Let’s empower women, not pimps | Stephanie Falzon

Women’s organisations are united in their opposition to the proposed decriminalisation of prostitution. STEPHANIE FALZON, chair of Empower – a platform for women’s NGOs – argues that legislation should exist to protect the vulnerable, instead of rewarding criminality

Stephanie Falzon
Stephanie Falzon

Empower has just released a statement, complaining that the proposed decriminalising of prostitution “will have adverse effects to the already vulnerable women that are caught in this industry”. Yet on paper, the same reform aims to do the opposite: i.e., to protect women in prostitution, by giving them agency over their own profession.  In what way, exactly, is this reform flawed?

First of all, let me explain what Empower is all about.

Empower is a platform for nearly all the major female NGOs in Malta. What I do, as chair, it to try and bring all the diverse NGOs together: especially on all the subjects that we agree on. The prostitution reform is one of them… but it is very far from the only one. We also discuss the need for more women on boards, and in decision-taking positions; more women in Parliament; domestic violence; and so on.

Each NGO, however, has its own specialty that it focuses on. In the case of prostitution, for instance: if you really want more details from a legal angle, you have to go to Anna Borg (former chair of the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations); if you need to know what is happening at street-level – how the situation impacts young girls, for instance – you go to Karen Buttigieg of the Malta Girl Guides; and so on.

The idea behind Empower was to bring all this expertise together under one umbrella. It was the brainchild of HE President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca; because she felt that the NGOs were all working individually, on their own, without backing each other up… even on issues where we all agreed. She argued that there was need for a common platform, so that all these diverse NGOs would be able to network with, and support, each other. And this is, in fact, what we are now doing.

Coming back to your question, however. One of the biggest problems of the proposed prostitution reform, is that it simply disregarded all the advice and recommendations of all the NGOs concerned… not just Empower, by the way: because this is one aspect a lot of the media got wrong.

Empower is only one of the 46 organisations involved in the discussion. The others include NGOs and various experts in the field: the ones who actually meet these girls, and others who are caught up in prostitution – including the children, by the way. Because nobody ever talks about how the issue affects children: the sometimes shocking stories we hear of the situations they have to face; or how they often get drawn into it, through no real choice of their own.

These are among the realities that some of these 46+ expert organisations face on a daily basis. And all of them – with all their hands-on knowledge of the situation on the ground - have got together to say that ‘this is not the way forward’…

In fact, your statement also complained about the lack of consultation before launching the reform…

For accuracy’s sake, I wouldn’t say ‘lack of consultation’. The reality is that we did attend numerous consultation meetings with (former Parliamentary Secretary for Civil Rights) Rosianne Cutajar; and all the experts, from all those organisations, all said the same thing.

But then, the ministry’s proposals not only overlooked all our recommendations; but also aim in the very opposite direction. So it is extremely misleading to state that the women’s organisations were ‘put at the centre of this reform’ – only to completely ignore the experienced advice which they gave in all those consultation meetings.

But it also raises the question of who they did listen to, before coming out with these proposals. For someone is pushing this reform. Who are these people? How many are there? What is their expertise in this issue, and how does it compare to the expertise of these other NGOs: some of them working at rock-bottom level?

This is why we are concerned with the direction taken by these reforms. If we’re not going to look at the interests of the people who will be directly affected… then whose interests are we looking at, really?

This brings us to the substance of your own recommendations. What, specifically, are you proposing… and how would it improve the situation of the vulnerable people caught up in prostitution?

To put it simply: we agree with the decriminalization of the prostitutes themselves. What we also need to do, however, is to criminalise the buyer.  As I said, I’m not the expert, myself; what I can say, however – without going into the legal specifics – is that it’s ultimately a question of where we want to go, as a country.

There are different models to choose from: and if we are advocating the Nordic model, it is not just because it has proven to be consistently successful; but also because the Scandinavian countries are so many steps ahead of everyone else, when it comes to gender equality. Not just Malta, but anywhere in the world: including America, and other European countries.

It seems, however, that the reform has looked towards other models: such as Germany, for instance – where prostitution is fully legalised. And the situation in Germany is… again, I’m not the right person to talk about it; but ask the experts, and they will all tell you that there are almost entire department stores, where you can go and simply choose from a menu.

This is precisely the sort of situation that the reform, as it is being proposed, will create in Malta. But… is it really the direction we want to go?

