As many countries adjust their views on the role of prostitution in society, from purely problematic to an economically viable industry, members of civil society are expressing their concern at Malta’s dependence on tourism and the concurrent promotion of sex work as an opportunity for economic expansion.

A coalition of 40 national NGOs recently flagged their deep concern that the government is failing to address the links between trafficking and prostitution in order to push forward an unfettered focus on economic gain.

The coalition represents a formidable array of NGOs, women’s organisations, academics, experts and other parties, including a president emeritus, that have coalesced around the cause.

They are making a forceful argument: that the approach that Malta is moving towards will end up being a “gift” to pimps and human traffickers, to the detriment of vulnerable sex workers who need protection, not exploitation. It would, they are warning, turn Malta into a hub for sex trafficking.

The decoupling of sex work from the risk of exploitation through human trafficking, and the particular dynamics experienced by sexually-exploited women in Malta, are a clear cause for considerable concern.

The position was put forward by Lara Dimitrijevic, speaking on behalf of the Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, who said: “one cannot simply remove human trafficking from the discussion of prostitution as it will only exploit the vulnerable”.

Without a concurrent focus on the challenges being faced by individuals, especially children and vulnerable adults who are falling victim to commercial sexual exploitation, NGO leaders are alarmed by the long-term repercussions on society at large.

For this reason, Anna Borg, also a member of the coalition of NGOs, decried the fact that the technical committee set up to advise government on the proposed reform has excluded experts from women’s organisations in Malta.

Indeed, it was only after the coalition made its reservations known through the press that the Minister of Justice, Equality and Governance, Edward Zammit Lewis, reached out to meet with the NGOs and their representatives.

Civil society in Malta has been vociferous about the fact that the experiences of individuals themselves, who are caught up in cycles of abuse and exploitation, must be honoured in all discussions about sex work in the Maltese islands. So far, however, this darker side to the ‘sex industry’ being proposed in Malta is conspicuous for its absence.

Without sufficient regulation, in a social environment that has arguably already seen national authorities put economic growth above human health during the COVID-19 crisis, it seems unlikely that human sexuality will be saved from the dangers of an exploitative marketplace that tolerates objectification and degradation.

Therefore, the reform of legislation and policy in the area of prostitution must, first and foremost, do its utmost to protect, rescue and support the victims of exploitative sex work, and bring perpetrators to justice.

While the role of sex work in a liberal society must certainly be debated and discussed in an atmosphere of freedom and respect, the reality is that Malta’s authorities have so far silenced those voices that are most alarmed by the risks being posed to vulnerable individuals.

Without listening to the survivors of trafficking and abuse, and taking into account their daily struggles, then the caricature of the ‘empowered sex worker’ will become nothing but a smokescreen to hide the painful realities of prostitution in Malta.

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