Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 3 (Summer 2000): Silence Breaking: The Women's Dimension of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Fifteen Years after the World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights

Aug 6, 2000

At least 15 years have passed since the sex worker rights movement linked its strategies for change to the human rights framework. In 1985 the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights demanded that sex workers be guaranteed human rights, including freedom of speech, travel, immigration, work, marriage, motherhood, health, and housing. As part of this rights-based agenda, the sex worker rights movement aims to curb unethical and abusive behavior towards prostitutes. These abuses include harassment and extortion by police and other authorities; denial of fair treatment during arrest; imprisonment without due process; failure to investigate or prevent crimes committed against prostitutes such as rape, physical violence, or murder; and threats and reprisals toward sex workers’ families.

At the local level, an active discourse on the rights-based approach has taken place through new sex worker organizations in both developed and developing countries, and the general principles of sex worker rights have been translated to suit local circumstances. Internationally, advocates have also elaborated a rights agenda through participation in world conferences and through new NGO alliances.

In order to evaluate these developments from the perspective of sex workers and explore how human rights have been employed by women who work in the sex industry, I interviewed key sex worker rights activists about their involvement with the human rights framework. I also draw on my own ten-year experience as a sex worker rights advocate in Australia and the United States and my current role as a lobbyist and researcher in the field of human rights.

At the grassroots level, human rights have proved extremely useful for advocates seeking to reduce discrimination against sex workers. For example, the organization Workers in Sex Employment (WISE) in Australia utilizes the language of human rights to explain to migrant sex workers that they do not have to submit to “mandatory health tests” organized by brothel owners and that information regarding their health should be kept confidential. Migrant sex workers are often unaware that law in the Australian Capital Territory prohibits the use of health test results by business owners. This is a broader human rights issue for sex workers who in some countries have faced deportation, imprisonment without trial, and the denial of health care due to their actual or perceived HIV status. Sera Pinwill, the director of WISE, explains: “As sex workers, we are so often told that our jobs render us undeserving of protection under the law from exploitation, assault, privacy breaches, et cetera, that couching our rights in terms of human rights is a valuable tool. Once we sex workers feel that we are deserving of social justice, then we have a much better chance of convincing the rest of the world of that.”

Sex workers in developing countries also see human rights as a crucial tool. Women who were evicted from the Tan Bazar brothel in Bangladesh recently won the right to return to their place of work using rights claims, solidarity with local NGOs, and the spotlight of the international arena to strengthen their cause. In 1999, when 3,500 sex workers were forcibly removed from Tan Bazar, they and their families were forced to live in a shelter for vagrants where they faced sexual harassment, abuse, and extortion. In deciding the case, brought by 100 sex workers, the High Court concluded that the government had not had legal grounds to evict the brothel occupants because prostitution, when it forms the basis for women’s livelihood, is not illegal. The Tan Bazar case is key because it illustrates that in organizing to protect the human rights of sex workers we should not limit our strategies to the perhaps more obvious realm of civil and political freedoms, but should also consider economic and social rights, including the right to work. As Carol Jenkins, an advocate who works with the sex workers in Bangladesh, stated: “No other approach but that of human rights [such as the rights of a citizen and the right to work] would have worked in Bangladesh. Because a coalition of over 60 human rights organizations put its strength behind the sex workers’ cause, the High Court would hear the case.”

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the majority of sex workers have an in-depth appreciation of their rights or see utility in the human rights framework. Many sex workers simply never have thought about the social injustice they face in explicit human rights terms. In some places, the human rights framework is not viable. As one U.S.–based activist told me: “I think that human rights discourse would have to be popularized before U.S. sex workers could use it with any impact. . . . Rarely if ever does human rights come up in conversations among the local sex worker population that I work with.” Moreover, because sex workers are considered criminals and “undesirable elements” in many countries, they risk serious consequences for their activism. Many sex workers prefer not to make a fuss about rights abuse in order to avoid reprisals.

Unfortunately, little aid or development funding exists for rights-based activism and education among sex workers. Funding is often available only for health promotion to reduce the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. As a result, few people in the sex worker rights movement have been trained in the principles and practice of human rights and international law.

Despite these constraints, sex worker activists have self-funded, or scraped together support for, human rights programs and participation in major conferences such as the Fourth International Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. There, sex workers from different regions and cultures aimed to establish links with human rights organizations, especially those concerned with women’s and with gays and lesbians’ human rights.

Yet not all organizations at the Women’s Conference proved to be allies, and some groups even opposed the participation of sex workers and their organizations in such gatherings. For them, sex work is neither legitimate labor nor freely chosen. Rather, it is considered a human rights abuse: inherently coercive, degrading, and a form of violence against women. Sex worker rights activists, on the other hand, argue that it is not prostitution per se that is the problem, but the legal frameworks surrounding it that infringe upon sex workers’ freedom and allow others to discriminate against them. Furthermore, it is difficult to generalize about any sex worker’s personal experience. For some, prostitution may be as mundane as any other job; for others, sex work is the least bad option they can pursue out of a limited range of choices; and for still others, it can be an extremely creative, desirable, and lucrative profession.

Efforts to define prostitution as a human rights abuse open the way for governments to take action to abolish the sex industry and arrest those who work in it. Unfortunately, even when organizations are not clearly opposed to prostitution they may inadvertently undermine sex workers’ rights. For example, measures developed by women’s organizations ostensibly to prevent the “trafficking in women” may result in stronger legislation against prostitutes and police crackdowns on brothels, and thus more abuse of their rights. Even though human rights advocates are now beginning to redefine “trafficking in persons” as a form of slavery present throughout many forms of work such as the garment industry and agricultural labor, many sex worker rights activists observe few practical changes in the measures emerging from the anti-trafficking movement. In this environment the fight for sex workers’ rights is a difficult one, because few NGOs and human rights organizations understand the nature of sex work or are prepared to support the participation of sex workers in arenas where their rights are decided.

Clearly sex worker activists and their organizations have a long road ahead before their rights are accepted, institutionalized as part of human rights doctrine, and made widely accessible to those who need them. The challenege remains to raise awareness, strengthen organizations, and train effective lobbyists who can win permanent status for sex worker rights in the UN system and at home.

* In addition to those mentioned in the text, I would like to thank the following activists for providing opinions for this article: Melissa Blake (New York), Jo Doezema (Network of Sex Work Projects, London), Gretchen Soderlund (USA), Mary Right (South Australia), and Teri Goodson (Cyprian Guild and the Coalition for Prostitution Law Reform). More information about sex worker rights and the nature of sex work can be found by contacting the Network of Sex Work Projects Head Office, 3 Morley Rd. Observatory, 7925 Cape Town, South Africa,

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