HRC – Press conference: UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls - 24 June 2024
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HRC – Press conference: UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls - 24 June 2024

Briefing from the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls on the reports to the 56th session of the Human Rights Council


  • Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences


Good afternoon and welcome to
United Nations in Geneva.
Welcome to this press conference with Reem al
Three years ago, the Human Rights Council appointed Ms Al
Salm to carry out the mandate of the
special rapporteur on violence against Women and girls,
its causes and consequences.
as it happens, this year marks the 30th anniversary of this important mandate.
Ms. Alim
is an independent consultant on gender issues, the rights of refugees, migrants,
transitional justice
and humanitarian response.
She consulted extensively with the United Nations departments,
agencies and programmes such as UN women,
the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights,
the International Organisation for Migration
as well as non governmental organisations, think tanks and academia.
Ms. Alm
worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
as an international civil servant in 13 countries
where she planned implemented and monitored programmes
that serve to protect survivors of gender based violence,
particularly women and girls.
On Friday just gone, Ms Al Salm
presented her latest report to the council with the
theme of prostitution and violence against women and girls.
Uh, she will now make a short statement,
and after this we will take questions
just a reminder. Please state your name and your media
and miss as
you have the floor. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
Thank you. Also, for all journalists and media that have joined us as was mentioned,
I presented my report on violence against women and girls and prostitution.
I chose to present the report on this issue for a number of reasons,
one of them being my concern about the increased
commodification of the sexual and reproductive functions of women
and its normalisation in society and the wide reaching harm that it
has on gender equality but also relations between men and women.
And the other reason I chose to this subject is because
so far we have not had in the UN a comprehensive
study or report on the human rights
consequences of prostitution.
There are different reports on parts of the issue,
but there hasn't been a comprehensive one,
and it has certainly not been analysed in relation to human rights standards.
So this report or in preparation for this report, I presented a call for input.
I want to assure everyone that
there was
lot of engagement on the report.
I was very pleased to see that I received 300 submissions in response
to the call for input in which 60 countries were mentioned that cover
seven geographical regions.
And I also personally held seven consultations with 86 persons that represent
women with lived experiences in prostitution,
some of them that have exited for that group.
I even held one consultation
that was specifically with them dedicated to them.
But then the rest were civil society organisations where
NGOs were experts,
UN agencies,
et cetera.
So in the report,
I categorically conclude that prostitution is a
system of inequality and discrimination based on sex
and other intersecting grounds,
which affects a woman's ability to achieve equality.
Three groups of actors take part in the system of exploitation and abuse,
individuals who are usually men and boys who buy sexual acts.
The victims, usually women and girls who are bought to satisfy these sexual acts,
and third parties who organise or profit
or benefit from prostituting women and girls.
The term prostitution system is what I feel adequately and correctly reflects
my finding that prostitution is intrinsically linked to
different forms of violence against women and girls,
and that constitutes a form of violence in and of itself.
So within that I also define and understand pornography to
be a part of prostitution in that it is filmed prostitution
and I dedicate also extensive parts of the report to it.
Terminology was a main focus of this report and you will see that
I use the terms prostituted women and girls rather than sex worker.
I also use the term exploitation of prostitution of women and girls
rather than sex work because they align with international human rights law
and because the terms sex work and sex worker
sanitise and hide the harms experienced by women and girls.
Most of the women and girls with lived experiences
also reject these terms sex work and sex worker
because in their view and according to them,
it gaslights them.
It gaslights their experience and experience of extreme
violence and violations of their fundamental human rights.
As I say in my report,
the development of prostitution systems
is heavily influenced by patriarchal norms
and the accompanying abuse of power and sexual demand by men,
and it is exacerbated in recent decades by
globalisation where everything can be bought and sold.
It is exacerbated by economic inequalities conflict, occupation,
increased militarization, destruction of ecosystems by extractive industries,
the legacies of colonialism,
war complex emergencies and humanitarian consequences.
