Sex Workers' Rights are Human Rights
Posted on: Thursday, December 10, 2009
The Declaration of Human Rights includes the rights to be free from harm, to access adequate health care and housing, and the right to fair employment that pays a living wage. The failure to recognize sex work as labor means that sex workers are denied access to health benefits and employment regulations that protect other worker’s health and safety.
Today, sex workers are demanding that their rights be protected. They are speaking out against being arrested or “rescued” from sex work. While police harassment of sex workers is increasingly condemned by human rights advocates, the “rescue” approach must also be rejected. This framework views all sex work as inherently harmful to sex workers. Many sex workers say this view is paternalistic. They demand recognition of their own agency as workers.
MADRE believes that sex workers, like all people, are protected under international human rights standards. Criminalization and stigmatization of sex work makes workers more vulnerable to human rights violations. For example, if a sex worker suffers abuse on the job or poor working conditions, she or he has no legal recourse. Even seeking emergency medical care can make a sex worker vulnerable to prosecution.
Sex workers in many places report that police verbally, physically and sexually abuse them with impunity. When they file complaints against police, they are ignored or blamed for the crimes themselves. Transgender people, in particular, report that police routinely harass them and arrest them for sex work—whether or not they are actually working—for acts as simple as walking on the sidewalk or waving to someone.
Sex workers must be afforded adequate protection of their rights, instead of being persecuted and abused by police. Policies that treat sex workers as criminals and sex work as inherently degrading disempower sex workers and make it more difficult for them to secure their right to safety. Criminalization drives sex work underground where abusive conditions, including child sex work and forced prostitution, flourish.
Those who support the prohibition of prostitution and conflate it with trafficking negate sex workers’ ability to make autonomous decisions. Trafficking people for purposes of forced labor into many sectors—agriculture, manufacturing, domestic, service and the sex industry—is a violation of human rights. But trafficking is not the same as prostitution. The fact is that most people who engage in sex work do so as a means to make enough income to support themselves and their families.
Sex workers would benefit most from a human rights-based approach, which must include participation of sex workers themselves and support for those who want to leave sex work. Governments and other agencies need to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of sex workers both through efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination and through increased training, education, wages, housing, healthcare and other income security.