On Tuesday 13th June, MSPs debated Scotland’s first Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy – published by the Scottish Government last month.

The publication of the strategy fulfils a requirement of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2015. The Act also introduced a single offence for all kinds of trafficking for the first time, raised the maximum penalty for trafficking to life imprisonment, and provided police and prosecutors with a more robust set of tools to prevent and detect trafficking, and to bring those responsible to justice.

Women and girls are disproportionately affected by trafficking – particularly when it comes to commercial sexual exploitation. 2016 figures for Scotland show that female adults were trafficked mainly for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The picture is the same for child victims, with many more female than male victims likely to experience sexual exploitation.

One area of the newly published strategy is focused on ‘address[ing] the conditions, both local and global, that foster trafficking and exploitation.’

Speaking in the debate, SNP MSP for Cunninghame South, Ruth Maguire, said:

“The conditions which underpin commercial sexual exploitation, women and girls being forced into sexual slavery, are clear.

First and foremost, it is about demand – it is about people, predominantly men, wanting to buy sexual access to women and girls.

TARA, which is a Scottish Government-funded organisation that provides support and assistance to adult victims of trafficking, is clear on that.

It says: “We know that women are trafficked into Scotland each year for commercial sexual exploitation. This encompasses all aspects of the sex industry including, lap and table dancing, stripping, prostitution, escort services, internet sex sites and pornography. … Scotland has a flourishing sex industry and women are trafficked to meet the demand that it creates.”

This demand in turn is rooted in the deep and profound gender inequality that permeates society – an inequality which allows women to be devalued as human beings, objectified, and commodifed– to be bought and sold, used and traded.

Tackling both this immediate demand, and the deeper gender inequality which underpins it, must be seen as a key tool when it comes to tackling the wider evil of human trafficking and exploitation.

The outcome and vision for the Trafficking and Exploitation strategy is to eliminate human trafficking and exploitation.  The Government has described this vision as challenging and ambitious, but also absolutely necessary.

To have a hope of achieving this vision we must address the harm caused by the sex industry.  To end the exploitation, we have to end the demand.

This will be challenging but it is also absolutely necessary.”

Ruth was supported in her calls to end the demand for commercial sexual exploitation by MSP colleagues across the chamber, including Claire Baker, Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, and Ash Denham, SNP MSP for Edinburgh East.

Ash Denham referred to the motion passed at the SNP’s conference in March, which supported the ‘Nordic Model’ approach to prostitution of decriminalising the sale of sex, criminalising the purchase, and offering support to those wishing to leave the industry. Claire Baker commended the ongoing efforts of her Labour colleague, Rhoda Grant MSP, to have legislation introduced in line with the ‘Nordic Model’.

The Scottish Government’s ‘Equally Safe Strategy’ explicitly includes commercial sexual exploitation within its definition of violence against women and girls. The Scottish Government has recently published research into the reliability of the international evidence base on approaches to tackling prostitution.

Commenting, Ruth said:

“Now that this research has been published, I hope to see the Scottish Government take robust action to tackle the demand for buying sexual access to the bodies of women and girls.”