21 Abr

Why Sex Work should be Decriminalised

Sex work (or prostitution as many know it) is a subject surrounded by fierce discussion, often about human trafficking. In much of the discourse, the line that separates the concept of sex work from human trafficking seems to have all but disappeared.

Discrimination, indignity, violence and diseases – all issues sex workers in many countries face regularly. But not because it necessarily is ‘part of their job’, but because society condemns and criminalises them.

A 17-year old girl from Thika (Kenya)has been arrested by the local police for soliciting sex. She gets assigned a police cell . The chief commands one of the officers to deliver him the girl the following morning. She is raped repeatedly. When the chief is done with her she can go back to her cell. Two other officers  follow this pattern for  days. Then finally, the girl is released.

I can imagine you thinking of sex work as  something a bit strange. When you hear that 85% of women working in the Red Light District does so against her will, it makes sense to wonder why we still accept this in the Netherlands. I can imagine you might turn against  sex work if you hear only about exploitation and abuse. And I can even understand that, in terms of your religion, or values around sexuality, you find it strange that some people use sex to earn money. It is easy to follow the mainstream media who present you this information on a silver platter. Before I learned differently, I believed the same.

June 2015. It’s the first time I’m on the phone with Nadia, Coordinator of the Red Umbrella Fund. Nadia tells me that the Red Umbrella Fund supports sex workers in order to improve their work and living conditions. I think about a documentary I once saw: ‘Jojanneke in de Prostitutie’. It was supposed to be about sex work, but all that I saw were conditions that made me think of human trafficking. I wonder why someone would support something degrading like sex work? This required some research. Disbelief turned out to be naivety and ignorance changed to  knowledge.

In no time,  I am transformed in a firm advocate of decriminalisation. Why? Because the ‘degrading ’ part is in the way sex workers are treated, not in  the work itself.

The story of the girl from Thika is just one small example of what I read in Open Society’s report on violence and abuse against sex workers in Kenya (2008). In Kisumu, another city in Kenya,  sex workers are often directly claimed by senior police officers. One women was kept imprisoned and abused in the house of one of the agents. After four days, when a new victim was arrested who could take over her place, she was released. The way female police officers treat sex workers isn’t much better. Arrested sex workers are not aloud to walk, but have to crawl. They are forced to perform stripteases in order to be humiliated. Often they have to sleep on the ground and don’t get proper food. At night they get ordered to mop the floor with urine and water mixed together, for no other reason than it being possible.

'Only rights can stop the wrongs.' Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

‘Only rights can stop the wrongs.’ Credits: Dale Kongmont, APNSW

This doesn’t only happen in Kenya. Rape and violence by police and customers is common in many countries. Sex workers are regularly banished from their community and denied access to healthcare. In Cambodia, for example, sex workers can’t reach out for HIV medication. Are we ever going to solve the worldwide HIV problem if the most vulnerable group to this disease can’t receive any help? I don’t think so. One sex worker declared that she has accepted a two dollar offer for sexual intercourse because if she didn’t, her child wouldn’t eat that night. Without labor rights and basic human services, she has no choice but to agree to such low prices.

The stories hit home, injustice is something that always touches me very deeply. The problem is actually pretty simple: with such a lack of respect respect, sex workers aren’t seen as worthy human beings. If society doesn’t accept you, you don’t have much money and your job is illegal, you end up in very vulnerable positions. Violence and exploitation then become inevitable.

Why do we have such a problem with sex work?

Sex work is ‘the voluntarily sexual exchange  between two people upon payment.’ In my opinion nothing is wrong with this. If free sex is accepted, why isn’t payed sex? Or are we struggling with the addition of the word ‘voluntary’ which is a word that doesn’t seem to exist when people think of sex work?  We all know human trafficking is horrible. However, by criminalising sex work we create an ‘underground world’ where it is extremely difficult to separate wrong from right. It won’t only do harm to those that voluntarily work in the business, but also, and maybe even more, to the ones that don’t. This already existing underground will grow, and real human trafficking victims will disappear in the mass. This is an underground world wherein rights don’t exist. A world that’s hard to reach for rescue teams. A world wherein sex workers become even more vulnerable to addiction, violence and disease.

A great example of this underground world involves the issue of HIV. In countries like Tanzania and China, but also in the United States, sex workers are being arrested by the police, simply for carrying condoms.

If the choice is getting arrested or taking a risk and working without condoms in order to feed your child, what would you do?

The consequence is, as you can imagine, that many sex workers start working without condoms.

