New Drop-In Space Run by Fijian Sex Workers offers Peer Self-Health Information and Challenges Fiji’s 2009 Prostitution Offences Decree

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(c) SAN Fiji

Fiji’s national peer-led sex worker network, the Survival Advocacy Network, (SAN), recently opened its own autonomous shop-front and drop in centre in Nabu Township, 4 kilometres from Fiji’s national capital city, Suva. According to SAN’s trans* coordinator, Rani Ravundi, SAN chose the space due to its proximity to “Parisi”, an area which is popular for both trans* and women street-based sex workers. SAN have subsequently decorated the space to create a “friendly, accessible and homely” atmosphere, where sex workers can “drop-in for a coffee, chat, information, or just some time out.” The weekday opening hours of the SAN office and drop-in space reflect the busiest hours of the area’s sex trade, between 9am and 7.30pm; similarly, the space provides well needed time out for some of the sex workers operating from this area, whose families do not know they are sex workers, and may have to travel significant distances on public transport between their working areas and living districts.

Upon SAN opening their new community space on 1 April, 2014, the site has attracted a steady stream of sex workers, primarily to access free condom and lube, seek peer advice, referral to legal matters, peer advice about potential health concerns and referral to other social services. SAN work closely with Rainbow Women's Network, (RWN), a community based organisation that have provided technical and logistical support to SAN throughout the organisation’s recent tumultuous years.SAN and RWN undertake coordinated night time outreach to local sex workers, the majority of whom are street or night club based.

SAN currently have 2 staff, a trans*project  coordinator, Rani Ravundi, and Florie Kustel, a women’s project coordinator. Both these staff are responsible for liaising with stakeholders, facilitating community workshops and organising and facilitating annual national sex worker meetings. According to Rani, “The primary issues sex workers face include: stigma and discrimination from the police and military; stigmatising attitudes from health care providers and a lack of confidentiality in accessing service provision; and the media using derogatory language about sex workers and/or trans* people. To address these issues, SAN has conducted sensitisation training with all these institutions. We believe that we are having a positive effect, as sex workers have commented to us that they have noticed a change in the behaviour and attitudes from all these services.”

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SAN Fiji community workshop - (c) SAN Fiji

In recognising the need to build the capacity of the next generation of Fijian sex worker activists, several dedicated volunteers work from the SAN office, where they undertake outreach, attend meetings with SAN coordinators, and according to Rani, “Build their advocacy skills through assisting SAN staff with various forms of advocacy at a national, regional and international level.”    

Currently in Fiji, sex work is criminalised by the  Fiji Crimes Decree 2009, which includes a section called “Prostitution Offences”. The offences under this Decree criminalises a wide range of activities relating to sex work and provided a far-reaching set of powers for the military to detain any person  “reasonably suspected of loitering with intent to sell sex”. Similarly, under the Decree, the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services was also introduced.

Of the few cases that have passed through the Criminal Courts since the Decree was introduced, one have contested their charges and the evidential threshold has not yet been proven. However, it is not the Court system that is meting out punishment to sex workers- it is the military. Since the introduction of the Decree, SAN board member, Seseniele “Bui” Natalia, has reported a vast increase in the military engaging in human rights violations towards sex workers, including various forms of humiliation, verbal and sexual assault, robbery, and other “preventative measures” to discourage sex workers from engaging in our profession. According to Bui, since the introduction of the Prostitution Decree, there has been a significant impact on HIV outreach prevention efforts to sex workers, many of whom are afraid of carrying condoms lest they are used as evidence against them by the military. Bui has developed strategies with local street-based sex workers, including leaving safer sex supplies in well-hidden public spaces, which the general public are unlikely to uncover, and on days and at times that have previously been negotiated with street-based sex workers.

However, in just under three months, Fijians will head to the electoral polls in the country’s first democratic election since the 2006 military coup, which has kept Commodore Frank Bainimarama in power for the last 8 years. His government, which ruled solely by Decree, scrapped the Constitution and replacing the judiciary; however, with the forthcoming Constitutional election, in participation of which Bainimarama has declared himself interterm Prime Minister with the intention of participating in the election process; law reform experts are expecting to challenge a number of the junta’s more draconian Decrees upon the return of the Constitutional Court system.

SAN have been preparing to participate in a Constitutional Court challenge to the Prostitution Decree, and to advocate for an alternative model of sex industry legislation, such as the decriminalisation model adopted in New Zealand. Currently, SAN are advocating to sympathetic lawyers to take on their case pro-bono and are brainstorming fundraising methods to self-fund and sustain an on-going law-reform campaign. In preparation for the eventual Constitutional Court Challenge, SAN staff and volunteers have been organising law reform workshops, human rights workshops and have been diligently encouraging their constituents and members to record evidence of human rights violations perpetrated by the military. With SAN’s enthusiasm and dedication to building a national sex worker-led movement to change the Prostitution Decree which has been encroaching on the human rights of so many of Fiji’s sex workers, Fijian sex workers hope that the challenge to this Decree will be one of the first Constitutional Court challenges in the newly democratic Fiji.