Submission to the Women & Equalities Committee’s inquiry on the implementation of SDG5

This is the written evidence that Nordic Model Now! submitted to the Women & Equalities committee in the UK Parliament in response to its 2016 inquiry into the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG5) in the UK.


Nordic Model Now! is a grassroots group campaigning for the abolition of prostitution and for the Nordic Model (also known as the Sex Buyer Law) – the  equality and human rights-based approach to prostitution. The Nordic Model decriminalises those who are prostituted, provides services to help them exit, and makes sex buying a criminal offence, in order to reduce the demand that drives sex trafficking.

The evidence is clear that prostitution is inherently violent and damages those in it; that getting out of it is much harder than getting into it; and that it tends to entrench the disadvantages that lead women to enter it in the first place. Moreover prostitution can never meet the international definition of decent work that the SDGs call for.

Similarly there is evidence that sex buying reduces men’s empathy for women, and makes them more likely to stalk, harass, rape and assault their intimate partners and women in the general population.

Clearly therefore prostitution is damaging to society and any increase is bound to lead to worsening inequality between the sexes.

We are concerned to note that evidence suggests that:

  • Prostitution is increasing in the UK. For example, a recent report noted a 400% increase in women entering prostitution in Sheffield due to benefit sanctions and cuts.
  • Prostitution buying is becoming more acceptable, especially among young people who have grown up in our increasingly pornified culture and with easy access to online porn (in which the vast majority of scenes feature violence against women).
  • Sexual violence is at record levels and most of the victims are young (about 30% are under 16) and young people are more likely than older people to accept violence in intimate relationships.

We believe that this is a catastrophe for women and girls, for the possibility of equality between the sexes and for the very fabric of our society, and it makes the realisation of the SDGs, and SDG5 in particular, a distant pipe dream.

The Conservative government, and the Coalition government that preceded it, have presided over the systematic withdrawal of economic resources from women and children. For example:

  • The burden of austerity is being borne disproportionately by women, with 86% of savings from tax and benefit measures (2010-2020) coming from women’s pockets.
  • The tripling of the student tuition fees and the increase of the interest rates that apply to them have a disproportionate effect on women because they are likely to earn less than their male counterparts. As things stand many, if not most, women will never pay off their student debt and so will be saddled with an effective 41+% marginal tax rate for all the years they earn over the threshold for repayments (currently £21,000).
  • A lack of political will to hold absent fathers to account for the money they owe to the mothers of their children means that most of the £4 billion that absent fathers owe the mothers of their children through the CSA will never be collected. New CMA rules further disadvantage single parents, 91% of whom are women.
  • The lower minimum wage for under 25s has a disproportionate effect on women because they are more likely to be in low paid occupations like cleaning, childcare and social care.
  • Lone parents are now moved onto Jobseeker’s Allowance when their youngest child reaches five [now three] years of age, making them at risk of benefit sanctions for minor infractions, which can tip many lone parent families into destitution.
  • The extreme shortage of affordable secure family housing means that many families are forced to move frequently, uprooting them from formal and informal local support. For single mothers in particular this can be catastrophic.
  • Cuts to specialist services for women in prostitution, victims of other forms of male violence including specialist services for black and minority ethnic (BME) women, and the removal of domestic abuse services for women in order to create services for men, mean more women are trapped in prostitution and violent relationships, and are left to deal alone with the effects of trauma, thus reducing their ability to rebuild their lives. The impact on BME women, disabled women and women with insecure immigration status is particularly severe.
  • Universal Credit is paid to a designated person in a two-parent family (usually the man in a heterosexual couple), with the other parent being defined as the lead carer. This tends to entrench women’s financial dependence on her partner, thus increasing his power within the relationship and putting her at greater risk of poverty should the relationship break down and making it harder for her to leave.
  • Reduction in funding to local councils and the imminent axing of their central government grant are inevitably having a serious impact on women as services that they depend on (such as services for children, support for the disabled and elderly, exit services for women in prostitution, parks and libraries) are axed or reduced.
  • Cuts to Legal Aid and the introduction of employment tribunal fees have had a disproportionate effect on all women, with BME and disabled women being hardest hit. The introduction of tribunal fees has led to a 75% drop in sex discrimination claims in England and Wales alone, making it less likely that employers will deal effectively with discrimination.
  • Changes to immigration law disproportionately affect women subject to immigration control with intersecting high needs, such as those fleeing trafficking and domestic violence.

These factors have resulted in increasing numbers of women being driven into dire poverty and even destitution, leading many to turn to prostitution as a last resort.

During the same time period, the government has presided over: increasing gender stereotyping of children’s toys and clothing and of the media representation of women; the normalisation of prostitution in the mainstream culture and easy access to online pornography; and a lack of political will to systematically tackle the widespread pimping of girls and women or to address the demand from men for prostitution that drives this heinous trade. These factors have increased men’s sense of entitlement and their view that women and girls are objects for their use and abuse rather than full human beings. This has worsened the position of women and girls.

None of these factors is inevitable. Each of them is the result of political decisions whose consequences on women and girls and sex equality have been ignored. If the government is serious about implementing SDG5, it must immediately seek to reverse the decisions that have led to this situation and to ensure that such catastrophic decision making can never be repeated. This means conducting an in-depth gender impact assessment for every potential decision and not proceeding if it is assessed as likely to worsen sex inequality. It also means seeking always to minimise any adverse effects on women and girls and taking steps to redress the harms of previous policies.

Gender equality is not simply a matter of gender neutral provisions. Women’s lives are different from men’s for a variety of reasons, including: biological reproductive functions; the unique nature of the mother-child bond and the work associated with raising children; gender stereotyping; the pay gap; the long history of men’s systematic advantaging at the expense of women; the palpable misogyny that pervades our culture; men’s greater propensity for violence (whatever that is caused by); women’s smaller average body size and muscle mass, and that traditionally they are not taught how to defend themselves.

