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Why decriminalise sex work?

An open letter in support of Amnesty International's recent proposals to decriminalise sex work.

Guy Corbishley/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

This open statement of support has been reprinted with permission from nswp.org. To support this initiative, sign NSWP's petition at change.org.

The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) would like to take this opportunity to express our support for Amnesty International’s Resolution and draft policy calling for the decriminalisation of sex work, tabled for adoption at the International Council Meeting, 6-11 August 2015. This draft policy is backed up by the findings of country-based research carried out by Amnesty International on the human rights impact of the criminalisation of sex work, and also on the consultation in 2014, which included input from many sex workers around the world—the community most affected by the proposals.

NSWP would also like to condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the CATW statement, open letter and online petition attacking Amnesty International's proposals. CATW’s position is stigmatising, discriminatory and misrepresents the facts, conflating sex work with human trafficking. Most importantly it ignores the lived experiences of sex workers, silences their voices and seeks to perpetuate legal systems which place sex workers at increased risk of violence, stigmatisation, and discrimination; as well as limiting their access to health and social services. Furthermore, CATW is ignoring the overwhelming body of evidence and the findings of international bodies, such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, that recommend that governments should work towards the decriminalisation of sex work. The Lancet, which recently published a special series on HIV and Sex Workers, also recommends the decriminalisation of sex work and reported “Decriminalisation of sex work would have the greatest effect on the course of HIV epidemics across all settings, averting 33–46 percent of HIV infections in the next decade.”

NSWP membership comprises 237 sex worker-led organisations in 71 countries across the globe, including local organisations as well as national and regional networks. Our regional networks in the global south and global north represent many thousands of sex workers who actively oppose the criminalisation and other legal oppression of sex work.

In 2013, following a global consultation with our members, NSWP issued a ‘Consensus Statement on Sex Work, Human Rights and the Law’ on behalf of NSWP members and the sex workers they represent. The consensus statement identifies and focuses on eight rights that have been recognised and ratified by most countries as fundamental human rights. These eight rights are established in various international human rights treaties, as well as many national constitutions, but are too often denied to sex workers. The fundamental rights identified by sex workers as most at risk of being denied were:

  1. Right to associate and organise
  2. Right to be protected by the law
  3. Right to be free from violence
  4. Right to be free from discrimination
  5. Right to privacy and freedom from arbitrary interference
  6. Right to health
  7. Right to move and to migrate
  8. Right to work and free choice of employment

NSWP would also like to draw attention to two recent Human Rights Watch World Reports of 2014 and 2015. These reports are annual reviews of human rights practices around the world and summarise key human rights issues in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide. The reports highlight human rights violations perpetrated against sex workers in Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Greece, Lebanon, and the USA. The 2015 report discusses the recent legislative changes that Bill C-36 Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in Canada (PCEPA) has brought about. PCEPA was introduced in response to the 2013 Canadian Supreme Court ruling striking down previous restrictions that the court deemed violated the rights and security of sex workers. Human Rights Watch reports that: ‘...Bill C-36, which would criminalize communicating for the purposes of selling sexual services in public, or buying, advertising or benefitting from the sale of sexual services. The bill would severely limit sex workers’ abilities to take life-saving measures, such as screening clients. Criminalizing communication disproportionately impacts street-based sex workers, many of whom are indigenous, poor, or transgender, forcing them to work in more dangerous and isolated locations.

Human rights abuses of sex workers include: arbitrary detention (Cambodia), punitive crackdowns, coercive HIV testing, privacy infringements, mistreatment by health officials (China), forced rehabilitation of sex workers (Vietnam), detention and forced HIV testing of alleged sex workers (Greece), subjecting sex workers (along with drug users and LGBT people) in security forces’ custody to ill-treatment and torture (Lebanon), and the use of condoms as evidence of sex work (USA). The report calls for the decriminalisation of voluntary sex work by adults. It recognises that the criminalisation of sex work (including the criminalisation of clients) allows for human rights abuses and violations to occur, as stigma and discrimination causes sex workers to be deemed second class citizens not deserving of even fundamental human rights.

To reiterate the conclusions of major international agencies: ‘Laws that directly or indirectly criminalize or penalize sex workers, their clients and third parties, [...] can undermine the effectiveness of HIV and sexual health programmes, and limit the ability of sex workers and their clients to seek and benefit from these programmes.’

Sex workers and their allies campaign for full decriminalisation of sex work to:

Promote safe working conditions—Sex workers can work together for safety and communicate openly with clients and managers without constantly fearing police harassment or worse. In New Zealand, the decriminalisation of sex work over the last decade has helped to promote the human and labour rights of sex workers. The New Zealand Human Rights Review Tribunal made a landmark ruling in January 2014 on the violation of a woman’s human rights in a Wellington brothel where she was employed. The woman filed a complaint against both the manager of the brothel and the brothel’s owner after the manager sexually harassed and bullied her. The complaint was upheld and the woman was awarded substantial damages.

