France’s Prostitution Ban: One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

The French have a long history with prostitution. From Madame du Barry to the paintings of Degas and Picasso, prostitution has been celebrated as an inherent, and even glamorous, part of French culture.

But in 2016, the reality of the practice is starkly different. Now, the majority of prostitutes are trafficked, often immigrants fleeing political or economic hardships only to find themselves at the mercy of an often abusive sex trade.

In response, France has criminalized sex work. The law takes a more modern approach: the guilty are no longer the workers, but the clients. Someone caught buying sex can now be fined a whopping $1,500 euros (USD $1,700) and repeat offenders can be slapped with a $3,750 (USD $4,260), according to Vocativ.

Criminalizing the sale of sex is a moral minefield. On the one hand, the women’s empowerment movement advocates a woman’s right to do whatever she wants with her body; that means the right to say no as well as the right to say yes, for compensation or not.

Sex workers are protesting the decision, publicly rallying with signs declaring that their work is legitimate, and the new law will have negative consequences for their safety and social standing. Indeed, in other countries, criminalizing sex work has pushed it to the darker underground, and legally working prostitutes now face a hard decision about staying or continuing in their field.

At the same time, the problem of human trafficking is so widespread and devastating that it is difficult to oppose efforts to cripple the market that drives it. Lawmakers have been clear that the main motivation behind the bill is to curb the sexual exploitation of women. France’s thriving sex trade has increased demand for a steady stream of sex workers: willing and unwilling.

Sex trafficking is one of the most degrading forms of modern slavery. Rachel Lloyd, the founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City, wrote in The New York Times:

There are an estimated30,000-37,000 sex workers in france.“As a teenager, I worked in Germany’s legal sex industry. I was, like many girls in the club, underage; most of us were immigrants, nearly all of us had histories of trauma and abuse prior to our entry into commercial sex. Several of us had pimps despite working in a legal establishment; all of us used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to get through each night.

Violence is inherent in the sex industry. Numerous studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry. No other industry is dependent upon a regular supply of victims of trauma and abuse.”

There are no easy answers to problems of violence against women, and no one way to empower women. France is taking a holistic approach, not stopping at punitive measures, according to Thomson Reuters. Those caught soliciting prostitutes will be required to take a course which raises awareness of the sex trade. Additionally, prostitutes who want to leave the profession will be given temporary residence status and financial support.

At a time when Europe is struggling with the moral and financial implications of taking in refugees and citizens are increasingly hostile, it is heartening to see France embrace not only the rights of its women, but every woman.

Feature photo: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso

I Am That One in Ten

Imagine it.

It is a hot summer day. You are a 19-year-old girl living and studying in a foreign city. You are excited to get to school because you are wearing your cute new summer dress. You squeeze onto a metro for your morning commute, your backpack facing forward to more closely protect your valuables. You and your fellow riders are packed in like sardines, so tightly packed that you cannot move your arms from down by your sides and can take neither a half-step forward nor backward. You feel your neighbor’s breath on your back. It is annoying and frustrating but, so far, it is nothing out of the ordinary.

Then it happens.
Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

You are standing next to, or should I say, pushed up against a tall middle-aged businessman wearing a fedora. You feel something in his coat pocket press against your leg. All the passengers are crammed together so you give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he looks just as uncomfortably cramped as you. It’s probably just a pen in his pocket.

With every passing moment, the pen presses slightly deeper into your upper thigh. You look down but your backpack is blocking your view so you nervously try to convince yourself it is still an accident, still a pen. After all, the train is incredibly crowded and you don’t want to be a bother or embarrass him by making false accusations. Plus, you will be getting off in three stops so it wouldn’t be worth the hassle.

Except you can’t ignore it. The pen’s pressure increases and shifts to your inner thigh, slowly creeping upward towards your underwear. And then there’s no denying it. That is not a pen in the businessman’s jacket pocket. That is his finger. Two stops to go.

You are suddenly as alert as a deer in headlights. You look nervously at him but he is staring straight ahead. Your heart begins to race and you feel a bit short of breath. You cannot move your feet. You cannot move your arms. The crowded metro you once considered merely frustrating has instantly become dangerous and frightening. You realize you are stuck standing on a train with a strange man’s finger pressing against your vagina. One stop to go.

Time seems to stop. One second becomes one minute. One minute becomes one year. What you previously though to be ‘only’ three stops has become an eternity. You anxiously try to string together a few words to tell the man to move but, in ordinary circumstances, your foreign language skills are mediocre at best – and these aren’t ordinary circumstances. You can’t think about anything except that the strange man’s hand is pressing harder and harder against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina. His hand is pressing against your vagina.