All which result in the further marginalisation
and forced displacement of women and girls.
Women and girls face multiple and
intersecting forms of discrimination and equalities,
and therefore are amongst the most susceptible to enter,
engage or remain in prostitution and therefore also
are among the most exposed to violence.
I also present example on how prostitution thrives on sexualizing and racial
poverty, targeting women,
particularly those from minorities and marginalised backgrounds.
So I say how it sexualize, for example, black women, Asian
women and also
depends very much on a steady inflow and
sort of disposal availability of migrant women.
As a result, prostituted women and girls often have irregular status,
no access to effective assistance,
protection services or livelihood opportunities,
and collectively,
all these conditions increase their risk of further exploitation,
sexual assault and coercion.
In a nutshell.
Prostitution results in egregious human rights violations and
multiple forms of violence against women and girls,
where they are often dehumanised and perceived as persons without human rights.
It violates the rights of women and girls to dignity, privacy,
freedom of movement and the right to form a family.
These acts often constitute torture in human and degrading treatment,
and they constitute physical, psychological and economic forms of violence,
both online and offline.
The perceived right of men to purchase a sex act
normalises the systematic violence inflicted on women through prostitution,
including in pornography,
because it erases the boundaries between what counts
as sex and what counts as sexual violence.
And it has far reaching impact on shaping the sexual expectations of men and boys.
the equal participation of women in society
becomes impossible to achieve when we normalise prostitution
as it is fundamentally based on inequality between men and women.
Digitally facilitated prostitution also promotes trafficking of
women and girls for sexual exploitation.
In the report,
I also review the different legal and policy
models adopted by states that exist on prostitution.
There are states that have a prohibition approach.
Many of them that actually don't even acknowledge that
prostitution exists prefer to turn away from it.
There is the regulation approach,
there is the decriminalisation approach and then there is the abolition approach.
I believe that reviewing applicable international standards,
particularly those relating to the duty not
to discriminate against women and girls,
the right to dignity,
their duty to protect from violence as well as protect Children from violence.
I believe that the best model that we have available in order to
improve the prevention and response to
violence against women and girls in prostitution
is actually the abolitionist model
otherwise known as the equality model.
I also call on states, therefore, to recognise prostitution,
including pornography, as a system of exploitation and violence.
And I remind states of the responsibilities to abolish laws that allow,
tolerate or condone the violence and exploitation
of women and girls in prostitution,
including pornography.
The abolitionist model, or equality model, has five pillars,
which I'm briefly going to mention
and thereby also say why it is the most the best model available. First of all,
it relies on decriminalising women and girls in prostitution,
meaning considering them as victims.
Second is to provide them comprehensive support and exit pathways.
Third, and this is really important,
which is to criminalise the purchase of sexual acts
in order to address the issue of demand,
because until we address the issue of demand for sexual acts,
we will not be able to abolish prostitution.
Then there is also the criminalization of all forms of pimping
and finally implementing sanitization campaigns for sexual acts. Buyers.
I do believe that when we refer to prostitution and human rights based
terminology and language must be used at all times to describe it.
We must prevent also the weaponization of anti
trafficking policies to avoid addressing this issue of prostitution
as a form of violence against women and
girls by creating a harmful and artificial disassociation between
so called quote unquote forced prostitution
assimilated to trafficking from so called quote
unquote free prostitution assimilated
to sex work. And in fact, as you will see in the report
and as international human rights Law says, the
concept of consent in the situation of prostitution is
irrelevant because these are situations of extreme abuse exploitation
and therefore we cannot speak really of consent in such conditions.
So I will stop here and I'm happy to answer any questions.
Thank you,
for your statement. Now we're ready to start taking questions.
Are there any for the special rapporteur?
Uh, yes. Over here.
Uh, just before you speak, can you just say who you are and who you represent.
Thank you.
Yeah, Paula, you probably
be some a a freelance journalist.
Um, I, uh, wanted to ask you. Well, the first of all,
uh, if I was late, it's because there's another event.
