CHURCH leaders have called on the Scottish Government to criminalise the buying of sex in a move criticised by campaigners.
Representatives of the Church of Scotland have joined other churches and faith groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims, Sikhs, Quakers and the Free Church, in urging the First Minister to consider the move.
They have signed a letter asking Nicola Sturgeon to follow the kind of prostitution law adopted in Nordic countries, which makes it illegal to buy sex, in a bid to reduce human trafficking.
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Campaigners said the model, first adopted in Sweden in 1999, had made sex workers more vulnerable.
The letter calling for an amendment to the Scottish Government’s Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill was written by Professor Hazel Watson, convener of the Scottish Churches Anti-Human Trafficking Group and a member of the Kirk’s Church and Society Council.
It said: “Sex trafficking does not just exist because its victims are vulnerable - it exists because there is a demand for commercial sex that traffickers can exploit and profit from.
“The Nordic model effectively curbs demand and consequently reduces the trafficking for sexual exploitation into the countries that adopt it.”
Sex worker-led charity Scot-Pep said laws criminalising the buyer exposed sex workers to HIV and violence and had been rejected by UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and Human Rights Watch.
The charity said a Swedish report on the issue published this week had concluded that the law made sex workers more vulnerable.
Fiona Gilbertson, co-chair of Scot-Pep, said:”The Swedish government cannot show a reduction in trafficking - but sex workers in Sweden are more vulnerable, isolated and afraid.
“This is clearly a subject about which the Church has been misinformed, and I would invite them today to meet with Scot-Pep, to read the evidence and to speak to sex workers before proceeding any further with this campaign.
“It cannot be part of Christian values to want to expose some of the most vulnerable in society to more violence, and we are hopeful that good judgment and compassion will prevail.”
George Valiotis, chief executive of HIV Scotland, said: “HIV Scotland affirms the UN’s position that no laws should violate the human rights of sex workers’, their family, and their clients, and that there is very little evidence to suggest any criminal laws related to sex work stop demand for sex or reduce the number of sex workers.
“Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients, and this in turns puts them and their clients at high risk of HIV transmission and violence.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said Justice Secretary Michael Matheson was willing to meet Kirk representatives to discuss the issue.
She said: “The Scottish Government takes a zero tolerance approach to the exploitation of women and has made significant progress in recent years by strengthening legislation in Scotland.
“Clearly this is a complex issue though which requires careful consideration to ensure that any additional measures which may be required are necessary, practicable and sustainable.
“Any further proposed changes to the law in this area would need to be considered carefully to ensure they are practical in terms of enforcement and whether there is robust evidence to suggest that such proposals would reduce incidents of prostitution or trafficking.”