Amnesty International, a global movement of over seven million people who take injustice personally and campaign for eradicating human rights violations, has recently published a policy on the protection of sex workers’ human rights. After extensive research, the organization took the official stance of advocating the decriminalization of sex work. Amnesty International is just one of many organizations who support or call for decriminalization of consensual sex work. Other major entities who share in Amnesty International’s stance include the World Health Organization; UNAIDS; the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women; Global Commission on HIV and the Law; Human Rights Watch; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health.

Amnesty International composed their policy on protecting sex workers from human rights violations and abuses by considering research reports focusing on these issues in four regions: Hong Kong, Oslo, Buenos Aires and Papua New Guinea. Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s Senior Director of Law and Policy, has stated, ”Sex workers are at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses, including rape, violence, extortion, and discrimination. Far too often they receive no, or very little, protection from the law or means for redress.”

The goal of the policy is to outline how governments must be more proactive in protecting people who do sex work as a product of abuse, exploitation, and coercion. Governments are also encouraged to allow sex workers to participate in the development of laws that affect their lives and safety. Another objective is to end discrimination against sex workers and make it easier for such individuals to have access to educational opportunities and employment outside of the sex industry.

Human Rights Abuses Associated With Sex Work

Amnesty International defines sex worker as being someone age 18 or over who receives money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services. Women account for the majority of sex workers globally. Sex workers are a heterogeneous group, comprised of people of varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Sex work advocates feel strongly that all sex workers, both those working of their own free will and those under the control of a pimp, should have the same human rights afforded to those in any profession.

The social climate dictates that sex workers are continually marginalized, especially by police. Sex workers remain one of the world’s most stigmatized and vulnerable groups. Globally, the most common human rights abuses associated with sex work include the following:

  • Violence
  • Extortion
  • Rape
  • Trafficking
  • Forced eviction
  • Arbitrary arrest and detention
  • Discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Exclusion from health services
  • Lack of legal redress

Amnesty International believes decriminalization is key to creating a safer environment for sex workers. The organization believes that laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from abuse and exploitation, rather than attempting to prohibit all sex work and penalizing sex workers. When laws are focused on making sex worker’s lives safer, and their relationship with law enforcement is improved, real issues of exploitation can be addressed. Tawanda Mutasah says, ”Sex workers have told us how criminalization enables the police to harass them and not prioritize their complaints and safety.” Amnesty International urges governments to make sure nobody is coerced to sell sex or is unable to leave sex work when and if they choose to.

“In too many places around the world, sex workers are without the protection of the law and suffering awful human rights abuses. This situation can never be justified. Governments must act to protect the human rights of all people, sex workers included. Decriminalization is just one of several necessary steps governments can take to ensure protection from harm, exploitation, and coercion,” Mutasah has said.

Amnesty International’s policy reinforces their position that child sexual exploitation, forced labor, and human trafficking are abhorrent human rights abuses requiring concerted action and which, under international law, must be criminalized in every country. Law enforcement in many countries focuses on prohibiting sex work through raids, harassment, and surveillance, rather than protecting sex workers from violence and crime. Amnesty International’s research shows that sex workers often receive little to no protection from violence or legal redress, even in regions where the practice of selling sex itself is legal.

Critical Facts From Policy Research

When Amnesty International conducted policy research in Papua New Guinea, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Oslo, they interviewed sex workers, government officials, advocates and representatives of non-governmental organizations. They also performed a broad review of existing related human rights research globally. Significant discoveries in the research include:

  • In Papua New Guinea, sex workers are commonly stigmatized and accused of spreading disease, yet police have used condoms as evidence against them.

  • In Hong Kong, selling sex is not illegal if the sex worker is operating from a private apartment. However, such a private setting places sex workers in danger, as working in an isolated environment means they are more vulnerable to physical assault, rape or robbery.

  • Under Norway’s laws, sex workers are at risk of forced evictions as their landlords can be prosecuted for renting property to them if they sell sex there. It is legal to sell sex in Oslo, but buying sex and promoting sex work is illegal. Renting out a dwelling used for selling sex is illegal under the law on promotion.

  • In all locations, except for Oslo, Amnesty International learned of police violence is prevalent. Mistreatment from law enforcement included incidents such as extortion, rape, and violent detainment.

  • In Hong Kong, police are at times allowed to receive sexual services from sex workers in order to collect evidence.

It is important to note that Amnesty International neither supports nor condemns commercial sex work. What they do denounce is discrimination and human rights abuses committed against those who sell sex.