Having said this: there are women – or men – who want this kind of life; who take a conscious decision to work in that industry. Good luck to them. But the reality is that the vast majority are forced into it, through circumstances beyond their control. So what is happening with this law?

Generally, we create our laws to defend the most vulnerable members of society. In this case, however, it’s the other way round: we are creating a law that only adds more burdens and pressures, on an already vulnerable majority…

The counter-argument, however, is that criminalisation would only drive the industry underground, where it would be more open to abuse.  How does your proposal address that?

Because if it is against the law to buy sex, the pimp cannot make a business out of it…

Not legally, no. But pimping – or ‘living off the earnings of prostitution’ – is already illegal under the current legislation; yet it happens all the same.  Why would it be any different under the Nordic model?

But just because something goes underground, it doesn’t mean we should simply condone it… or, worse still, put it ‘above ground’. We should try and control it as much as possible.

This is what we our proposals are aimed at; but with this reform, we are heading in the opposite direction. And that only gives more power to the pimp, not less.

The question we should be asking, before embarking on any reform, is: who gains from all this? It is certainly not the prostitute. Nor is it even the buyer… who very often will have a story of his own to tell.

No, it is the pimp who controls everything; and who takes advantage of the both prostitute and buyer. This is where all the money goes, at the end of the day.

Even from the perspective of those who choose prostitution as a career: by all means, let them go out and do it… but at least, they should be the ones earning the money for the work they do; it shouldn’t be a pimp who takes the lion’s share.

But if prostitution is decriminalised for the women concerned – and we agree it should be – but the act of buying sex is not criminalised… then it’s just a free-for-all. The pimp could simply open a shop on any street corner…

Earlier, you mentioned that Empower is involved in all women’s issues, not just prostitution. But while there appears to be consensus regarding the prostitution reform… that doesn’t seem to be the case for gender quotas for Parliament. Even some women in local politics have argued that quotas are ‘demeaning to women’. Others argue that women will end up being elected, not on their merits, but ‘just because they’re women’. As someone who approves of gender quotas, how do you respond to that?

Let me start with this: gender quotas are a necessary evil. In an ideal world, we would already have reached a level of gender equality that would make them unnecessary; but we are very far from that, right now… and unless a mechanism is in place to ensure at least some gender balance in Parliament, the reality is that nothing will ever really change at all.

Besides: there has always been a quota system in place, whether people realise it or not. At present, the quota system being proposed by the EU is 6:4. But for centuries, it has always been: 10-0.

In other words, 100% male, 0% female. And let’s face it: many of those men were not elected to power ‘on their own merit’, or because of their sheer brilliance… but, as you put it in your question: ‘just because they were men’.

And as far as I know, no one has ever complained that that is ‘demeaning to men’…

But to answer you about those women who argue against quotas: I firmly believe that nobody – male or female – gets where they get, in the end, ‘on their own’. At one point in your life, you will probably find yourself at the right time, in the right place, in front of the right person… and that’s when things happen. It’s as simple as that.

I’m not saying that what you may have studied, and your experience in life, doesn’t count. But you’re not the only has who has studied, or has that experience. So if you got anywhere at all, in life: it will also be because someone, somewhere, ‘woke up in a good mood’ one day, and decided to give you that opportunity.

So for anyone to stand up and say: ‘I did it, all on my own. And if I did it, anyone can do it…’ Sorry, but no. That’s not true at all. There are women out there, who are just as capable as anyone else; but they probably did not get the right opportunity; did not meet the right person… and that is very often the only reason they don’t go as far as others.

I think, then, that is it up to the women who have been successful in life, to work towards creating the same opportunity for all women, everywhere.

At the same time however, Maltese women don’t seem to find it difficult to get elected, when they do contest. There is even research suggesting that – on an individual basis – women actually fare about 2% better, in elections, than men. How, then, do you account for such a huge gender imbalance in Parliament?

It’s the culture. We live in a Mediterranean country; and, like other Mediterranean countries, the ‘caring’ part of the family is still very much given to the woman.

Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance: recent research has studied the impact of the pandemic on society… and who did they find stayed home with the children, when they were not at school? Who had to take leave from work? Who ended up on Zoom meetings, with children running around all over the room? Who ended up suffering more anxiety, from lack of sleep… from having to work late, and then attend to all the other household chores…?

So before we achieve at least a basic level of gender equality at home, we cannot realistically expect gender equality to simply develop, on its own, in Parliament… or in decision-making positions across the board.

This is why a culture-change is so urgent; why it is something we have to work on, all the time…