Increase access to health services and reduce sex workers’ risk of HIV and STIs—Sex workers carry a disproportionate burden of HIV and STIs, because criminalisation reduces their ability to control their working conditions and risks, as well as creates barriers to both health and social services. For example, in many territories the police use the presence of condoms as evidence of sexual activity e.g. to prove intent to ‘solicit’ or ‘brothel keeping’. If condoms are used as evidence to prosecute any sex work-related charge then this acts as a strong disincentive for having supplies available. In effect, it penalises the possession of condoms, which impacts on sex workers ability to protect themselves. This is against World Health Organization guidelines which call for countries to ‘encourage "safe workplaces" and availability of condoms in all sex work venues’ and ‘end the practice of law enforcement officials using condoms as evidence of sex work’.

Increase sex workers’ access to justice—Decriminalisation removes major barriers to sex workers’ reporting rape and other crimes, as sex workers in criminalised environments often fear arrest or punishment in other ways (e.g. losing custody of children). It will also make it harder for violence against sex workers to be committed with impunity.

Reduce police abuse and violence—The police are often the perpetrators of abuses against sex workers. Where sex work is criminalised, the police wield power over sex workers in the form of threats of arrest, extortion of sexual services, rape and public humiliation. In South Africa and Uganda for example, the police often march suspected sex workers in public while forcing them to wear blown up condoms around their necks.

Help to tackle exploitation and coercion when it does occur—The UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work stated that ‘sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices’. Criminalisation of sex work impedes the anti-trafficking efforts of sex worker organisations and makes it easier for sex workers to be wrongly categorised as trafficked persons. Many anti-trafficking measures are deliberately used to disrupt sex work businesses and regularly blatantly follow an anti-migrant narrative. Anti-trafficking initiatives must be evidence-based, grounded in human rights principles, and must not negatively impact on the rights of sex workers.

On behalf of NSWP members, listed below.

AFRICA

African Sex Workers Alliance - Regional Network
Sisonke Botswana, Botswana
Solidarite Pour Les Droits Des Travailleuses De Sexe, Burundi
AIDS-ACODEV, Cameroon
Alcondoms, Cameroon
CAMEF, Cameroon
AHUSADEC, Democratic Republic of Congo
ALCIS, Democratic Republic of Congo
CODESCI, Democratic Republic of Congo
UMANDE, Democratic Republic of Congo
Nikat Charitable Association, Ethiopia
CAFAF, Ghana
Nayford Foundation, Ghana
Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, Kenya
CHAANI Post Test Club, Kenya
Ebigeri United Self Help Group, Kenya
HOYMAS, Kenya
Kisauni Peer Educators, Kenya
Action Hope, Malawi
Female National Sex Workers Alliance, Malawi
APYIN, Nigeria
NDN, Nigeria
Nigeria Sex Workers Association - Precious Jewels, Nigeria
NNEWI, Nigeria
RENAGAIDS, Nigeria
Sisonke, South Africa
SWEAT, South Africa
CHESA, Tanzania
Devine Economic Development Group, Tanzania
Gender, Equality and Health Organisation, Uganda
Kaana Foundation, Uganda
Lady Mermaid's Bureau, Uganda
Organization For Gender Empowerment and Rights Advocacy, Uganda
Transgender Equality Uganda, Uganda
Uganda Harm Reduction Network, Uganda
Uganda Harmonized Rights Alliance, Uganda
WONETHA, Uganda
Thubelihle, Zimbabwe

ASIA PACIFIC

Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers - Regional Network
Respect Inc, Australia
Scarlet Alliance, Australia
SWOP New South Wales, Australia
Dujoy Nari Shongho, Bangladesh
HARC, Bangladesh
MNDP, Bangladesh
Community Legal Service, Cambodia
JJJ Association, China
Midnight Blue, China
SCMC, China
Xin'ai Female Sex Worker's Home, China
Yunnan Parallel, China
Pacific Rainbow$ Advocacy Network, Fiji
Aastha Parivaar, India
Ashodaya Samithi, India
Astitva, India
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, India
GAURAV, India
Koshish, India
MITRA, India
MUSKAN, India
National Network of Sex Workers, India
SANGRAM, India
VAMP, India
VAMP Plus, India
OPSI, Indonesia
SWASH, Japan
O.F. Taldikorgan Regional Fund for Promotion of Occupations, Kazakstan
AMA, Myanmar
New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, New Zealand
Aakash Welfare Society, Pakistan
Care & Support Welfare Organisation, Pakistan
Gender & Reproductive Health Forum, Pakistan
Friends Frangipani, Papua New Guinea
Poro Sapot Project, Papua New Guinea
Empower Foundation, Thailand
SWING, Thailand
Scarlet Timor Collective, Timor Leste

