Women’s Aid has described as “shocking” a report on prostitution commissioned by the Department of Justice.
And it has explained why it decided to dramatically announce the reasons for its resignation from the supervisory panel for the research - on the same day Justice Minister David Ford unveils its findings.
Mr Ford commissioned the research in April from a panel of academics led by Queens University Belfast (QUB). Women’s Aid, which cares for victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, were members of the advisory panel for the researchers.
Mr Ford wanted the research to address the debate over Lord Morrow’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill which will, if backed by MLAs next week, make it a criminal offence to buy sex from women in prostitution, viewing them as vulnerable victims.
Mr Ford has firmly opposed the move, citing concerns that it would make women in prostitution more vulnerable and arguing that his research would allow women in the sex trade to have their voices heard in the legislative process.
But now Women’s Aid, which has strongly backed the DUP bill, has slammed the research carried out by QUB for the minister.
The organisation says the QUB report is “deeply flawed and lacks a basic understanding of the links between prostitution, human trafficking and the spectrum of sexual exploitation that is taking place here in Northern Ireland. It is for this reason that Women’s Aid has withdrawn its name from the advisory committee for the research.
“As acknowledged experts on all forms of violence against women, with direct experience working with those who have been sexually abused and exploited both by strangers and intimate partners, we feel that this research is flawed, limited, and contains judgmental bias.
“We are concerned that the research is extremely limited in scale, and cannot present a true or reflective picture of prostitution and its links to sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. It has roundly failed to gather meaningful data on those working in prostitution in Northern Ireland.
“There is already a significant body of international evidence which shows the links between prostitution and sexual exploitation, and the dreadful problems that women in prostitution face. These include violence inflicted against them and severe addiction to alcohol or drugs, which often starts as a means of masking the horror of the life they are forced to live.
“Women’s Aid also has concerns about judgmental bias contained within the conclusions in the research. The report fails to recognise prostitution as a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls. Even by the research’s own limited statistics, it is obvious that women are pressured into prostitution when faced with desperate choices based on poverty and survival of their families.
“We are also extremely concerns that the report fails to identify certain types of informal prostitution as child sexual exploitation. Where the report acknowledges instances of ‘young people casually offering sexual services in return for phone credit or drugs’, there is no acknowledgment that such practices are clear evidence of child sexual exploitation.
“Overwhelming evidence shows that girls enter prostitution at a young age and are often victims of child sexual exploitation. In light of the recent cases of child sexual exploitation and grooming in Northern Ireland and throughout the UK, it is shocking that this study fails to make those links.”
The organisation said it is supported “by all major international and local women’s organisations” in recognising prostitution as “a fundamental abuse of women’s human rights”.
For this reason Women’s Aid said it was continuing to give its full support to the DUP bill being brought through the assembly by Lord Morrow, and in particular that aspect of it which will criminalise those who buy sexual services in Northern Ireland.
“This research has nothing to add to the debate – it cements the myths around prostitution as a benign career, and masks the horror of the abuse and degradation which is the reality for many in prostitution,” the organisation added.