Clara Berglund (Swedish Women's Lobby), Luis Lineo (MÄN), Zandra Kanakaris and Olga Persson (Unizon).

Sida ignores prostitution


The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, has stopped all aid to Oxfam while an internal enquiry into how the agency has failed is being carried out. This is a response to the case of the former Oxfam official who paid to exploit women and possibly children in the countries where he was stationed. We hope that the agency will take this opportunity to review the way in which Swedish aid can contribute to a world free from prostitution. Sida must guarantee that the understanding of prostitution as a form of men’s violence against women will permeate every aspect of the agency’s work, from steering documents and training to deciding which efforts are to receive funding. 

It is a serious, if not uncommon, fact that men buy sex. The colonial, racist and sexist aspects of this become particularly clear when men employed by Western aid organisations exploit the women and girls whose rights the aid is intended to strengthen. But what is even more serious is that Sida, with its position of power within the global aid arena, is failing the very women and girls who are bought in prostitution by men such as the Oxfam official.

Over the years, we have observed in Sida a tendency to ignore prostitution in its own work, despite the agency’s strong focus on gender-based violence, equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). We are deeply concerned that Sida is moving towards a view of prostitution as a type of work (sex work), which would mean a significant move away from feminist foreign policy’s view of prostitution as a form of exploitation and men’s violence against women.  Research has shown that the way in which prostitution is described in policies and strategies is crucial to the work on the ground.  If prostitution is not understood as violence and exploitation, why should we then support women who want to exit prostitution and work to stop men buying sex?

Central UN conventions and protocols such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the Palermo protocols declare that women have the right to receive support to exit prostitution, that states must work to counter all types of exploitation of women and children in prostitution, and that there is a link between prostitution and gender-based violence. These international documents are, like the Swedish position, the points of departure for a feminist foreign policy.  In its action plan for a feminist foreign policy, the Foreign Service describes prostitution as a barrier that prevents women and girls from benefitting fully from their human rights. According to the plan, measures to counter prostitution are to include information about the Swedish legislation on the purchase of sexual services. While the Foreign Service and Sida have different roles, their views on central issues such as women’s rights should be unanimous.

Men who buy women and girls for sex in the global sex industry, and the human trafficking that exists to satisfy the demand, is one of the most serious expressions of men’s violence against women.  It is also one of the questions where women’s rights activists meet most resistance.  They stand with the most vulnerable women and children, against one of the world’s strongest economies and industries, in a world where even male aid workers buy sex.  If Sweden does not take the lead against the global sex trade also within the framework for international development cooperation, then who will?  

Unfortunately, there are times when Sida takes the view that prostitution can be considered an occupation and one which can even empower women, and its actions are thus contradictory. This is apparent in the agency’s choice of educational materials, collaboration partners and even to some extent in their terminology. It is also visible when the agency defends the giving of Swedish aid to international players who promote the legalisation of brothels and the purchase of sexual services, instead of presenting a clear strategy for also supporting action to abolish prostitution.

Unizon and the Swedish Women’s Lobby are part of the international women’s rights movement, whose organisations work with women and girls in prostitution. In our meetings with sister organisations from the global south we are met by astonishment and frustration over the fact that Swedish aid goes to players who counter their work to end prostitution. Unizon and the Swedish Women’s Lobby have repeatedly attempted to point out this disparity, but to no avail. Sida talks about shrinking spaces for women’s organisations in other parts of the world, yet does not listen to the knowledge and criticism of the Swedish women’s rights movement.   

The answers we have been given are along the lines that views on whether prostitution is a good or a bad thing vary around the world and that Sida cannot take a stance. This is despite the fact that Sida clearly follows Sweden’s position in other similar questions.  Swedish aid does not, for example, go to movements lobbying to legalise rape within marriage, against abortion or against the rights of LGBTQ individuals.  Sida’s actions have consequences not only for Swedish aid organisations but also for their international partners, whose activities are affected by the focus of their aid donors as outlined in policies and documents. It is deeply regrettable that Sida, of all agencies, lacks courage, knowledge and a strategy with regard to the enormous problem the global sex trafficking of women and girls constitutes.

Sida reacted decisively in response to the media’s revelations that Oxfam staff had paid for sex. We call on Sida to show the same resolve in the future when it comes to naming prostitution as a form of men’s violence against women in policies and documents, and to further increase their support to women’s organisations that work to end prostitution by means of legislation, support work and advocacy. Sweden and Sida must stand unwaveringly with women and girls in their right not to be bought and sold in prostitution.

Clara Berglund, Secretary General Sveriges Kvinnolobby
Zandra Kanakaris, Chair Unizon
Luis Lineo, Chair MÄN organisationen
Olga Persson, Secretary General Unizon