Criminalising all men who purchase sex in Northern Ireland would have a definite impact on human trafficking here, it is claimed.
Gunilla Ekberg was special advisor on prostitution and human trafficking to the Swedish government when it criminalised buying sex in 1999. She is also a barrister and social worker who has worked with some 1,600 women.
Yesterday she briefed Stormont’s Justice Committee on Lord Morrow’s bill, which would criminalise the purchase of sex if approved by the Assembly.
“There is no particular attraction for human traffickers and pimps in Sweden since 1999,” she said. “We have hard evidence for this in the official evaluation from 2008-10.
“Men who use these women are now concerned about appearing in court because it could damage their role in their communities. These men are from all walks of life and are usually in committed relationships.”
Lord Morrow’s bill would not drive prostitution underground because gangs still need to advertise women, she argued.
Justice Minister David Ford strongly opposes the criminalisation of buyers, and a leading PSNI officer is saying the law would be too difficult to enforce and would scare off users of prostitution who report suspicions of trafficking.
But Gunilla said that proving the offence is easy, with over 3,000 convictions in Sweden to date, using email and phone records as evidence.
Statistics from the Netherlands show only a tiny minority of men who use prostitution report suspicions of trafficking, while Irish government research found the same – but also found that men normally use the woman for sex before alerting police, she added.
The vast majority of women in prostitution are recruited from countries where they are in desperate poverty. Very few enter voluntarily, she said.
“We cannot make policies on the basis of a miniscule percentage of vocal people,” she said. “Prostitution is normally a harmful and violent experience.”
She drew a comparison between a pimp controlling a woman to a man inflicting domestic violence on his partner.
“Battered women will not admit the terrible situation they are in when they are in it. But they do once they have left it – just like prostitution.”