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Protecting the human rights of sex workers

By Kerry Moscogiuri, Amnesty UK Director of Supporter Campaigning and Communications

Sex workers are daughters, mothers, sisters and wives. They are husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. And every day they are at terrifying risk of a whole host of human rights abuses.

In many countries, they are threatened with rape, beatings, trafficking, extortion, forced eviction and discrimination. They get little or no legal protection. These violations and abuses are frequently carried out by their clients, and also by the police.

It is an issue that is impossible to ignore and today Amnesty has launched its global policy on protecting the human rights of sex workers.

It is a controversial issue. But it’s one where we have carried out extensive research. The developing of this policy took more than two and a half years and included a careful review of academic and UN agency substantive evidence from around the world and international human rights standards; as well as Amnesty offices across the globe consulting with their members, external agencies and hundreds of sex workers.

Put simply though, we are today acknowledging that sex workers have the right to be free from violence, abuse, and discrimination. Just like anyone else.

To accompany the policy’s launch, we have also published four new reports looking at the plight of sex workers in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea.

Overall the reports come to the same conclusion. Governments must do much more to protect sex workers from abuse. And criminalisation of sex work contributes to the denial and abuse of their human rights.

The call for the decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work is based on extensive evidence of the daily harm that criminalisation causes. It makes sex workers less safe, prevents them from securing police protection and provides impunity to abusers. And the stories Amnesty have revealed in the new reports are horrific.

In Argentina, like in so many other countries around the world, there is little support from the authorities from the police. Laura told Amnesty: “He [a client] paid me and I was about to get out of the car when he grabbed me by the neck and cut me with a knife. I gave him all the money I had and my cell phone, and he let me go.”

She did not report the incident to the police as she felt it would have been a waste of time.

In Hong Kong, Amnesty uncovered evidence that police officers often misuse their powers to set up and punish sex workers through entrapment, extortion and coercion.

In Norway, despite high levels of rape and violence by clients and organised groups, sex workers rarely report violence to the police. One sex worker told Amnesty: “I went to a house of a man. He punched me two times in the jaw. I didn’t tell the police. I don’t’ want it on my records.”

In Papua New Guinea, a 2010 survey found that, within a six-month period, 50% of sex workers in the country’s capital had been raped by clients or the police.

Amnesty now joins a large group of who are supporting or calling for decriminalisation of consensual sex work. These include the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women; Global Commission on HIV and the Law; Human Rights Watch; UNAIDS; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; and the World Health Organisation.

The UK context is no different from any other part of the world in the fact that sex workers are extremely marginalised.

In Scotland sex work is often described as violence against women. And it is sadly true that the majority – but not all – of those who sell sex across the world are women and that many of those who sell sex have often experienced multiple forms of discrimination and disadvantage.

Where we differ is when this diagnosis leads to a prescription of criminalisation of sex work. Our research concludes that criminalisation of sex work contributes significantly to denial and abuse of human rights of those who sell sex. We believe it’s important to listen to those who sell sex themselves – women, men and transgender – and be sensitive to how they describe their experiences.

But the policy is not purely about decriminalisation. It also demands that governments actively work to combat discrimination and disadvantage, exploitation and violence and support educational, economic and welfare opportunities for sex workers enabling them to leave sex work if and when they chose to.

The policy also strongly reinforces Amnesty’s position that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking must be criminalised in every country.

It is this combination of measures that we believe, if implemented, would make a vital first step in protecting sex workers across the globe.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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