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International law defines prostitution as a human rights violation

Submission of the Scelles Foundation in the consultation of opinion on the approach of UN Women concerning the sexual work, the sex trade and prostitution.

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For 23 years, the Scelles Foundation has been working towards understanding, combating, and expanding their knowledge of sexual exploitation. It has a large resource centre which has more than 5000 reference documents and which dispenses its information through a wide abolitionist network both in France and abroad. Every two years, the Foundation publishes a global report regarding the current state of prostitution in each of the countries that they work with. It outlines key themes that are a part of the larger system of prostitution worldwide. Each year, the Scelles Foundation provides awards for young people who have committed themselves to fighting sexual exploitation. The Scelles Foundation is a Cap International member and co-founder.



Question 1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?

International law defines prostitution as a human rights violation, a fact which the Scelles Foundation is in accordance with. Prostitution is incompatible with human dignity and human rights. Universal Human rights cannot be achieved unless this common understanding is respected and upheld.


-        Prostitution is indeed incompatible with articles 3 and 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

-        The United Nations Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (1949) of 2 December 1949 adopted by its General Assembly states says in its preamble that “Prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person”.

-        The United Nations 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) asks states to “take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women”.


It should be emphasized that these texts, which the majority of international law is founded on, never mention “sex work” because prostitution and its resultant exploitation cannot actually be considered to be work.


States are under a binding obligation to respect and to protect the dignity of human beings, which is the cornerstone of international human right law. When defining and implementing policies with regards to prostitution and its resultant exploitation, states must ensure that they work towards the elimination of prostitution and the protection of its victims.


Since the adoption of the General Assembly resolution 57/306 and the issuance of the Secretary General’s bulletin on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse (ST/SGB/2003/1023), measures have been put in place to address and prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by United Nations personnel.


In this bulletin, the Secretary General of the United Nations defined sexual abuse as any “actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature under unequal or coercive conditions”. The UNSG specifically targeted and prohibited the purchasing of sexual intercourse by UN personnel during the Special Bulletin explaining that the “Exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex is prohibited”.



Question 2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as

a)      reproductive rights

b)      women’s ownership of land and assets

c)       building peaceful and inclusive societies

d)      ending the trafficking of women

e)      eliminating violence against women.

How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?


People who are victims of sexual exploitation, trafficking or prostitution must have priority in the 17 targets of the 2030 UN agenda if we hope to ‘leave nobody behind’.

In order to achieve the targets and objectives identified in SDGs, we strongly recommend that states and international organizations promote the adoption of policies that:

Priority 1: repeal all forms of criminalization of prostituted persons and victims of trafficking for the purpose of prostitution.

Priority 2: criminalize all forms of pimping, procuring and trafficking in human beings and, thus, reject any attempt to decriminalize “acceptable” forms of pimping and procuring.

Priority 3: offer real alternatives and exit options for those being sold or selling sex and guarantee access to fundamental social rights such as; the right to housing, the right to a decent job, and the right to healthcare.

Priority 4: develop programs that provide access to justice, basic human rights and protection for prostituted persons and victims of human trafficking, including access to a residency permits for foreign victims, access to financial compensation for all victims, and access to effective protection as witnesses or victims.

Priority 5: criminalize the purchasing of sex and extend the prohibition on imposing sexual acts to acts imposed using physical, psychological, or financial means. Prohibiting the purchasing of sex is the most effective measure that states can implement to eliminate human trafficking and prostitution.

Priority 6: Develop policies of prevention and educationto promote equality and combat the commoditisation of the human body. Implement international information policies outlining the realities of prostitution and incorporating gender equality into the education system.



Question 3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

If we want to protect women in the sex trade “from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination” we have to end the trade itself.


Authorizing the purchase of, or selling access to, another person’s body reaffirms the established imbalances of power in sexual relationships; which is contrary to human dignity and universal human rights.


All around the world, the prostitution system feeds on inequalities and exploits them;

All around the world, the majority of the victims of trafficking are women and children;

All around the world, the majority of the people who exert financial dominance over the most destitute are men;

All around the world, prostitutes are victims of discrimination, sexual abuse, and physical and psychological violence;

All around the world, migrants fleeing conflict zones and people living in war zones become more and more vulnerable to prostitution and trafficking; 

All around the world, criminal networks, organized crime, traffickers, and pimps are the first to benefit from prostitution;

All around the world, the death rate of prostitutes sits well above the average death rate.


Prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation are thus inherently violent and harmful. The only way to protect women “from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination” is to end the sex trade. While doing so, States should immediately:

  • Stop any form of criminalization of prostituted persons themselves
  • Offer them protection, access to fundamental rights and exit options.
  • Put an end to the impunity of those who economically and sexually exploit women, men and children (traffickers, pimps, sex buyers)


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