17th December 2018 marks the 15th annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.
For fifteen years, sex workers around the world have used this day to highlight the need for action to end violence against sex workers. The issues faced by sex workers often vary from region to region, due to different laws, social and cultural contexts, but one common issue faced by all sex workers is their vulnerability to and experience of violence.
Sex workers around the world are vulnerable to violence because of the criminalisation and legal oppression of sex work, compounded by stigma and discrimination. This vulnerability to violence is increased for sex workers living with HIV, sex workers who use drugs, transgender sex workers, migrant sex workers, and sex workers that are part of other marginalised groups.
2018 has seen continued infringements on sex workers’ rights around the world, leading to greater incidence of violence. In every region of the world throughout 2018, sex workers have reported multiple instances of violence against them.
In the USA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were signed into law, criminalising online platforms used by sex workers for advertising and information sharing, including for safety purposes. Although the laws are subject to a federal lawsuit challenging their constitutionality, the effect has been far reaching, with many platforms used by sex workers for advertising and safety and information sharing closing down pre-emptively. Most recently, Tumblr has marked 17th December 2018 as the day it will ban adult content from its platform. In June, Desiree Alliance announced it had cancelled its 2019 conference in light of the risk the new laws posed to sex workers. Legislation similar to SESTA-FOSTA has since been proposed in the UK.
In Uganda, sex workers and women’s rights groups protested against a spate of attacks on women, including women sex workers, which included kidnappings and murders. Sex workers in Kenya protested after the brutal murder of a colleague in Kisii and lack of action from police. Sex workers in Cameroon, DRC and Tanzania were arbitrarily arrested and detained under homosexuality or ‘modesty’ laws, breaching their human rights and sparking international calls for action. In Malaysia, a single mother was sentenced to receive corporal punishment for engaging in sex work.
Sex workers in France and across Europe organised a day of action in memory of Vanessa Campos, who was killed in Paris in August 2018. Sex workers have called for the repeal of the 2016 law criminalising the purchase of sex since its introduction; ACCEPTRESS-T said that “the law is 100% responsible for Vanessa’s death. A 2018 Medécins du Monde study showed that the introduction of these laws has pushed sex workers to work in more dangerous conditions, with 42% of sex workers now more exposed to violence.
In Spain, sex workers protested the acquittal of three men accused of raping a sex worker, who denied the rape “because the woman is a prostitute”. They particularly called attention to the lack of support from non-sex worker groups for their protest, saying “the violation of a sex worker seems to be much less important [to them]”. Elsewhere in Spain, the government denied the right of a sex worker-led union to officially register their organisation, calling sex work an “illegal activity” (sex work is not explicitly criminalised in Spain). There has since been a move to introduce the ‘Nordic Model’ in Spain, which has been shown to increase violence and risk of exposure to HIV for sex workers. A similar proposal has also been introduced in Israel.
Sex Workers' Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN) said: "Sex workers in CEECA region continue to face stigma in medical and social settings, the laws and practices criminalising sex workers, and/or our clients continue to contribute to rights violations and vulnerability. Our working conditions continue to be unsafe and unjust, and put us at risk for rights violations and make us vulnerable to health problems. We demand safe working conditions and human rights, not further criminalisation that prevents us from being able to report violence."
Violence against sex workers globally is caused and exacerbated by criminalisation of sex work, stigma, and punitive laws and law enforcement. Worldwide sex workers use 17th December to honour those that have experienced violence or been killed during the year, and to call for the decriminalisation of sex work to protect and fulfil their human rights.
NSWP demands the following actions be taken to ensure the rights of sex workers are respected:
- An end to the criminalisation and legal oppression of sex workers, clients, and third parties
- Equal protection from law enforcement and the criminal justice systems;
- An end to condoms being used as evidence of sex work
- Equal access to rights-based health and social services for sex workers, including sexual and reproductive health.
For more information about the demands of sex workers, please read the NSWP Consensus Statement.
SWOP-USA is collecting the names of sex workers killed in the USA and globally during 2018. Their global list of names is over 100, and they expect to receive more reports of names to add before 17th December. For a global list of 17 December events, please click here.