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam. Source: Mariska Majoor

An honor to sex workers all over the world, statue Belle in Amsterdam.
Source: Mariska Majoor

Some say sex work should be replaced by ‘normal work’. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep agree. They oppose Amnesty International’s new decriminalization policy. Ignoring the fact that some sex workers actually do enjoy their work, it is also very easy to make statements like these when you live in Hollywood, where money flows. Think of the woman who accepted two dollars for her services in order to feed her child. How will she find a ‘normal job’ in a country where there is a shortage in jobs? Factors such as poverty, lack of education, health and social status have a lot of influence on freedom of choice. That is why we have to realise that alternatives to sex work, if desired, are only possible when the economy allows it.
Forcing a sex worker to do 12-hour shifts in a textile factory for a pittance, which happens a lot, is definitely not the right solution. That looks more like human trafficking than sex work. NGOs who support these so-called ‘rescue operations’ should be ashamed. The woman who wants to feed her child needs nothing more than human rights and protection of her safety.

Amnesty International posted a video in which a women speaks about sex work, the money she earned doing it, and how it made it possible for her to save her children from a violent father. It reminded me of an interview with Marjan Wijers, researcher on human trafficking and sex work, which she did for magazine De Groene Amsterdammer:

‘Feminists should be the ones fighting for the rights of sex workers. The stigma on prostitution touches every women. It keeps the idea alive that the right of protection against violence depends on their honor or sexual purity.’

What is more powerful than a women saving her children from an abusive father? That doesn’t deserve discrimination or a jail sentence, only respect.

Eva Jansen, for the Red Umbrella Fund
This post was translated from Dutch. You can find the original post here.

02 Feb

Round Table on Decriminalising Sex Work in Guyana

On February 2, 2014, Miriam Edwards of Guyana Sex Work Coalition, Joel Simpson of Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) and Quincy McEwan Guyana Trans United discussed the need to decriminalize sex work in the program Round Table with Janelle Persaud, aired over NCN Chanel 11.

Guyana

Guyana Sex Work Coalition: Decriminalising Sex Work – The Roundtable

Sex work remains illegal in the country, rendering sex workers vulnerable as they are unable to access health care services, including HIV/AIDS services, and other state services since revealing their profession could put them at risk.

Guyana Sex Work Coalition provides peer-to-peer support and training to sex workers of all genders in Guyana and the wider Caribbean region to build their knowledge and confidence to stand up for their rights. The group advocates for the protection of sex workers, beginning with the recognition of their work as work, their protection against police violence and their access to HIV prevention information and services, anti-retroviral drugs and other health services.

As Miriam asserts, “Sex work is work. Sex workers want to be accepted in society as a human being.”

Stigma, discrimination and violence increase the vulnerability of sex workers to HIV/AIDS. While health care is free in Guyana, the attitude of many health providers towards sex workers, gays, and trans persons keep the latter away from availing of existing services. One member of the Coalition was even banned from the main HIV/AIDS clinic and denied access to ARV when he sought medical attention.

Aside from ensuring its visibility in the media, the Guyana Sex Work Coalition partners with existing health facilities including hospitals and trans health providers as a strategy to reduce stigma and discrimination against sex workers. They also equip sex workers with information on HIV and AIDS, correct and consistent use of condom and condom negotiation.

The Guyana Sex Work Coalition is a grantee of the Red Umbrella Fund.

By Nadia van der Linde, Red Umbrella Fund


This is crossposted from http://hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/reducing-cultural-stigma/round-table-on-decriminalising-sex-work-in-guyana/ 

06 Dic

Sex workers stand up against Russia’s discriminatory and draconian laws

In May 2013, Russia’s national organization of sex workers, Silver Rose, was denied official registration as a non-government organization (NGO) by Russia’s Ministry of Justice. The Ministry declared that “there is no such profession as sex work,” accusing Silver Rose of violating Article 29 of the country’s constitution. Article 29 prohibits “campaigning and propaganda inciting social, racial, national and or religious hatred and enmity.”

Silver Rose

Silver Rose stand up for the rights of sex workers in Russia

Since Putin has taken up second term as president, human rights organizations are facing ever greater challenges when monitoring and reporting human rights violations across the country. Harsh laws have been adopted, including those that persecute of anyone voicing criticism of the regime. In fact, anyone who lives a so-called “non-traditional lifestyle,” such as gays, lesbians, transgender, people living with HIV/Aids and drug users, are exposed to discrimination and stigmatization.

In this light, sex workers, who often belong to a variety of extra vulnerable societal subgroups, are forced to live under equally harsh conditions.

In Russia, sex work is criminalized, leaving sex workers without a social or legal status. Meanwhile, stigma and discrimination against sex workers is encouraged by the Orthodox Church which portrays sex workers as a manifestation of society’s moral decay. Sex workers are seen as sinners and home wreckers, unworthy of raising children. While the widespread HIV/Aids problem in Russia is widely seen as a ‘foreign complot’ and quality treatment is generally absent, sex workers are having an even harder time to guard their health and access affordable medication. Moreover, Russia’s sex workers are extremely mobile and not always in possession of the right documents, thus increasing their vulnerability to harassment from the state and non-state agents.

“We want to pull sex workers out of the grip of violence, social discrimination and corruption,” Irina Maslova of Silver Rose remarked.

By July, Silver Rose’s leader and a former sex worker herself, Maslova sent a complaint to the St. Petersburg district court, reporting a violation of her civil rights and freedoms and requesting the court to dismiss the Ministry’s decision and instead recognize Silver Rose as a legitimate NGO. However, the judge upheld the Ministry’s decision to refuse registration, stating technical inconsistencies in the group’s formal request.

But Silver Rose is not the kind of group to give up. “Official registration will mean that the state acknowledges our existence, that we have same human rights as others, which need protection,” Maslova asserted to the Russian Service of the BBC.

Agora, a human rights association has been assisting Silver Rose to prepare another request for registration, despite the likelihood that this motion will be declined. Nevertheless, Silver Rose’s sex workers are determined to pursue justice at the European Court of Human Rights that is based in Strasbourg.

By Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund


About Silver Rose
Since 2006, civil partnership Silver Rose has fought for the legal recognition of sex workers in Russia. Today, the group has presence in no less than 10 regions, representing the interests of a large part of the estimated 3 million sex workers in the country. Through campaigns, media work and participation in meetings and conferences, the group brings public attention to urgent problems as physical, sexual and economic violence against sex workers in Russia. The group operates a hotline for sex workers and provides legal aid to sex workers in cases of violence and harassment with which sex workers in Russia are confronted on an everyday level. Silver Rose is a grantee of the Red Umbrella Fund.


This is crossposted from http://www.hivadvocates.net/advocacy-stories/sex-workers-stand-against-russias-discriminatory-and-draconian-laws

17 Oct

Sex workers defend UN recommendations

In 2012, as the result of lengthy and consultative processes, a number of UN agencies published two reports *) that recommend the decriminalisation of sex work to help address human rights abuses faced by sex workers, and call for better access to health services.

Sisonke march on International Sex Worker Rights Day in Cape Town

Sisonke march on International Sex Worker Rights Day in Cape Town

Recently, Equality Now, a USA based NGO working to end violence against women and girls, has critiqued this recommendation claiming that it is “in direct opposition to international human rights standards” and “jeopardizes efforts to prevent and address sex trafficking and promote gender equality”. Instead, Equality now prefers to promote the so-called “Swedish model” which criminalizes the purchase of sex services.

In response, local and international sex workers’ rights groups have issued statements in defence of their human rights. Red Umbrella Fund grantee Sisonke from South Africa has issued a statement in collaboration with the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT).

“When Equality Now suggests “we listen” – who are they suggesting we listen to?”,

Kholi Buthelezi, National Coordinator of Sisonke questioned.

“I would like them to listen to me, and other sex workers who participated in the deliberations of the Commission [on HIV and the Law]. The Swedish model has failed, criminalisation does not prevent nor enable anyone to address trafficking – rather it enables stigma and drives violence against sex workers”.

In the statement, Sisonke addresses the many misconceptions raised by Equality Now and makes a case for a revised report.

“The UN together with a spectrum of experts, researchers and advisors have made knowledgeable and powerful recommendations based on hundreds of testimonies, and on evidence based on rigorous research. Its recommendations should be supported – not labelled as jeopardising gender equality.”

Sisonke presents itself as the national movement of sex workers in South Africa. Based in Cape Town, Sisonke currently has active representation in seven provinces and fights for the decriminalisation of sex work and improvement of working and living conditions for sex workers. The network’s activities comprise the mobilisation, organisation and sensitization of sex workers through outreach activities, trainings and workshops and campaigns on human rights. Through advocacy campaigns, public events and meetings, Sisonke has been successful in addressing issues of violence, discrimination and unsafe working conditions for sex workers. They have also secured better access to services and advocate forthe inclusion of sex workers in decision-making spaces.

Sisonke is hosted by SWEAT and is a founding member of the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA). With the one-year core grant from the Red Umbrella Fund, Sisonke is able to expand its work throughout South Africa and strengthen its internal structures by setting up a National Steering Committee of sex workers.

By Eva Cukier, Red Umbrella Fund

 

*) HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (2012), the Global Commission on HIV and the Law’s report published by UNDP and Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (2012) by UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS.

An excerpt from Sisonke's Work Wise booklet

An excerpt from Sisonke’s Work Wise booklet


Related statements by international networks of sex workers:

  • Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP)
  • Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW)
  • African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA)

Crossposted from Mama Cash