BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Tackling the trafficking of women is being used as an excuse to further crack down on sex work and this is leading to abuses, an activist group said on Thursday at the launch of a U.N. report that calls for legal empowerment of sex workers and the decriminalisation of sex work.
“The unspoken purpose of the anti-trafficking movement is to end prostitution globally,” said Tracey Tully from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW).
“Under the guise of anti-trafficking,” this movement wants to change laws on prostitution by further criminalising sex work and to deny sex workers control over their own lives, Tully told TrustLaw.
“That causes problems like raids and rescues, arbitrary forced detention, and all the problems that arise when sex workers come into contact with law enforcement,” including violence, rape, deportation and indeterminate periods in prison, she said.
During raids conducted by non-governmental organisations, law enforcement rarely makes the distinction between who is in sex work voluntarily and who isn’t, and such punitive environments affect the people the raids claim to be saving, APNSW said.
“The obvious people to be working closely with anti-trafficking issues within the context of sex work environment are the sex workers,” Tully said at the launch of the report, compiled by three UN agencies.
“Throughout the whole anti-trafficking narrative, we seemed to have been overlooked.”
The United States, through its development agency USAID, is the main funder of anti-trafficking work, Tully said, and urged the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to raise the issue with the donor.
“The sex workers don't get to deal much with USAID because of the PEPFAR anti-prostitution pledge. We can't… point out the impacts of further criminalisation,” she added.
All organisations that receive funding through the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) must sign an anti-prostitution pledge which prohibits them from activities that could be perceived as supporting sex work.
REPORT CALLS FOR DECRIMINALISATION
Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific, produced by three U.N. agencies, urges countries in the region to legally empower sex workers and decriminalise sex work – a politically and socially sensitive issue – to make the fight against HIV/AIDS more effective.
Globally, sex workers are 14 times more likely to acquire HIV than other women of reproductive age yet fewer than one in five has access to HIV prevention, treatment and care, said Mandeep Dhaliwal, director of the HIV, health & development practice at UNDP.
She blamed the low number on the stigma attached to sex work, discrimination against and criminalisation of sex workers.
The report is the first comprehensive study of how laws, legal policies and law enforcement practices in the region’s 48 countries affect the human rights of sex workers and what impact they have on the effectiveness of HIV responses.
In jurisdictions where sex work has been decriminalised, such as New Zealand and New South Wales, it found no evidence that such work has increased. Rather, it increases sex workers’ access to HIV and sexual health services, said the report.
“The key messages are that we must no longer treat sex workers as criminals,” said John Godwin, a human rights lawyer and author of the report.
“The best way to provide for health and human rights of sex workers is to recognise sex work as legitimate work, to empower sex workers and to have control over their own working conditions.”
PUNITIVE ENVIRONMENT A REALITY
That aspiration, however, is “a world away from” the reality in the region, which is of a highly punitive legal environment, he said.
Not only is sex work criminalised in most countries, it is also linked to a range of harmful practices such as police abuses including detention, extortion, assaults and gang rapes.
At least four countries including China and Myanmar practice compulsory detention of sex workers for rehabilitation or re-education, while police reportedly harass sex workers for possessing condoms in 11 countries including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Such an environment worsens the sex workers’ ability to negotiate for safe sex, Godwin said.
However, the report also highlighted laws, policies and practices that are helpful to HIV responses.
These include decisions of the Supreme Courts of Bangladesh, India and Nepal to recognise the human rights of sex workers, and legislation in Fiji and Papua New Guinea that makes it unlawful to deny a person access to condoms or other means of HIV protection.
In Thailand, the rules of the social security fund enable sex workers to access state benefits.
The report is part of a growing body of evidence to support arguments for decriminalisation and provision of labour protection for sex workers, experts at the launch said.
"Human rights are universal. It doesn't matter if you're a sex worker or a police officer… or if you’re a prime minister, we're all entitled to realise the same set of human rights,” said UNDP’s Dhaliwal.