By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Men who use prostitutes in Canada could face up to five years' imprisonment under new laws criminalizing the purchase of sex.
Women's rights campaigners say the reforms coming into force on Saturday will help protect women working in prostitution and tackle sex trafficking. But the law has angered some sex workers who say it will put them in more danger.
Canada follows Sweden, Norway and Iceland in introducing laws designed to punish the client without criminalizing those driven into prostitution. France, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have similar legislation in the pipeline.
"Prostitution is an inherently exploitative practice fueled by the demand created by those who purchase sexual services," Canadian Justice Minister Peter MacKay said.
The reforms keep prostitution legal but prohibit profiting from the prostitution of others including through escort agencies, massage parlors, or strip clubs. The maximum penalty is 10 years' imprisonment, or 14 years if the victim is a child.
However, some sex worker groups say the new law, which also aims to restrict street sex-work, will drive prostitution underground, forcing women to work in isolated areas and placing them at greater risk.
But Canadian activist Trisha Baptie, who spent 15 years in prostitution from the age of 13, welcomed the legislation.
"It was never the laws that beat and raped and killed my friends, it was men," said Baptie, founder of action group Eve which campaigns for the abolition of prostitution
"And it was never the location we were in that was unsafe, it was the men that we were in that location with that made it unsafe."
The Canadian government is supporting the new approach with $20 million to fund programs to help women leave prostitution.
Andrea Matolcsi, a trafficking expert at rights group Equality Now, said countries like Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands, which had opted for legalization or decriminalization, "were failed experiments" which had created fertile ground for sex traffickers.
"It is becoming increasingly clear to governments that to end sex trafficking, they have to target the demand that fuels it," she added.
Baptie said many Asian women were trafficked into prostitution in Canada and young aboriginal women in rural areas were forced into prostitution in cities.
France's National Assembly has also approved legislation which would penalize clients, but the reform has been rejected by a Senate committee.
The government says 90 percent of prostitutes are foreign, mostly victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian traffickers.
(Editing by Ros Russell)