Um, that's taking place,
uh, in another room, presenting the opposite. Um,
argument. Um, I just wanted to understand a little bit better. I mean,
prostitution has been around for as long as humanity has been around.
And and I think that there have been attempts to perhaps legalise in the past, um,
which have not been successful.
What the what?
People are arguing.
Um, other people are arguing is that,
uh, the,
by decriminalising you're actually giving women
all all rights? Um, that
you seem to say they would not have through de decriminalise
Um, I'm just wondering exactly what
you know. How you,
uh would like to address,
um, the fundamental issues.
I mean, how how those fundamental issues should be addressed.
I mean, in the end, it's an issue of of poverty. These women are actually,
uh, they may not have, uh, other options,
uh, to to to, you know, to to make a living.
Uh, so yeah,
I'd like to to understand a little bit how you'd
like to like to address those sort of more fundamental issues
in in a time Where,
uh both you know, countries, states as well as,
um organisations that may be helping uh, women, uh
are, uh, challenged in terms of, uh resources.
Yes, Thank you for that question.
So you made reference to a side event that is happening where
civil society groups,
at least some of them are advocating for complete
legalisation of all aspects of prostitution and decriminalisation.
I wish to highlight that ahead of my report I actually consulted with a wide range of
of civil society organisations and as I said,
women with experience with lived experience
the vast majority of
organisations and actors I engaged with do favour
the equality model that I spoke about.
In fact,
within this proposal there are things that we agree on
with those advocating for legalising all aspects of prostitution.
There are two things that we agree on Actually one is that the women
themselves should be decriminalised, meaning they should not be
put in prison. They should not have a criminal record.
They should not be treated as criminals shouldn't be deported.
They should be treated as victims
and by referring to them as victims. We are actually
we are not saying anything degrading.
We are saying that they have
experienced fundamental violations of their human rights
and that they are entitled to reparations. They are entitled to justice,
they are entitled to assistance and they are entitled to protection
and they are also entitled to participate fully
in designing solutions to their own issues.
So we agree on that.
Also, based on the input I have received,
those advocating for legalising all aspects of prostitution agree
that violence often happens in context of prostitution,
so there is no disagreement on that
It is important, of course. I understand that there is underlying causes for why
women and Children
enter prostitution,
are en trapped on prostitution and then also find
it extremely difficult to leave even if they want.
One of them is the threats,
the control by pimps and those that benefit prostitution.
Other causes are, as you rightly mentioned,
the fact that often they have no other alternatives for livelihood.
However, that does not mean that we should then
condone it as in pretend that the immense violence and suffering the
experience in prostitution is not something that needs to be dealt with,
and the equality model proposes a way forward to dealing with
it in a way that puts the victim at the centre,
which is, as I said, the victim is you find a victim, you help the victim.
You don't harm the victim,
but you have to start addressing the demand. If we don't address the demand,
it will continue to exist, will continue to be normalised.
And as the report shows,
there is a direct relationship between normalising the buying of sexual act acts
and other problems in relations between men
and women in sexual exploitation expectations,
including by boys.
And also it gives it gives more room for
pimps and those benefiting to continue to operate.
As I have said in my report,
it is a problem that we try to make a distinction between prostitution
that happens in the context of trafficking and prostitution.
That happens sort of or suggesting that that what happens outside and
to treat to deal with the
forced prostitution through anti trafficking legislation,
anti trafficking legislation and efforts have shown to have
failed in really protecting women in saving women in,
uh, cracking down on pimps in, uh, in in also,
um, uh, ho holding everyone and all industry, all those that benefit from
the exploitation of women accountable.
Uh, and and trafficking is not the only human rights lens.
We have to also look exactly at the experience,
and it's horrendous things that happen to women.
So even those women that may have entered not doing the full
consequence of what this entails quickly find out the full consequence.
But by the time they find out, it is impossible to leave with huge,
huge ramifications for their physical health for their
their lives, their life of their Children
and also
their psychological well being. So
so yeah,
So we cannot also let states off the hook by pretending
that this is normal and that this should be normalised.
