Sex Worker Advocates Speak at a UN Panel

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North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent
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On Friday, March the 13th, several sex worker advocates addressed a parallel event during the Committee on the Status of Women Forum at the United Nations in New York City.

The session, which was called “What’s Sex Got To Do With It: Linking Advocacy for Sex Workers’ Rights and Respect for all Gender Identities,” featured guest speakers from NSWP member group Legalife in the Ukraine; the South Africa-based S.H.E (Social, Health and Empowerment Feminist Collective of Transgender and Intersex Women of Africa); Voices of Women Media from The Netherlands, and SWOP-Phoenix and NSWP member group Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) both from the United States.

First to speak, via Skype and an interpreter, was Elena from Legalife, who spoke at length about rights violations of sex workers and trans women in the Ukraine, even from institutions that are supposed to protect them. She also told the panel about the prohibitive barriers to changing gender in the Ukraine, which, she said, is restricted to only people over 25, who are unmarried, do not have children, and who have not committed “anti-social” behaviour (for example, sex work). Someone wishing to change their gender, said Elena, would have to go to a psychiatric hospital ward for 45 days of observation (a trans woman would be placed in a men’s ward) and then report to a special commission in Kiev, which only meets twice a year.

Leigh Ann from S.H.E then spoke about the situation in South Africa, highlighting the intersections of race, class and privilege. “We still feel remnants from Apartheid,” she said, which influences identity and social and economic status.

“There is no real feminist politic on sex work or around trans issues,” she said. “The way that sex work is positioned within feminism is with the “bird with a broken wing” approach – that is more harmful than useful.” She also mentioned that, as is often the case, the HIV conversation is the only conceivable space for sex workers to get a foot in the development policy door.

Leigh went on to talk about NSWP member group SWEAT’s “A Job is a Job” campaign, and said that the fact we were having a conversation about such issues in such a conservation space is “a turning point.”

Monica Jones, representing SWOP-Phoenix, spoke about her much-publicised court battle for charges of “manifesting prostitution.” But, she said, “that story does not narrate my whole life.” Speaking about Project ROSE, the diversion programme she protested against, she said: “I want to tell my own story – they want to tell it for me.”

All the high costs that come with being a trans woman (health care, legal issues etc..) “make sex work the best option for us,” she said. “When I went into sex work, I wanted to thrive. I wanted to live. I wanted to have the things that I wanted to have. I didn’t want to go hungry. I didn’t want to choose between hormones and food, so I went into sex work. Where once society told me I was a freak … people told me I was beautiful … and I got paid for it too.”

Vivien Wenli from Voices of Women Media spoke about the experience of migrant sex workers in Amsterdam and the closure of windows, as well as increased criminalisation in Hong Kong.

Working with sex workers in Amsterdam and Hong Kong, the organisation produced a magazine and a film about their real-life experiences. The film was screened in one of Amsterdam’s biggest brothels.

The workers in Amsterdam, she said, told her that the windows are the safest way to work because workers can see and assess clients prior to accepting them, and they feel protected by their neighbours, but now, because the city is trying to gentrify Amsterdam’s red-light district and force the windows to close, they are forced to work in more hidden away, and less safe, places.

Finally, Penelope from BPPP spoke about the great strides sex worker activists have made over the past 15 years, but recognised that sex worker groups are still isolated from global funding discussions. “We should be included.” She said. “We can be agents of change.”

Representatives of US-based sex worker rights organisations, including Monica Jones, are currently in Geneva to meet with members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), and to call for greater human rights protections. The United States will be reviewed by the United Nations during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in May 2015.