Open Windows

What was
her life’s journey that led her
to living in a brothel?

First Person

TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ 

Executive Director, CATW, USA

January 1st, 2021

 

A lawyer by profession, Taina Bien-Aimé is the Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and a founding member of Equality Now. An influential figure, Ms Bien-Aimé is committed to eradicating human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. Ms Bien-Aimé is the recipient of the Susan B. Anthony Award, the Phoenix Award and NYU Law Alumni Association Award for Distinguished Service in the Public Interest.

 

In the Name of Equality

 

“I dream a dream that dreams back at me”

Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize for Literature

 

Seventy-two years ago, the international community, ravaged by the horrors of World War II gathered at the newly formed United Nations to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A first in history, this Declaration codified an aspirational plan for governments to protect the fundamental rights inherent to us all by virtue of our birth.

Few documents ring with more urgency today than this 1948 Declaration. In the US and across the world, people are calling on their states to invest in racial justice and equal opportunities for Black Americans. The memory of George Floyd murdered on videotape by the police is igniting a social revolution not seen in decades. The lives of countless other Black Americans, including women like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland, were violently cut short at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes.

The 1948 Declaration launched a series of international treaties covering social, economic, cultural, political, and civil rights that governments are bound to uphold.  Bound to ensure that humans enjoy freedom of expression and movement; the right to an education, food, and decent work; and to live a life free from violence and discrimination.  A global human rights movement was born, fighting to hold states answerable to their promises.

Who was left out of these ambitious goals recognizing rights as universal, inalienable, and indivisible were women and girls. Laws and cultures, from the Northern seas to Southern deserts, from the Western shores to Eastern islands, all declared that the horrors that happened to women and girls sidestepped the human rights framework and governments’ political will.

For as long as history has been recorded, neither the state nor society has been kind to women and girls.

Today, one in three women will have experienced abuse and sexual violence in her lifetime. Fifty percent of women killed worldwide were murdered by their intimate partners or families. On any given spot on a map, a girl can be murdered at birth for the sorrow she brings; genitally mutilated to secure her chastity until marriage; legally raped in “child marriage”; fed less than her brothers; bartered for cows or sacks of rice; sold to the highest bidder in the sex trade or commercial surrogacy; or burned as a widow for her newfound uselessness. The cases abound, not that violence and dehumanization discriminate when it strikes, but a particular brand of misery is reserved for girls and women.

Femicide remains a global, unattended crisis.

In remote villages and before courts of law, women fought hard against this exclusion from a human rights framework. They fought to prove that abuses, steeped in religion, culture and tradition, that happen to women and girls because they were born female, were not outside of what we understood to be human rights.

It wasn’t until 1993, forty-five years after the Declaration, that the United Nations declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”

Progress has been made. Women lead states, command army battalions and head multi-national corporations. Domestic violence, rape and FGM are internationally recognized as offenses worthy of consideration. Nevertheless, state-sanctioned male and societal violence and discrimination against the “second sex” reigns in myriad forms.

Sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are such examples that lend themselves to femicide. No country needs a name when every country commodifies its women, sanctioning and profiting from the marketplaces of prostitution, pornography, or reproductive commercial surrogacy, from the streets to online platforms.

Some believe that sex trafficking and prostitution are two different phenomena. The latter, the proponents of the sex trade say, could be a choice, the result of empowered decision, a job like any other.  What they fail to see is that the sex trade is where sex trafficking occurs; they are inextricably linked.

Sex trafficking is simply a vehicle through which traffickers and pimps bring their victims to a destination where sex buyers can enrich them. Every drop of profit that the multi-billion-dollar global sex trade makes is generated by sex buyers, who are indifferent to how the merchandise landed under them, sex trafficked or not, minors or not. As the demand for prostitution is encouraged and rises, so does traffickers’ aggressive search for vulnerable and marginalized human beings.

Before we can agree as to whether men’s purported right to paid sexual access to female bodies is a form of labour, a few questions surface.  What was her life’s journey that led her to living in a brothel? Who brought her to the strip club or enlisted her in the escort agency? To whom is she indebted? Which choices was she given in life that secured her bodily integrity, home safety, an education, and employment through which she could grow? Once mired in the inherently violent prostitutional system, how does she exit?

Sex buyers have no interest in these questions, but we should.

As we ponder over criminal justice reform and the role of governments in digging deep into the causes and consequences of discrimination, we must go back to the principles of the 1948 Declaration when it comes to addressing prostitution and sex trafficking.

Sweden did so in 1999, when it passed a law that recognizes prostitution as a human rights violation and gender-based discrimination.  Grounded in the lived experiences of those surviving and the survivors of prostitution, the law recognizes that the purchased, who are mostly women, need services rather than arrests; housing rather than imprisonment, economic empowerment rather than sexual violence as a means of survival. The law also ensures that the pillars of the sex trade, the sex buyers and exploiters, are held responsible for the pervasive harm they cause and the crimes they commit.

Equally important is that the law promises to transform harmful cultural attitudes into societal understanding that if women are deemed commodities to be consumed at will and for profit, equality will always evade us.

Seven countries have followed Sweden in legally recognizing the system of prostitution as destructive of any efforts to dismantle inequalities borne of sex, gender, race, class, and socio-economic disenfranchisement. If any government has interest in confronting historical and systemic failures, the Equality Model, as this legal framework is sometimes called, is a key tool toward realizing human rights for all, especially for women and girls.

Taina Bien-Aimé

 

Learn more about Taina Bien-Aimé and visit her twitter handle.

 

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