This week, Britain's High Court is considering a case challenging the criminalisation and continued punishment of prostituted women, brought forward by several women who were pimped into prostitution as teenagers. If successful, the case will bring an end to the shameful practice of labelling and punishing victims of abuse and exploitation for something that was in a large part done to them.
The effect of prostitution-specific records on women regarding jobs, housing and family life is excessively disproportionate and damaging. Because prostitution records are often assumed to constitute “sexual offences”, women holding these records are typically barred from any jobs requiring enhanced DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks, which were introduced to help employers make safer recruitment decisions by identifying candidates who may be unsuitable for certain work with vulnerable groups - the majority of which are jobs disproportionately dominated by women, such as work with children or elderly.
Women are criminalized for having been in prostitution, yet these records trap women in prostitution even when they are working to exit it.
Most shockingly, women and girls who are bought, sold, coerced, controlled and exploited are then subjected to years of stigma, blame and marginalisation by these criminal records. Meanwhile, the men who bought, sold and used these women and girls rarely face any consequences, despite being the perpetrators.
Grooming a minor for the purposes of prostitution falls squarely within the definition of human trafficking, and The Modern Slavery Act 2015 provides a statutory defence to victims, which makes clear that a victim of trafficking who has been compelled to commit an offence as a consequence of trafficking should not be criminalised.
In the case of criminal records for prostitution offences, the very abuse committed against victims of sexual exploitation is the same “crime” for which the victims are punished.
Samantha Ferrell-Schweppenstedde from international women’s rights organisation Equality Now says: “This legal ruling is so important because many women enter prostitution as a survival strategy or as a result of abuse and exploitation rather than a choice freely made. As such, it is inappropriate that they should be criminalised and punished rather than supported.”
“We need to prioritise recognising and tackling the social and economic factors that make women and girls vulnerable to sex trafficking and prostitution prior to entering the sex trade, as well as the need to mandate and resource support for women and girls in prostitution or seeking to exit.”
Claimant Fiona Broadfoot explained to The Independent, “After more than twenty years out of prostitution, I am still having to explain my criminal record to any prospective employer. It feels like explaining my history of abuse.”
Women’s prostitution-specific criminal records should be wiped or sealed and not subject to disclosure, and women should not be criminalised for prostitution. It’s the pimps, traffickers and the buyers who cause the harm and should be the focus of criminal law.
Nia, a UK charity that supports women and girls affected by violence, tweeted from the court hearing: "Barrister for women says that the women’s criminal record are evidence of a pattern of abuse and the (sic) one of the critical problems is the absence of this offering a way of assessing a woman’s offending behaviour".
"Barrister for women argued that the issue re association btwn prostitution and other crimes, eg gangs, guns, drugs, is about the context of a exploitation not the offences committed by prostituted women #ImNoCriminal "
The hearing is now finished and a written judgement from the High Court is due to follow.
Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our
international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM.