This week, Amnesty International will consider adopting a policy calling for the decriminalization of sex work. The policy is a response to the stigma and discrimination and high rates of human rights abuses and violations that sex workers experience globally.
"Stigma can be seen as much in the violence committed against sex workers as in the way many women feel they must hide their profession from their partners, family and children. Standing up for our rights with pride is one of the most effective ways we have found to combat stigma," said the late Gabriela Leite, former sex worker, political candidate, and social justice advocate from Brazil.
The Amnesty policy reflects decades of advocacy by sex workers and their allies including public health professionals, human rights advocates, and women's rights organizations who have called for decriminalization as a critical measure to promote the health and human rights of adults who buy and sell consensual sex.
According to Amnesty's draft policy, there is a growing body of research that indicates criminalization exposes sex workers to increased risks of human rights abuses, which is why CHANGE - an organization that advocates for the health and human rights of all women - supports the proposed policy.
CHANGE, like many other women's rights organizations, believes that human rights are universal, they are for everyone. Sex workers are no exception.
Criminalization creates an environment of stigma, discrimination, and systematic exclusion that prevents sex workers from accessing health and support services and increases their risk of violence and abuse. It creates barriers to sex workers' involvement in the development and implementation of effective health interventions, including HIV and STI prevention and treatment and reproductive health. And it silences sex workers themselves, who have struggled for full decriminalization, access to services, human rights protections, and dignified and safe working conditions for decades.
Decriminalization not only addresses the grave human rights abuses sex workers face every day, it is also good public health policy and has proven to reduce HIV/AIDS. In fact, decriminalization could avert 33-46% of HIV infections among all people worldwide. Studies in Kenya and Canada show that the elimination of violence against female sex workers by clients, police, and others could lead to a 17-20% reduction in HIV infections, and that sex worker involvement and leadership in HIV programs are effective at reducing the transmission of HIV. The World Health Organization affirms that sex worker involvement is essential in the design and delivery of programming.
Policies and laws that are based in moral objections to sex work, and do not follow public health best practices, cause harm around the world. And, we know that policies based on moral opposition to sex work perpetuate stigma and discrimination and undermine public health best practices.
The U.S. anti-prostitution loyalty oath (APLO) is an example of when such policies fail and exacerbate the AIDS crisis. The APLO is a provision in U.S. law requiring organizations receiving U.S. global HIV/AIDS funds to adopt an organization-wide policy opposing prostitution.
Since it was first enacted in 2003, the APLO has had pervasive and direct negative effects on the global goal of preventing HIV. A 2013 Institute of Medicine review of U.S. global HIV/AIDS programs acknowledged that the APLO impedes access to HIV services for sex workers and sabotages efforts to effectively support the HIV response worldwide.
Some of the most effective health service providers - from the government of Brazil to sex worker-led organizations - have refused to accept U.S. funding because they consider sex workers to be essential partners for the development and implementation of HIV prevention and treatment programs. Others have been forced to eliminate effective HIV programs out of fear of losing much-needed U.S. funding.
The evidence is clear. Criminalization of sex work threatens the health and human rights of sex workers everywhere.
If Amnesty International votes to adopt the draft policy, they will be joining a growing number of international agencies, major human rights organizations, public health experts, feminists, and sex workers in a clear global demand: decriminalization is essential to achieving global health goals and to protecting the dignity and human rights of sex workers.
To fight for the health and human rights of women and girls is to fight for all women - and that includes sex workers.