People caught purchasing or paying for sex in Northern Ireland could face one year behind bars or pay a fine of up to £1,000 (more than US$1,500) under a new law that took effect Monday.
Maurice Morrow, the legislator who proposed the law, said he opted to criminalize the clients paying a trafficked person for sex “to reduce demand for sexual services.” He said in his advocacy website that such activities have been a “major driver for human trafficking in Northern Ireland.”
Section 15 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 explicitly states that obtaining sexual services in exchange for payment, either by paying, or promising to pay, any person directly, or through a third party is a criminal offense with corresponding penalties.
Northern Ireland passed the ground-breaking law by 81 votes to 10 in December 2014. It was the first nation among all of UK to criminalize the purchase of sex.
“We are very happy to see it, it’s part of a growing trend here in Europe,” Reuters quoted Andrea Matolcsi from Equality Now, which is an international women’s rights campaign group.
As expected, the law has its fair share of opponents. Katie McGew, spokeswoman for Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, said the new law will drive sex workers underground to avoid police intervention and possible arrest of their clients, potentially risking lives and welfare of prostitutes.
“It’s clear to us that politicians North and South are more interested in sending an ideological message than our safety or rights,” she said.
A research material cited by BBC News published in October 2014 by Queen’s University in Belfast showed Northern Ireland has about 17,500 men paying for sex every year.