At the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) organised a side event entitled #MeToo Say Survivors: Human Rights, Gender and Trafficking in Human Beings. After a year in which sexual misconduct and the abuse and exploitation of women, particularly in the film industry, has been under the spotlight, this event served as an opportunity to discuss the plight of trafficked women both in the context of the #MeToo movement and through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 5.2 on eliminating violence against women.

Survivor leaders Autumn Burris, Mickey Meji and Shandra Woworuntu were at the center of the conversation, alongside representatives from the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) International, UN Women, UNODC and Equality Now. They were also joined by Mira Sorvino, who is not only the UNODC Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Trafficking in Persons but has been instrumental in the inception and development of #MeToo and #TimesUp.


Although it has become associated with sexual abuse in the film industry and more broadly in the workplace, the movement was created to ensure survivors know they’re not alone in their journey. Speaking at the event, two survivors, Autumn Burris and Shandra Woworuntu, praised the impact #MeToo has had in elevating our awareness of a culture of pervasive violence against women, as well as empowering victims to speak out and sharing hope. Burris’ characterisation of prostitution as “#MeToo on steroids” brings home the gravity of the situation.

The #MeToo movement encouraged Mickey Meji, a survivor from South Africa, to talk publicly for the first time about experiences of abuse she had during her childhood. The movement empowered her to speak out not only to speak to other survivors, but also in a bid to stop the same thing happening to other women and girls today and in the future.

Woworuntu offered a harrowing account of her traumatic experience of trafficking and prostitution: “[traffickers and sex-buyers] took my dignity and freedom – I wasn’t treated like a human being, but a rag doll with which they could do whatever they wanted because they had bought me. $120-$350 every 45 minutes? I am not a product, I am not merchandise to be bought and sold. I am a human being.” She spoke of the difficulty she faced in finding someone to believe her after she managed to escape her situation and how we need to extend the #MeToo movement outside just the workplace to empower women to speak up about their experiences and encourage others to listen when they do.

Both Woworuntu and Mira Sorvino, visibly moved by the stories of other survivors, expressed the need to extend the #MeToo movement to include sexual trafficking, exploitation and prostitution as violations at its core, which exemplify exactly what the movement has sought to shine a light on. #MeToo has managed to tap into the rage that women since the beginning of time have felt about the abuse suffered at the hands of men. Throughout the speeches given during the event there was a feeling that a tipping point has been reached and that women can no longer tolerate being treated as objects. Sorvino reflected the abolitionist approach to prostitution and supported the Nordic Model, saying that “there is always a power imbalance in prostitution. This is never a choice made out of a variety of choices.”

The Demand Side of Prostitution

A key theme throughout this side event was the importance of focusing not only on dealing with the effects of prostitution and other forms of gender-based violence, but also on the demand side of the commercial sex trade, because sex trafficking is part of a multi-billion dollar industry. This business or profit element, as pointed out by Yasmeen Hassan, the global director of Equality Now, is what makes this a very different problem to tackle than, say, domestic violence, so we need to disrupt the demand side, which is rooted in gender inequality. Sorvino cited the success of the Nordic Model in this realm as well, claiming that the majority of young people in Sweden today consider paying for sex unthinkable. Society must raise boys to understand that they cannot treat any human being as a commodity, thereby moving closer to the goal of gender equality and as a direct consequence removing the demand for commercial sex.

Ingibjorg Gisladottir, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, and Dr. Purna Sen, the Director General of UN Women, left the event in no doubt of the persistent gender inequality and entrenchment of gender stereotypes that exist in our societies and are a fundamental part of the demand for commercial sex.

“Prevention efforts need to address gender discrimination, gender poverty, lack of viable employment opportunities, lack of control over financial resources, unequal access to education, discriminatory labour and migration laws, unsafe migration processes [and] unfortunately the list is too long; the manifestations of gender inequality are too many. And so our task is to address gender-based violence, violence against women and a culture of tolerance of such forms of abuse.”

Dr. Purna Sen

SDG Target 5.2

The SDGs were developed to guide us and goal 5 in particular is about gender equality. 5.2 urges member states to eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. Autumn Burris, a member of SPACE International, stated her position that prostitution itself constitutes a form of violence, a violation of human rights, which is inherently degrading and negates the right to free and equal treatment as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This is a view wholeheartedly shared by IROKO and it follows, as Burris pointed out, that if SDG target 5.2 is ever going to be fully achieved, it is “imperative to dismantle all forms of prostitution”. Any effort to do that must also recognise that there are legal practices in our society that encourage and facilitate the commercial sex trade. Speaking from her own experience, Burris highlighted stripping as an example of a legal activity that has been normalised in our society, but can actually be a gateway into prostitution.

Taina Bien-Aime, the Executive Director of CATW, reiterated the importance of the role of survivors in this fight and reminded the event that sexual exploitation and violence are nothing new. She mentioned the term ‘modern slavery’, which we hear in the media in the context of sex trafficking, but “there is nothing modern about male sexual violence against women”.

A Message of Hope

Yasmeen Hassan offered the event hope for the future, reminding us that we can look to history for examples of huge change being achieved in relatively short periods, such as the ending of foot-binding in China in just one generation.

The side event can be viewed in full here.