CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – is an international bill of rights for women, adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1979. Countries that have ratified it are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. The UK ratified it in 1986. One of its provisions is to suppress the “exploitation of prostitution of women” – in other words, pimping, brothel keeping, and other forms of profiteering.

Article 6 deals with prostitution, as follows:

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” [Emphasis added]

We have noticed confusion about how to interpret the meaning of “exploitation of prostitution of women.” For example, Amnesty International, which lobbies for the decriminalisation of pimping, has argued that because CEDAW doesn’t define the term “exploitation,” Article 6 only applies when some form of exploitative treatment is involved.

When a legal document doesn’t define a term, we turn to the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “exploitation” as follows:

1. The action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.

2. The action of making use of and benefiting from resources.

2.1 The fact of making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself. [Emphasis added]

The first of these meanings would apply if the phrase in question was “exploitation of women.” But it’s not. The phrase in question is “exploitation of prostitution of women,” so the second meaning applies – “making use of and benefiting from resources” or a “situation” – the resources or situation being the prostitution of the woman.

Therefore, the UK and other ratifying states have a binding obligation to prohibit third parties from benefiting or profiting from a woman’s prostitution, meaning that pimping and brothel keeping must be banned. This applies regardless of whether the woman consented or appeared to, and even when no apparent force, coercion, or unfair treatment is used.

Any policy or position that supports and promotes the decriminalisation of pimps and brothel keepers contravenes Article 6.

We therefore call on all those organisations and bodies that have such a policy, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNAIDS, the Liberal Democrats, and the UK Green Party, to take immediate steps to change those policies to comply with CEDAW.

But what did the dictionary say in 1978?

Just in case you are wondering whether the definition of exploitation has changed significantly since CEDAW was drafted, here is the definition from the 1978 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. While it is different from the definition quoted earlier, there is no emphasis on the unfair treatment of a person, merely on the utilisation of their resources for a third party’s own ends. Therefore the same analysis applies.

Further reading