States have a responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable of their society.
We always talk about not leaving
We understand that gender equality is necessary
for the development and prosperity of nations,
so we cannot let states off the hook,
particularly when some states are adamant to even benefit from
the exploitation and abuse of women and girls by taxing
women and girls and prostitution.
Thank you, Nina.
Thank you. Uh, Nina Larson. A FP.
So just, um, a follow up on what you were just talking about.
Um I know there are, uh, people who are in prostitution who say that they choose to be,
uh, to do so,
um, what do you say to them? And then also the issue of, uh, criminalization.
Um uh, of the The men are in this situation.
Uh, there.
There have been worries about that driving,
driving this underground and making it more difficult to detect.
So if you had, uh, thoughts on that issue
and I had a separate question, um,
you mentioned, um pro,
uh, sorry. Pornography and, uh, the expectations among, uh,
young men. And I guess also, girls perhaps, uh uh, what their sexual Expecta
expectations are.
Could you, uh, address the issue of pornography in the context of, um,
of the Internet, where it's where, you know, it's become much more prevalent.
And, um, what you sort of see,
in the case of, uh, young people growing up today, uh,
if you think you know How big a problem do you think
that is for young people today? Thank you.
Yeah. Thank you. Um,
as I said in the council earlier this morning, of course, organisations that
claim to speak on behalf of women and girls and
prostitution there are those that represent those with lived experiences.
But there is also a group amongst them
that represent the interests of pimps
and traffickers and businesses that benefit from prostitution.
Because in addition to prostitution being a system of exploitation,
it's also a business model.
It has shown to have attracted and led to the proliferation
also of other illegal and criminal activities like money laundering,
trafficking in human beings, et cetera.
So it is. It brings profit. And I think this is the main issue, that
it's the elephant in the room. We know that
prostituting women and girls is an issue that brings about profit.
And therefore we have to take also
everything we hear you know, with a pinch of salt
and also
acknowledge that
when it comes to designing
policies, for example, around prostitution,
some groups that represent
women and girls that are victims survivors that
wish to follow the abolitionist model that I've just spoken about
that. Do not agree with the legalisation of all aspects of prostitution.
Get sidelines, get attacked. Do not get invited to these policy discussions.
They are not tied to powerful lobbies with a lot of money.
And so when you know when I'm asked such as was the case in the morning,
you have to make sure that you speak to all those that have been affected.
I am doing that precisely because
this consultation and this report actually offered
the opportunity for voices that are usually shunned and undermined, to be heard
and to come forward and to speak about what they also would like to
to be done about this.
I have reviewed the models and I have reviewed the data
that is available on the consequences of the different policy models.
And I would disagree that the equality model,
based on what we have seen in terms of results in France, in Sweden, in
in a number of countries that have applied
this equality model that I have mentioned to you
has resulted in an increase in the problem on the contrary,
in fact,
legalising all aspects of prostitution is what leads to
the flourishing of pimping leads to the flourishing of demand
leads to the flourishing of violence and
and the continued abuse of women within that context also continues.
So we have to look at the data. I have published
the vast majority of the input that I have received ahead of this consultation.
There are now around I think, 280 pieces of input received.
And you and others can see for yourself the amount of data that exists
to describe the different models and
and and the outcome of those Yeah.
Yeah, um,
follow up on that.
I just I would be interested if if you could, uh,
you mentioned a few countries if you could, uh,
provide us with some examples of the
different other countries in the different categories.
Um, and then also, I had a second part of my question, which you didn't answer,
which was on pornography.
Uh, thank you. Yes, Absolutely.
Uh, So I, um
wanted to also say, actually,
before I get to pornography that I came to this report with a very open mind.
In fact,
I was one of those that had used the term sex work in the past.
In fact, in the context of two reports,
of course, as experts,
we cannot be expected to be on top or profoundly
know every single issue we're going to write about.
But just to say that I came to it really without any predisposed positions.
