Don’t blame the victims

Linked with Barbro Sundback – Finland, and with Three organizations working for Peace and Human Rights on the Åland Islands.

Barbro Sundback’s paper in Trafficking-conference in Vilnius, March 2004.

On 1 March the Estonian president, Arnold Ruutel, was interviewed in one of Åland’s local newspapers on the subject of the impending expansion of the European Union on 1 May this year. Responding to questions about prostitution, he dismissed the whole issue as no more than a malicious “rumour” that is circulating in the Nordic countries. Rumours that cannot be “proved”. Yet, about one year ago, I read a statement from the same president in which he expressed concern about the damaging impact that prostitution was having on Estonia’s reputation.

The following issue of the same newspaper contained a report in which Kristiina Luht from the Estonian ministry of social affairs estimates that there are about 1,000 prostitutes and 80 brothels in Tallinn. About 25-30 per cent of the prostitutes are under-age.

Ladies and Gentlemen, by mentioning these facts I would like to draw your attention to some of the difficulties faced by anyone attempting to bring the issues of trafficking, prostitution, pornography and gender-related violence onto the political agenda. These issues involved are complex and highly charged, as they concern a basic dimension of power, namely men’s power over women and in particular men’s power over women’s sexuality.

One aspect of political power is the right – the male right – to define what constitutes a social problem, what is important and where public money should be allocated. Through legislation and by setting political and economic priorities, it is possible – for men – to change social conditions. There is a multitude of individuals and groups who seek to influence the politicians to change society. Foremost among these are the media (which is run by men) and influential economic forces, such as individuals – male individuals – and companies (controlled by men).

Globally, political life is controlled by men, and men and the interests and needs of men form the primary objects of politics. This is true for the whole world, not just poor countries in Africa and Asia, but also in the mighty USA, the Nordic welfare states, the fast-growing economies of China and India and the former communist states, where inequalities between the sexes have been aggravated by economic and social retrogression.

The world is ruled by men, and the small number of women who reach influential positions do so on the terms set by men and on the basis of a male normative system whose ultimate premise is the notion that what is male is what is human and that what is female is a deviation from the male norm and therefore subordinate to the male paradigm.

Historically, this has always been the case, in every corner of the world. Women have been subordinate to men and women’s bodies and sexuality have been defined on the basis of male values and needs.

But at the same time women have been organising themselves and demanded rights, based on their own needs and interests, for equality between the sexes. At the turn of the twentieth century women were fighting for the right to vote. Having achieved political rights, they started to fight for equal rights to education. The next phase led to the right to work and trade union representation. In the EU women now have formal political, economic and cultural equality as well as equal rights to trade union representation, but in practice women lack any real opportunities to use their rights. This is because of two big obstacles. The first is that, on the whole, men do not want women to be equal or in a senior position in relation to themselves. This threatens their masculine self-respect as well as the male power structures. The second is that women lack the economic and political resources that would enable them to make use of their rights, either individually or as a group.

Globally, the division of power between men and women looks like this: (rest full long text).

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