In what they hope will be a first step forward in clamping down on sex trafficking that traps thousands of Mexican women and children, lawmakers in the capital’s congress voted 38-0 – with eight abstentions – in support of a bill to take out a line in the civic culture law which allows for prosecutions of both workers and their clients.
The new law recognised that individuals had the right to engage in sex work, said Temistocles Villanueva, a local representative with the ruling centre-left Morena party.
“It’s a first step that has to lead to regulation of sex work, to fight human trafficking and strengthen the rights of sex workers. Exercising sexuality in our country is still a taboo topic that few of us dare to talk about,” he added.
Prostitution in Mexico is legal under federal law – with each of the 31 states enacting its own prostitution laws and policies.
The United Nations estimated in 2016 that there were 236,930 sex workers in the Central American country.
Although sex work is allowed in much of the country, states have different and at times unclear rules, which leads to workers frequently operating in legal vacuums that expose them to exploitation and trafficking by crime gangs.
Mexico is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labour, with Mexican women and children the most at risk from sex trafficking, according to the US state department.
The country is listed as a tier two nation in the US’s Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning it does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but it is making substantial efforts in order to do so.
The report said observers had made links between women’s disappearances and murders and trafficking by organised criminal groups.
Elvira Madrid, founder of sex work rights group Brigada Callejera, welcomed the change to the law but also called for a legal framework to ensure workers are protected.
Human rights groups and sex worker organisations in Mexico have long argued that criminalisation only sends the problem further underground – endangering an already vulnerable group to be subject to abuses by both organised crime groups and the police.
The new bill comes after an earlier version was criticised by sex worker and human rights groups.
Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum’s office sent it back to congress with proposed modifications, which were taken up.
Eduardo Santillan, also a Morena Mexico City congressman, said now sex work was decriminalised, anti-trafficking public policy should be strengthened.
He said: “We think that the big challenge of this congress will be making both of these fundamental principles compatible.”
There have been widespread calls for prostitution to be decriminalised in the UK – with the English Collective of Prostitutes recently launching a campaign called “Make All Women Safe” for the decriminalisation of sex work.
The leading campaign group argues sex workers often have to choose between keeping safe and possible arrest, or avoiding a criminal record and putting themselves in danger.
It is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex from each other in the UK, but soliciting and sex workers banding together as a group are illegal.
The Home Affairs Select Committee recommended decriminalising prostitution in 2016. The interim report on prostitution said the Home Office should immediately change the legislation so soliciting would no longer be an offence, and change brothel-keeping laws to permit sex workers to share premises without losing the ability to prosecute those who used brothels to control or exploit sex workers.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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