Amnesty International: should sex work be decriminalized?

As Amnesty International meets to consider a resolution that calls for the decriminalization of sex work, those in favour argue it would be a step forward for the rights of sex workers.

Susana T. Fried Sonia Correa
7 August 2015

At Amnesty International's 32nd International Council Meeting which takes place in Dublin from 7-11 August, members will consider a resolution calling for an explicit organizational commitment to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of sex workers. The resolution “requests the International Board to adopt a policy that seeks attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, through measures that include the decriminalization of sex work.” This echoes the preponderance of evidence that sex workers’ human rights are best protected when sex work is not illegal. We applaud AI’s action.

Amnesty’s resolution draws upon two years of research and internal consultation with Amnesty International worldwide sections and their members. In passing this resolution, Amnesty would join a growing number of respected development and human rights institutions such as the UN Development Programme, the World Bank and Human Rights Watch in calling for the decriminalization of sex work (noting the important distinction between sex work and trafficking), a position further supported by individuals including former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to the highest attainable standard of health, Anand Grover.

Unlike most AI resolutions to its International Board, this one has become a large, public and contentious issue, with the resolution receiving press coverage in a number of major newspapers including the New York Times in the US and the Guardian in the UK.

We speak to this issue from experience and evidence. Having many years of experience between us of work on sexuality-related human rights, we are seized by a sense of urgency on this issue. A report on sex work and the law in Asia and the Pacific, compiled by the UNAIDS joint programme on HIV/AIDS with the UNDP and UNFP, documents how adult sex workers are more likely to engage in safer sex practices when sex work is decriminalized.  At the same time, the report's authors found no evidence that decriminalization increases the prevalence of sex work in the region -  an erroneous assertion often made by those who oppose decriminalization such as Equality Now and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

In Brazil, for example, sex work was declared to be an official occupation in 2003, and this entitled sex workers to social security and other work benefits. Sex work itself is not illegal in Brazil, although many aspects of the business of sex work remain criminalized. While stigma and discrimination continue to exist, sex workers have focused on worker organizing and community-based empowerment initiatives such as the Brazil Network of Prostitutes. The network has thirty member organizations, collectively contesting police violence and advocating for the rights of all sex workers - female, male and travesti. One of many initiatives, the Previna project, was based on a peer education approach and supported self-organizing among sex workers - as reported in the World Bank report The Global HIV Epidemics among Sex Workers. The report’s case study in Brazil further confirms that, “successful interventions among sex workers in Brazil have been those that adopt a rights based, community building approach and actions to decrease sex work related stigma”.

Sex workers protest against police crackdowns. Credit: Daspu's facebook

In addition to the World Bank, UNAIDS, UNDP and UNFPA have documented the efficacy of human rights based approaches in response to sex workers’ extreme vulnerability to violence – often enacted by the police and other state actors. All of these reports focus on adult sex workers. According to international law, people below the age of 18 can be considered as victims of trafficking. However, younger sex workers are also target of violence, much of which goes unreported. In terms of health, adult sex workers are amongst the most vulnerable groups contracting and living with HIV, yet services for them have remained woefully inadequate - in part because sex work is criminalized in so many places. 

The disproportionate (and at times extreme) vulnerability of sex workers to HIV is documented in the World Bank’s report, which found that “across regions, HIV prevalence among female sex workers was 13.5 times the overall HIV prevalence among the general population of women 15–49 years old”. In such contexts of marginalisation, community empowerment-based approaches play a critical role in promoting and protecting the health and rights of sex workers. However, such expansion of community empowerment is severely limited when sex work is criminalized. Criminalization has dramatic negative impact on testing and treatment for HIV because people are understandably less likely to be screened, and to access services, when they are potentially facing arrest or violence as a direct consequence.

The report, Risks, Rights and Health: the report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, together with the World Bank report on countries such as Ukraine and Kenya, and the Human Rights Watch report on Cambodia, all document the ways in which the criminalization of sex work hampers community cohesion and fosters discrimination. Stigma and discrimination in turn interferes with and undermines sex workers’ right to health and public health interventions, in particular HIV prevention. It serves as a contributing factor in the denial of access to justice, police protection and legal due process, as well as the exclusion of sex workers from social protections such as health services, housing, education, and immigration status.

In calling on States to protect and empower the most marginalized in society, there is a  parallel to be drawn with the issue of same-sex sexuality. Up until 1991, Amnesty International had failed to include people imprisoned on the basis of their sexual orientation as “prisoners of conscience” on whose behalf AI campaigns. This changed with a resolution to the International Board in 1991. With that move, AI joined the forefront of advocacy rights related to sexual orientation, including by calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality. And indeed, evidence continues to show that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people face violence perpetrated with impunity, especially in contexts in which homosexuality is criminalized. Much the same can be said for sex workers.

In adopting this evidence-informed resolution, Amnesty would help make a tangible difference in the lives of some of the most marginalized people in countries and communities around the world. It is an important step forward.


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