EUROPE

International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe - Regional Network
SWAN Foundation for the Human Rights of Sex Workers - Regional Network
LEFO, Austria
Maiz, Austria
Projekt PiA, Austria
SXA-Info/Verein Frauenservice Graz, Austria
Association PROI, Bosnia and Herzegovina
NGO Action Against AIDS, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Collectif Droits & Prostitution, France
PASTT, France
STRASS, France
Women for Freedom, Georgia
Berufsverband erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistung e.V., Germany
Bufas e.V., Germany
Hydra e.V., Germany
Madonna e.V. Germany
SZEXE, Hungary
Tais Plus, Kyrgyzstan
Demetra, Lithuania
HOPS, Macedonia
STAR-STAR, Macedonia
Juventas, Montenegro
PION, Norway
APDES, Portugal
Silver Rose, Russia
JAZAS, Serbia
Sloboda Prava, Serbia
Collectivo Hetaira, Spain
Rose Alliance, Sweden
Aspasie, Switzerland
Dignity, Tajikistan
Soa Aids, The Netherland
TAMPEP, The Netherlands
Pembe Hayat LGBTT Dayanisma Dernegi, Turkey
Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Right Association, Turkey
English Collective of Prostitutes, UK
SCOT-PEP, UK
Sex Worker Open University, UK
UK Network of Sex Work Projects, UK
Working Mens Project, UK
X:talk, UK
HPLGBT, Ukraine
Legalife, Ukraine
Vsiyeukraiynskaya Assotsiyatsya Snyzhyenya Vriyeda, Ukraine

LATIN AMERICA

Associação das Profissionais do Sexo do Maranhao, Brazil
Associação das Prostitutas dr Minas Gerais, Brazil
Associação das Prostitutas da Paraiba, Brazil
Associação de Mulheres Profissionais do Sexo do Estado do Amapa, Brazil
Associação Mulheres Guerreiras, Brazil
Dignidade, Acao, Saude, Sexualidade e Cidadania, Brazil
Davida, Brazil
Grupo de Mulheres Prostitutas do Estado do Para, Brazil
Nucleo de Estudos da Prostituicao, Brazil
Vitória Régia, Brazil
P.A.R.C.E.S, Columbia
Asociacion de Mujeres Autonomas "22 de Junio", Ecuador
Asociacion de 'Mujeres Con Esperanza Al Futuro', Ecuador
Asociacion De Mujeres Trabajadoras Del Sexo "Colectivo Flor De Azalea", Ecuador
Aproase, Mexico
Colectivo de Hombres Accion Comunitaria, Mexico
Diversidad TTT, Mexico
Tamaulipas Diversidad Vihda Trans A.C., Mexico
Union y Fuerza de Mujeres Trans Chihuahuenses A.C., Mexico
Asociación Civil Angel Azul, Peru
Asociación Civil Cambio Y Accion, Peru
Miluska Vida y Dignidad A.C., Peru

NORTH AMERICA and CARIBBEAN

Antiguan Resilience Collective Inc., Antigua
Butterfly - Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, Canada
FIRST, Canada
Maggie’s, Canada
PACE, Canada
Peers Victoria Resources Society, Canada
POWER, Canada
Projet L.U.N.E., Canada
Sex Professionals of Canada, Canada
Sida-Vie Laval (Venus Project), Canada
Stella, l'amie de Maimie, Canada
Stepping Stone, Canada
Students for Sex Worker Rights, Canada
SWAG, Canada
SWAN Vancouver, Canada
The Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers, Canada
Triple X Workers' Solidarity Association of British Columbia, Canada
Champions for Change, Guyana
Guyana Sex Workers Coalition, Guyana
One Love, Guyana
IWICC, Jamaica
J-FLAG, Jamaica
Sex Work Association of Jamaica, Jamaica
Fundashon Orguyo Korsou, Netherlands Antilles
Suriname Men United, Suriname
RED Initiatives, Trinidad and Tobago
BAYSWAN, USA
Best Practices Policy Project, USA
Community United for Safety & Protection, USA
Desiree Alliance, USA
HIPS, USA
HOOK, USA
New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, USA
PERSIST Health Project, USA
PONY, USA
Red Umbrella Project, USA
St James Infirmary, USA
SWOP Chicago, USA
SWOP Denver, USA
SWOP Las Vegas, USA
SWOP NOLA, USA
SWOP Northern California, USA
SWOP NYC, USA
SWOP Philadelphia, USA
SWOP Sacramento, USA
SWOP San Antonio, USA
SWOP San Francisco, USA
SWOP Seattle, USA
SWOP Tucson, USA
SWOP USA, USA
The Sex Workers Project, USA
Women with a Vision, USA

About the author

Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) membership comprises 237 sex worker-led organisations in 71 countries across the globe, including local organisations as well as national and regional networks.


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