common humanity to turn around, leave and notify the authorities. If you don’t, then the Home Secretary is absolutely right that ignorance can be no defence.

The stark truth is that, up and down the country today, men don’t bother asking themselves these difficult questions. It’s about time they were made to think more seriously about their behaviour, the impact on the women involved and their role in supporting international gangsters.

It is the nature of the crime, of course, that we will never know just how many women are tricked or smuggled into this country for the sex trade. But the police believe 70% of the many thousands of women involved in prostitution are controlled by traffickers. It’s also a scandal which takes places on our doorsteps in pretty much every community in the land.

It is both shaming and shocking that this modern slave trade is thriving in the UK. It is, after all, only a couple of years since we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the ending of the Atlantic Slave Trade. I believe William Wilberforce and his fellow campaigners would be appalled that they fought so hard to abolish one form of slavery only to find it re-invented for the 21st century.

Like the slave trade, trafficking is big business and taking place on a huge scale. Millions of people are kidnapped, sold by relatives or tricked with false promises of a better life elsewhere. Across the world, it is estimated that there might be as many as 2.5 million people at any one time who are victims. With estimated profits of some $32 billion a year, the United Nations estimates that only the smuggling of drugs and guns is a more lucrative international crime than trafficking.

It is also global in its scope. There is hardly a country which is not a source, transit point or destination for trafficked men and women. The trade takes place across continents but also within countries where hundreds of thousands of people live in servitude.

I doubt whether I was the only person who read with mounting disbelief about the case of Hadijatou Mani. This courageous woman won an historic judgement against the Government of Niger for failing to protect her against slavery.

It was not just her horrifying personal history - sold into slavery at 12, taken away from her family, repeatedly raped and even imprisoned for bigamy when she tried to escape - which shocked. It was the graphic which illustrated the story which coldly itemised country by country the number of people held in slavery in West Africa alone. You don’t forget figures like one million people held as inheritable property in Mauritania.

Nor should there be any surprise that it was a woman who suffered so badly. Men, women and children can all be the victims of the traffickers. But girls and women make up the majority. It is not just that women are obviously the main victims of trafficking for the sex trade. Women also make up the majority of those trafficked to work in factories, as farm labourers and as household servants.

Slavery, like global poverty, wears a women’s face. Indeed, they are very closely linked. For it is the prejudice which women face in many parts of the world, their lack of rights and control over their own bodies and lives which helps create the conditions where trafficking can flourish.

Women - and children - are the key target group of the traffickers exactly because of their marginalisation, their poverty and their exclusion from employment and educational opportunities. It is why the fight for women’s rights is so important for the battle against trafficking and explains how I have become involved with the Stop the Traffik initiative, a global coalition which has united campaign groups in 50 countries.

The more in-roads that can be made into the culture where women and girls are still seen as commodities or possessions and lacking the worth of their male counterparts, the more this evil trade will be undermined. If access, for example, to education is improved for girls, the more opportunities they will have and the better chance of limiting their vulnerability to the false promises of the traffickers.

But we also action now at international and Government level to crack down on the traffickers as well as making this crime a high priority for the police across the world. The law, as Hadijatou Mani has shown, can also play a major role in shaming Governments to protect their people as well as bringing the traffickers to justice.

We must remember, however, that it was a mass campaign which finally stopped the transatlantic slave trade. We need to show the same anger and commitment to combat the modern day slavers. Exposing the reality of what is happening in the so called massage parlours on our doorsteps and forcing those who use them to face up to the realities of “consent” of those they pay to abuse is certainly a start.