Gender neutral provisions invariably benefit men at the expense of women. To achieve gender equality, provisions need to address the systematic and structural nature of gender inequality and all of the complex realities. For example: ensuring that lone parents have a stable income and housing; investing in services to help women exit prostitution and to help women recover from the trauma of male violence; prioritising the policing of male violence against women and children, including pimping and brothel keeping; investing in high quality support for mothers and services for children, including day care, after school care, and emergency care; decriminalising prostituted persons while making sex buying a criminal offence in order to reduce demand and change attitudes.

Answers to specific questions

1. How well understood are the Goals in the UK and what more can be done to promote them?

We do not believe that the goals are well understood or even known about by either the general public or most parliamentarians and civil servants.

For example, the July 2016 interim report from the Home Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry into prostitution did not mention them, even though prostitution is an extremely gendered phenomenon and SDG goal 5.2 explicitly mentions trafficking and sexual exploitation, which are inseparable from prostitution. Similarly the interim report failed to consider prostitution’s impact on gender equality and violence against women more generally, nor the economic and social costs that prostitution imposes on its victims and society as a whole. A French study estimated the economic and social costs of the much smaller prostitution system in France to be €1.6 billion.

2. Is there consensus across Government about what the terms used in Goal 5 mean in the UK context?

Not that we have seen.

3. What action is the UK Government taking to implement Goal 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls in the UK by 2030? What more can the UK Government do to achieve this?

There is widespread agreement that tackling SDG5 will automatically contribute to addressing many of the other SDGs. It would therefore make sense for the government to prioritise SDG5 and to create a taskforce specifically focused on it, which could bring a gender analysis to all other government departments.

4. What more do individual government departments need to do to prioritise Goal 5 targets? What practical steps need to be taken?

We do not believe that government departments have a culture of in-depth analysis of the gender impact of policies and legislative changes or the will to redress historical inequalities. For example, the Women’s Budget Group noted that the Treasury did not do a thorough gender impact assessment or adequate analysis of the distributional impact of the 2016 Budget, even though this followed the acceptance and introduction of the SDGs.

We do not believe the SDGs in general and SDG5 in particular will be achieved without a major culture shift in all government departments.

Practical steps to achieve such a culture shift would be a team of gender analysis experts in every government department with powers to examine all policy and legislative proposals for their impact on women and children and to veto any that do not meet the criteria required to achieve SDG5.

This means that legislation and policies must not simply be “gender neutral” and apply to men and women equally, but must take account of the real differences in female and male realities and lives, address the historical and structural advantages given to men, and redress the deepening gender inequality.

The government should call upon the expertise of organisations like the Women’s Budget Group, Nia and Equality Now and involve them in training departmental personnel.

5. What resourcing is in place for the implementation of Goal 5? Is further resourcing required?

Achieving SDG5 will require significant resources. However, evidence suggests that it will pay for itself in the long term. For example, last year Time reported that even small improvements in gender inequality have a big payoff for the economy. The UN reported on the huge costs to society of violence against women and girls. As mentioned above, a French study estimated the enormous costs that prostitution has to society.

6. How effective is coordination and leadership across UK government departments on implementing Goal 5? Is a single point of responsibility preferable to delegated responsibility across departments, and who should lead?

We do not see evidence of practical steps to implement SDG5 in the UK. This suggests a lack of coordination and leadership on this issue.

7. What monitoring mechanisms are in place to measure progress in the UK against Goal 5 and how can these be improved?

We believe that the prevalence of prostitution could be used as a litmus test: any increase indicates worsening inequality – both in terms of women’s poverty, and male entitlement and violence generally.

We call upon the government to ensure that data is disaggregated by sex and age, and to ensure that “gender identity” does not replace sex, because this could obscure the real picture. For example, a small number of high-earning men transitioning late in life would give the impression of reducing the average pay gap if they are counted as female, while not actually changing anything for female people. It would therefore obscure the real picture of sex inequality in this country.

8. Which targets under Goal 5 are the most difficult to measure progress against? How can the Government ensure that the hard to measure targets are not neglected?

We recommend that the government puts the situation of a young single mother with two or three children and no source of income at the forefront. By caring for her children she is contributing to society and as they grow up she is keen to join the workforce and improve the situation for herself and her kids. The government should consider at all times, how best to help her attain these simple human goals – to ensure she has stable affordable housing, a steady income, is able to make the transition to decent paid work as the children’s needs for her time reduce, to ensure she is not uprooted from her social networks, does not fall into destitution or the hands of a loan shark or an exploitative boyfriend who turns out to be a pimp. And that if she does find herself in prostitution or a violent relationship, that there are services to support her to leave, recover from the inevitable trauma and build a new life for herself and her children.

We believe that by focussing on her needs and ensuring that policies are aligned accordingly, there is a chance that SDG5 can be achieved and no one will be left behind.

9. Which targets/issues under Goal 5 have been hardest to make progress on and why? Which require a greater emphasis?

We have not seen any progress on any of the targets so far.

10. What role do the private and third sector have to play in achieving Goal 5 in the UK and how effectively are these roles supported by the Government?

The third sector has developed great expertise in issues affecting women and girls. Unfortunately withdrawal of funding and competitive tendering to the lowest bidder has lead to many of those organisations losing funding and even closing. This should be reversed as a matter of urgency.

11. What examples of good practice are there in the UK or abroad, for implementing and monitoring progress against these and other global targets? How effectively does the UK Government learn from such practice?

The Nordic countries (Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Norway) lead the world in terms of gender equality and we would encourage the government to learn from them.


You can download a PDF of this paper from the UK Parliament website.

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