But I have to also listen to the evidence and listen to the victims and
have come therefore to the conclusion that this
is not the right terminology with regards to pornography
again, a very eye opening aspect of the report.
Also, because of its immense normalisation
in society,
we are seeing actually very concerning,
wide unlimited access by particularly, I would say, adolescents to pornography.
And many of the young boys and girls
get the information on sexual activity from Point,
which again is a business model
which is based, which also thrives on
bringing in new elements, you know,
but also in the hope of keeping their users
hooked and interested and come back for more.
Uh, it's becoming also more and more violent.
So you have a situation where in particular, uh, young adolescent males
uh uh, boys, but also men are therefore consuming pornography
that is becoming more and more violent where you know, things such as,
um, choking is normalised defecation.
Uh, gagging. I mean, really things that put the lives of women and girls at risk.
So as a result, girls are being asked also more and more to do things that are
that they are uncomfortable with. They are increasingly sexualized and porn.
there is evidence to show also that a number of sex offenders
in a number of countries are becoming more and more younger.
I think in the last few months we've heard of two gang rapes in
Belgium, for example, I'm also a Belgian citizen. So I follow the news in Belgium
in the UK. I think there has been also,
you know, reports showing that
the young adolescents are becoming also
offenders involved in sexual rape and abuse of
of girls. And, uh,
it's a world that is,
uh is becoming is therefore becoming more
and more dangerous for girls and is shaping
really the the relations between, uh uh yeah, yeah.
Ma males and females, men and, uh, and women.
Uh, Paula, did you have a follow up?
Actually, I'm just thinking I, I just wanted to give my my colleagues
a chance to ask questions. But,
you know, on the issue of economic need, I don't think you answered that, Uh,
you know that part of my question either.
I have in the sense that
one of the pillars of the Equality model is
that you also have to provide women with appropriate exit
relevant exit modalities, so
you have to give them assistance and support.
You have to give them support in housing.
But interestingly enough, also,
many of the women need also psychological and medical support.
Often when it comes to medical assistance, we talk a lot
about HIV AIDS and harm reduction in HIV AIDS.
But a lot of these women are addicted, unfortunately,
to be able to deal with the reality to drugs to alcohol.
They, as I said, are suffering from immense trauma
and so there needs to be a web of immediate support.
First, in order to allow women to make also
decisions about whether you know they can exit, you have to also support them in,
you know, training,
providing them alternative livelihood measures.
So all these are programmes that have to be put
in place in order to help women exit prostitution.
It's not enough to say that you are decriminalised.
You have to be provided with alternatives. And
all the women I've spoken to have said that if they had other
viable alternatives for themselves and their Children, because in the end,
why do they have to do that?
Many of them do this also because they need to feed their Children.
They need to take care of family. There is no other alternatives.
Some of them get forced into it, obviously because of war and conflict, et cetera,
and abuse of.
But there are women who have to do this because
of being impoverished because of having no other livelihood opportunity.
But it's the easy way out for states, then to say, Well, this is the reality.
This has been around for God knows how long
and it will continue to exist and then sit back and do nothing about it.
And I am trying to challenge this normalisation.
Thank you for that. Um
and, uh,
yes. There's a question over here. Thank you.
Thank you so much. My name is Mohammed from Turkey's another
Thank you for the brief.
My question is
was wondering what would you like to say about
the situation of women and girls in Gaza?
Did you
include them
in your report? Also specifically after especially 7
So my report didn't speak about women and girls in Gaza specifically,
but in the section that looks at the causes of violence causes of prostitution.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, obviously conflicts
dire humanitarian settings
contribute also to
women and girls being entrapped in
trafficking, being en trapped in prostitution, slavery,
forced marriages. We see all this proliferate in situations of conflict.
Any more questions in the room?
Ok, any questions online for the special rapporteur?
Ok, I see none.
So with that I will draw close to this press conference and
give my thanks to Ms Al
and hope to see you all following the council which concludes we hope on July 12th.
Thank you. Thank you so much.