Out of the Shadows: Fighting for the Rights of Sex Workers

By Catherine Murphy United Kingdom,

“Six police officers did sex to me one by one. They were armed with guns so I had to do it,” Mona, a mother of two in her late thirties told us, tears streaming down her cheeks.

The gang rape took place in a public park in Papua New Guinea’s capital city Port Moresby in August 2012 and, while clearly extremely traumatized, Mona has never reported it. 

“It was so painful to me, but then I let it go,” Mona sighs. “If I go to the law, they cannot help me.”

The reason Mona’s attackers are unlikely to ever face justice, is that Mona is a sex worker. And the harsh reality in many countries is that when you’re a sex worker, you get very little protection from abuse.

The reason Mona’s attackers are unlikely to ever face justice, is that Mona is a sex worker. And the harsh reality in many countries is that when you’re a sex worker, you get very little protection from abuse.
Catherine Murphy, Policy Advisor

For many years Amnesty International has documented human rights violations against sex workers in countries all over the world, highlighting the fact that they are consistently at heightened risk of abuse. Today we launch four detailed research reports into the situation for sex workers in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea. The picture is grim.

Across the four locations, in spite of strikingly different economic, social and cultural backdrops and different legal frameworks, sex workers told us stories of exploitation, harassment and violence.

It is these stories, and these voices, that have helped guide Amnesty International in formulating its policy on protecting sex workers from human rights violations and abuses which is also published today.

The policy outlines a range of steps for states to take that will help ensure better protection for sex workers from the rampant violence and injustice they face worldwide.

To help achieve this, the policy supports the decriminalization of consensual adult sex work. Both in our own research, and in the work of other organisations, there is a growing body of evidence that shows that criminalizing sex work further endangers and marginalizes sex workers and impedes their ability to seek protection from the police and other legal and social services.

Mona in Papua New Guinea is just one example of this, but we hear about many, many others.

Sex workers in Norway – which operates under the so-called ‘Nordic model’ and focuses on criminalizing buyers, rather than sellers of sex – told us that, in spite of high levels of rape and violence by clients, they seldom reported crimes to the police for fear of repercussions.    

They said that the broad laws around sex work – including those that criminalize the promotion of sex work and letting out premises that will be used for sex work – mean that they are subjected to police scrutiny and are often penalized in order to stop sex work from taking place.

One sex worker in Oslo told us “The Norwegian police go after everybody. Not traffickers and pimps. But everybody. It’s crazy.”

Several of the women that Amnesty interviewed in Norway also described living in fear of being evicted from their accommodation. A significant number of evictions that Amnesty learned of were carried out by landlords fearing prosecution. Many such evictions were conducted in a matter of hours and in a way that would classify them as ‘forced evictions’ which are illegal under international law.

A young Nigerian sex worker called Eunice said “I have been given minutes to leave my apartment. You don’t have time to get all your things. [I had to go and] sleep in the train station.”

Laws must make sex workers’ lives safer; this includes addressing the violence experienced by sex workers and ensuring that they can leave sex work if and when they choose to. We want states to ensure that sex workers are not exposed to violence or forced to work in unsafe conditions, and that no person is subject to forced labour or trafficking.

Laws must make sex workers’ lives safer; this includes addressing the violence experienced by sex workers and ensuring that they can leave sex work if and when they choose to. We want states to ensure that sex workers are not exposed to violence or forced to work in unsafe conditions, and that no person is subject to forced labour or trafficking.
Catherine Murphy

Decriminalization is not a panacea; it alone will not end all the human rights abuses that sex workers face. But it is a necessary first step and, in combination with the other measures outlined in the policy, we believe that it will enable governments to do more to protect people who do sex work.

Other measures include tackling the gender stereotypes and discrimination that often drive marginalized groups, including transgender people, into sex work. They include ensuring that sex workers have access to education, employment opportunities, healthcare and other public services. And they include ensuring that sex workers are treated equally in the eyes of the law.

The genesis and development of this policy has been protracted, difficult and controversial; we didn’t expect anything less. We recognize that there are fundamental differences of opinion on the issue of decriminalization of sex work and we respect the views of those who are not supportive of the position we have taken.

We need an open, honest and respectful discussion about how to best protect the human rights of sex workers. Fundamental to this is listening to the hundreds of sex workers from all over the world who have offered us their insight, opinion and first-hand experience; sometimes at great personal risk.

They have told us unequivocally that laws that criminalize sex work force sex workers further into the margins of society where they are confronted by walls of discrimination and abuse.

Mona put it this way: “Police hit us, chase us, say sex work is not allowed… We say you are not going to feed us, clothe us, help our children so we need to do this. We fight for our rights. It’s the only way to benefit and live.”

From today, Amnesty International will be standing in solidarity with her, and many others around the world like her, fighting for these rights.