By David Adams

Australian states are being urged to take a “serious look” at the approach of Sweden in addressing prostitution and to consider it as part of a raft of measures being taken across the nation to end violence against women.

Under the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ – which was introduced via legislation in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted in a range of other countries including Norway, Iceland, France and Canada, the buyers of sexual services are targeted instead of the prostitutes.

Last month the Australian Christian Lobby brought two Swedish experts – Ruth Nordström, president of Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers – an organisation that works to promote and protect human rights and freedoms in Europe by providing legal assistance in cases involving such issues as human trafficking and migration and asylum law, and her colleague Rebecca Ahlstrand – to Australia to discuss the approach of Sweden to the issue with politicians in a range of Australian states.

“It’s pretty basic,” Ms Nordström says of the approach, speaking to Sight during her 10 day visit last month. “If there is no demand for buying sex, there will be no prostitution. That is why is Sweden we shifted the perspective to reduce the demand for buying sex.”

In Sweden, the laws allow for a range of sanctions on the buyers of sexual services – from a summary fine up to imprisonment (although there have been no cases of the latter since the law’s introduction) and authorities say it’s led to a halving of street prostitution in the country since then.

“We also found that the legislation has become an important instrument to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings, especially for those who are trafficked…for sexual purposes,” says Ms Nordström. “And we also found that this legislation has had a significant normative effect – now the majority of the Swedish population, especially young people, support the ban…”

Ms Nordström says the legislation was passed in Sweden as part of a package of measures being taken towards preventing violence against women and the approach also includes providing support services for prostitutes to leave prostitution.

“It was assumed that women in prostitution are victims of a system and this system consists of a power imbalance and it consists of gender inequality…”

She adds that it was interesting to see Australia had recently taken action at a national level to combat all forms of violence against women – “That’s exactly the same language that was used in Sweden back in the Nineties” – and adds that she believes the raft of measures being looked at should include prostitution “as a form of violence”.

The ACL support the idea. Lyle Shelton, the organisation’s managing director, says the Nordic approach has “smashed” the myth that prostitution can be harmless to women.

“Their starting point was recognising that all prostitution is violence against women, because that is what it is and they changed the law so that it became illegal for someone to purchase another person for sex – usually a man purchasing a woman – and that’s had incredible results in Sweden.”

Meanwhile, in addressing the argument that prostitution was a choice for some, Ms Nordström said that was one of the common “myths” surrounding prositution.

“I think it is very important to see that if the women in prostitution, if they don’t have any other options, if they don’t have any exit programs or they don’t really have any other choice, then it’s not their choice.”

Choice, she believes, should always be viewed in context and with the majority of women in prostitution facing poverty, violence and discrimination and often coming from a background or sexual abuse, prostitution becomes their “only choice”.

Ms Nordström notes the ‘Angel’ of Stockholm, Elise Lindqvist – who was sold as a prostitute as a young teenager but who escaped that life and now works with prostitutes in the Swedish capital’s red light district – has said that in all her years of working with prostitutes, she has not met one that wouldn’t choose another profession if they had a “real opportunity” to do so.

She says it is also important to understand that prostitution is a “class issue” with the majority of women involved in Sweden migrants. “I think we have to look at all these aspects,” she says.

And while some promote decriminalisation of prostitution – for both buyers and sellers of sex – as an answer to the issue, Ms Nordström says that the experience in Europe – where data had shown that more than 80 per cent of all human trafficking victims are trafficked into forced prostitution – showed that the Nordic model was the “most effective tool” to prevent and combat human trafficking. Decriminalisation on the other hand, she argues, would actually increase human trafficking and create more victims.

Ms Nordström believes that ultimately an international approach is needed to tackle what was a “global problem”. “ “We need to join…forces if we want to see an end to this…” she says. “This is not just a crisis for Europe – it effects the whole world.”