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ICRSE welcomes Amnesty International’s policy on decriminalisation of sex work



‘Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with oppression’

Ginetta Sagan, former honorary Chair of the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA.


Today marks a historic day for sex workers around the world as Amnesty International is publishing its Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers.This policy, as well as the internal discussions, research and public debates that have led to Amnesty International taking such position, are a milestone for sex worker communities calling for and organising to end violence, exploitation and human rights abuses against sex workers.

As noted in the policy and accompanying documents, sex workers are amongst the most vulnerable communities globally, experiencing high levels of violence and human rights abuses. The multiple discriminations faced by sex workers due to their occupation, gender identity, poverty, race, ethnicity and migration status are reinforced by pervasive stigmatisation and, in many countries, criminalisation and penalisation of sex work.

Sex workers, from the informal collectives formed in the streets, forests and brothels where we work to the national organisations, regional and global networks that we lead, have been demanding full decriminalisation of sex work (including selling, buying and facilitating or organising sex work) as the first and the necessary step to protect sex workers’ rights. When any part of sex work is criminalised, sex workers’ capacities to fight exploitation, report crimes and redress is severely limited if not impossible. Amnesty International’s research highlighting sex workers’ living and working conditions in Norway, New Papa Guinea, Argentina and Hong Kong offers an in-depth analysis of the wide array of human rights violations experienced by sex workers and is an important contribution to the growing evidence of the harms caused by criminalisation of sex work.

While demanding decriminalisation of sex work, Amnesty International joins many other international organisations recognising full decriminalisation as the only legal framework which enables to uphold sex workers’ rights. Among these are, e.g.,  The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), UNFPA, WHO, UNDP, Human Rights Watch, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the World Bank, Open Society Foundations, the Global Network of People Living with HIV, the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, the International Women’s Health Coalition, the Association for Women in Development, the American Jewish World Service, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), The Lancet, The Global Fund for Women, the International Community of Women Living with HIV and many others.

Amnesty International’s call for the full decriminalisation of sex work is particularly important given the growing pressure from the abolitionist and numerous anti-trafficking organisations to introduce laws criminalising sex workers’ clients in national legislations and EU policies. There is a growing evidence, however, that criminalisation of the purchase of sex, the so called Swedish model, negatively impacts sex workers and significantly contributes to their vulnerability to human rights violations. In many countries of the region the implementation of the Swedish model leads to increased policing of sex workers, fuels stigma and discrimination, and deters sex workers from accessing justice when experiencing exploitation or violence. Moreover, in several countries where clients have been criminalised, such as Serbia and Lithuania, sex workers themselves remain fully criminalised. In France, migrant sex workers continue to be arrested and deported since the law criminalising the purchase of sex was voted. At the times of rising austerity, increasing precarisation of work, a deepening “refugee crisis” and a huge backlash against the rights of women, migrants, and LGBT communities in Europe, the call for the Swedish Model plays in the hands of conservative and nationalist state and non-states actors, and severely limits our capacities to fight for our rights and against inequality.

ICRSE fully support Amnesty International’s stance on the role of criminalisation in perpetuating economic inequalities and structural violence affecting the most vulnerable: “The use of the criminal law to prohibit sex work does not address or challenge the macro socio-economic forces and systemic discrimination that can lead people to do sex work, particularly individuals from marginalized groups. It does not offer alternative employment options or improved rates of pay. Rather, criminalization compounds the marginalization of people in sex work, forcing them to sell sex in clandestine and dangerous conditions while limiting their access to justice and stigmatizing and punishing them for their decisions. Amnesty International recognizes the importance of respecting the agency and life decisions of individuals, particularly those who have limited economic opportunities.”

We, sex workers in Europe and Central Asia, know that only by respecting our rights, recognising our agency and self-determination, and by including us in decision and policy-making processes, will society be able to support us in our fight against violence, discrimination and exploitation.When many would prefer to see us silenced or ‘abolished’, we thank Amnesty International for supporting sex workers’ rights and calling for the full decriminalisation of sex work. ICRSE hopes that all Amnesty International’s national branches will now reach out to sex workers and our organisations and consult with us, helping us to promote the decriminalisation of sex work and hold states accountable when failing to protect and fulfil our human rights.

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