You hold your breath, close your eyes, and wait for your stop.

Your station finally arrives and you practically jump off the train, glancing at the man as you pass. He gives you a sly smile, saying it all without saying a word.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. I lived it.

A new UNICEF study found one in ten girls under age 20 worldwide (approximately 120 million) has experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual act. I am that one in ten. And although my experience with sexual harassment happened nearly ten years ago and pales in comparison to those who have survived worse abuse, I still remember every detail, every second, as if it happened yesterday.

However, if any good came from my experience, it is that I vowed never to stay silent again. I promised myself that, if anyone else made me uncomfortable, I would speak up loudly and protect myself. As it would turn out, I would not have to wait long to get my chance.

A few weeks later, I was taking the train home with a few of my girl friends after a night out. Even though the train was fairly empty and many seats were available, we opted to stand, reminiscing on the night’s excitement as the train rushed on.

Suddenly, I noticed a man in the window’s reflection. He had gotten up from his seat and was wandering slowly towards us, staring at us, approaching me from behind. There was hardly anyone else on the train. Why was he walking towards us when the other door was closer?  I no longer heard my friends’ conversation, all my energy went to watching the man’s movements in the window’s reflection. He was getting closer and closer, now only a few feet away. I couldn’t take it any longer. I spun around and yelled, “Ne me touches pas!” (Don’t touch me!) as loud as I could.

This time he was the one who looked like a deer in headlights. The man instantly stopped in his tracks as if frozen in time. We got off the train at the next stop and I, my heart still racing, let a sense of empowerment and exhilaration overwhelm me, fill me.

Overlooking the mountains in Petra, Jordan
Overlooking the mountains in Petra, Jordan

I will never know for sure if that man meant any harm to me or my friends. But what I do know is that I will never allow anyone to make me feel the way I felt after my encounter with the man and his ‘pen.’ If that means that I may mistakenly yell at an innocent bystander who meant no harm, so be it. Even accompanied by embarrassment, the feeling of empowerment trumps the feeling of disgust and degradation.

The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg


I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

CSW57: Eliminating and Preventing Gender-Based Violence

Image Courtesy of UN Women.
Image Courtesy of UN Women.

This week marks the start of the 57th annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). Beginning March 4th and continuing until March 15th, international policymakers will convene in New York City to address this year’s theme: “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Established in 1946 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the mission of CSW is to prepare recommendations and reports that promote women’s rights across political, economic, civil, social and educational realms. International recommendations for eliminating and preventing violence against women and girls could not have come any sooner. In recent months, acts of tremendous violence against women have occurred around the world.

INDIA: In the past few months, multiple cases of vicious sexual assault have sparked women’s rights protests throughout the nation. In December, a New Delhi woman was gang-raped on a bus and died two weeks later from injuries sustained by her abusers. Escalating India’s anti-rape protests, January brought the case of a 29-year-old woman destined for Gurdaspur who was driven to an unfamiliar village where she suffered from repeated gang-rape. The 29-year-old woman also died as a result of the attack.

SOUTH AFRICA: The controversial case involving Olympian Oscar Pistorius and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, caught the world’s attention.  Not only did Pistorius allegedly shoot and kill Steenkamp, but the incident also occurred on Valentine’s Day, the same day women around the world participated in One Billion Rising to advocate against gender based violence.

PAKISTAN: Malala Yousafzai only wanted to attend school and gain an education. As a result of her strong belief that every girl has a right to an education, young Malala suffered an assassination attempt by The Taliban. Surviving and obtaining more international support than ever, Malala created The Malala Fund to improve opportunities for girls’ education around the world.

Not only a problem in developing countries, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 experience sexual harassment in UNITED STATES’ public schools. Additionally, 40 to 70 percent of female murder victims in AUSTRALIA and CANADA are killed as a result of domestic violence. In 2011, one Gallup poll measured the gender safety gap by asking women and men from 143 countries if they felt safe walking alone at night. Results from the survey indicated high-income countries accounted for six of the top ten nations with highest gender safety gaps.* 

Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.

Although only a glimpse of the international phenomenon of violence against women, the three aforementioned cases and horrific statistics demonstrate a stark need to advocate for women’s rights around the world.

We can only hope this year’s CSW establishes practical solutions for reducing such gender-based violence.

*NEW ZEALAND, ITALY, FRANCE, AUSTRALIA, THE UNITED STATES and FINLAND ranked among the top ten countries with highest gender safety gaps.