Yesterday, approximately 2100 feminists from around the world converged in Ottawa for the 11th International Women’s Worlds Conference. Women’s Worlds will host a variety of workshops, presentations, conversations, art installations, actions and more this week from July 3-7.
Featuring daily at Women’s Worlds is the multi-lingual, multi-media exhibit Global Fleshmapping/ Les Draps Parlant/ La Resistencia de Las Mujeres: Prostitution in a Globalized World. It incorporates interactive videos, games and 70 used bedsheets as canvasses on which women from across the country have expressed their resistance to prostitution and sex trafficking. On each day of the conference, 16 women from around the world will come together in spontaneous, public consciousness-raising discussions about the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women in their own areas. This group includes women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, academics, community organizers and others.
Kicking off the four days of feminist strategizing during the Global Fleshmapping exhibit, the 90 attendees heard from indigenous women in Canada and Norway, as well as women who traveled from Haiti, Morocco, Mexico, Australia, South Korea, Okinawa, Bangladesh, Italy and Nigeria. The Aboriginal women who have provided leadership to Canadian feminists were united in their bold demands to recognize prostitution as a form of ongoing colonial violence against Aboriginal women, who are overrepresented in street prostitution. Jeannette Lavell, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), spoke about her organization’s recent decision: “The potential for legalized prostitution pulled us together in NWAC to take a very strong stand that this is unacceptable, and not what we want as Aboriginal women.” Fay Blaney and Cherry Smiley from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), as well as Michelle Audette from the Quebec Native Women’s Association reminded participants that Aboriginal people face systemic violence and poverty and that the continued dislocation and displacement of women has disrupted the passing of teachings and traditions.
The participants made clear the correlation between racism, poverty, and prostitution and trafficking. While Clorinde Zéphir from Haiti talked about the augmentation of prostitution in Haiti since the 2010 disaster, Esohe Agathise spoke about the normalization of selling women and girls in Nigeria and the myth of sexual liberation in Italy. Many of the women in the discussion connected increased prostitution with North American military bases, including Suzuyo Takazato from Okinawa and Teresa Ulloa Ziaurriz from Mexico. The latter explained that her “country is a clandestine cemetery” of women due to American and Canadian sex tourists, drug cartels, and local police and military forces. Rajaa Berrada from Morocco connected trafficking to prostitution by describing the women who visit the country in transit or as domestic or agricultural workers, but find themselves trapped in networks of prostitution. Young Sook Cho related her understanding of prostitution as a gendered human rights violation to her experience working with women in South Korean brothels because “again and again, women die no matter what site the brothel is in.”
Sigma Huda’s description of the laws in Bangladesh sounded familiar to many Canadian women in the room: though prostitution is illegal, the laws are opaque enough to facilitate a similar debate in the country about how to create legal conditions that could better protect women. A decision by Justice Susan Himel last year struck down Ontario’s laws against prostitution and the appeal that was heard last month has resulted, so far, in a stay on the prostitution laws. The country now awaits the long battle that will no doubt be headed to the Supreme Court in the coming years.
Sheila Jeffreys from the University of Melbourne and the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women Australia shared some of her experiences in a country where prostitution is legalized. She described an increase in organized crime and corruption of local police, as well as little hindrance of the operation of illegal brothels. In contrast, Marit Smuk from Norway recalled her experience of successfully protesting the development of brothels in her community. She described fighting for what is now known as the Nordic Model, which recognizes prostitution as a form of violence against women by decriminalizing those in prostitution and criminalizing the demand – johns, pimps, and brothel owners. It is augmented by increased social welfare, such as a guaranteed livable income so that women are not forced into prostitution by poverty, or exit services for those who want out.
The women at the table today believe that this model creates the legal conditions necessary to establish real equality between the genders.
Global Fleshmapping is presented by Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter and Montreal’s Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle.