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Thousands of sex workers from over 40 countries marched for their rights in Kolkata, India demanding decriminalization. July 2012. (Photo: Piyal Adhikary/EPA)

Thousands of sex workers from over 40 countries marched for their rights in Kolkata, India demanding decriminalization. July 2012. (Photo: Piyal Adhikary/EPA)

Human Rights Victory as Amnesty Votes for Decriminalization of Sex Work

Humanitarian organization's adoption of policy hailed as important step for sex workers' health, safety protections, and rights to organize

Sarah Lazare

In what is being hailed as a historic human rights victory, international delegates for the influential humanitarian organization Amnesty International voted on Tuesday to adopt a resolution to press for the global decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.

"Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse," said Salil Shetty, secretary general of Amnesty International, in a press statement released Tuesday. "Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue."

Officially approved at the organization's decision-making meeting in Dublin, the resolution "recommends that Amnesty International develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work," the organization explained. "The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence."

The measure stems from a growing body of evidence showing that the decriminalization of the industry better protects workers' access to health care, safety protections, and the right to organize.

The Lancet journal declared last year that decriminalization of sex work is critical to protecting sex workers' rights and tackling the global AIDS epidemic. Moreover, the World Health Organization recommended starting in 2012 that "that countries work towards decriminalization of sex work and urge countries to improve sex workers’ access health services." And the Global Commission on HIV and the Law declared in a report released in 2012: "Rather than punishing consenting adults involved in sex work, countries must ensure safe working conditions, and offer sex workers and their clients access to effective HIV and health services and commodities."

Perhaps most importantly, growing numbers of sex workers have called for the decriminalization of their industry, with many from around the world speaking out and signing petitions in favor of Amnesty's proposal.

"The decriminalization model is the only legal model for sex work that is based within the human rights framework," wrote two South African organizations—Sisonke (a national sex workers' movement) and Sex Workers' Education and Advocacy Task Force. "The decriminalization of sex work can support increased respect, protection, and fulfillment of sex workers human rights as enshrined in the South African Constitution and could have a direct impact on improving sex workers' lives."

The African Sex Workers' Alliance lauded Amnesty's proposal for highlighting the "health, human rights, and harm reduction impact of decriminalizing sex work and the importance of promoting sex workers' human rights."

Numerous scholars and organizations also threw their weight behind the proposal ahead of the vote, with UNAIDS declaring: "The voice and actions by Amnesty International in responding to the demands of sex workers and working to ending violence and human rights violations perpetuated against them are critical to restoring dignity to this population and supporting their efforts to collectivize and speak out against pernicious and systemic abuses in many parts of the world."

Amnesty's proposal also attracted opposition from Hollywood A-listers and organizations including the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, with some framing the policy as a boon to sex trafficking, despite Amnesty's clear position against such abuse. Some opponents of the policy argued for Amnesty to instead advocate the "Swedish model," which criminalizes purchasers and third party sellers of sex, but not sex workers themselves.

However, Pye Jakobsson, a Stockholm-based sex worker and president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, recently argued that while the Swedish model might seem progressive, "it hurts sex workers all the same."

"Where I live, in Sweden, the law against 'pimping' is so broad that it prevents sex workers from creating safety strategies," wrote Jakobsson. "We cannot have a person driving us to appointments, waiting outside while we see a client, or work together with others. We must work alone, and when we are alone, we face greater risk."

"What’s more, we cannot work from home without risking eviction from landlords who could be charged with pimping," Jakobsson continued. "Given this, and that police have trained hotel staff to report us, we must work on the streets or at the homes of clients — at the risk of our safety and our health."

Many took to social media on Tuesday to praise Amnesty's vote and argue in favor of the worldwide decriminalization of sex work.

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