Colombia Bill proposes criminalising the clients of sex workers

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Latin America Regional Correspondent

Three months ago, attorney and Columbian legislator Clara Leticia Rojas González (known as Clara Rojas), began campaigning for new legislation which would fine people who pay for sex with up to $23,000,000 Colombian pesos (around $7,500 US dollars). This proposal has been strongly condemned by Colombian sex workers, activists and academics.

To achieve her goal, Clara Rojas organised a public hearing prior to introducing the proposal in May, with Non-Governmental Organisations, the Health Department, the Labour Department, academics, members of the Colombian State and District Councils, female union members, and former female sex workers.  It is unknown whether she also invited current sex workers, the population most directly impacted by this initiative.

In an interview in August, Rojas said that she was motivated by her friends, Ambassadors of the European Economic Community and the international community. She said these are the people who told her about the ‘Nordic Model’, which was first introduced in Sweden in 1999, and has since been adopted by other European countries including Ireland, Iceland, Norway and France

Rojas’ proposal has been condemned by the Sex Workers Union in Colombia (SINTRASEXCO), because they think it increases sex workers’ vulnerability to labour rights violations and jeopardises the dignity of those who decide to be sex workers.

One of the groups that have responded to the initiative is “Colectivo Furia Diversa y Callejera” (which means Diverse and Street Fury Collective). They work for the human rights of the LGBT community and sex work regulations that would support a dignified life for people who work in the sex industry. The Collective had been operating before the initiative, but when it began, they became more active and visible.

"They want to start replicating the Nordic model… And [they think this will increase their] votes. Socio-cultural readjustments linked to the marginalisation of women, particularly sex workers…give more power to those in power, and legitimise the violation of our rights,” said Laura Alarcón, member of Colectivo Furia Diversa y Callejera.

The Collective released a statement about the law proposed law, addressed to the public, but appealing directly to Clara Rojas. The statement openly asks Rojas how she can create a Bill without understanding the reality for thousands of sex workers.

They also say this type of initiative does not guarantee rights for sex workers and, much less, a dignified life for sex workers. “On the contrary, it screws up [both] us and the many mouths we feed, as well as all the businesses that live thanks to us. This initiative is clearly a political blunder that abuses our rights and jobs to play politics and win votes. All because Mrs. Rojas had the sudden idea she wanted to fight for the rights of women. It was unexpected from her because throughout her political career we had not heard much about her and her work for women's rights.”

“Apparently, the enlightened Rojas does not know that sexual exploitation and trafficking -which we also oppose- are totally different from sex work”, says Alarcón.

The Collective is also concerned by the proposal to use the money collected from the fines to create a so-called ‘National Fund for Assistance and Support for People in a Prostitution Situation,’ given that this year in Colombia the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor was himself arrested on corruption charges.

Within the framework of this debate, Colectivo Furia Diversa y Callejera has also organised other activities. These activities include a radio transmission called “Homenaje a las inmortales” (Tribute to the immortals), which honoured and remembered people who died as victims of hate crimes, including sex workers; and a panel discussion at a university in Bogotá, which was called “Prostitución. ¿Asunto de ellas o asunto de todos?” (Prostitution. Their concern, or everybody’s concern?)

Clara Rojas’ proposal goes against a series of legal victories that clearly established the difference between sex work and crimes such as sexual exploitation. Four sentences of the Constitutional Court in 2010 were key to this, when they established that sex workers have the same rights than people who perform any other work. In another case from 2015, the Court defined discrimination against marginalised groups, such as sex workers, in other areas of public life as a barrier to these groups exercising their rights, including labour rights.  This recognition of sex work as labour established the right of sex workers to legal and constitutional protection that had not been provided before.  

It’s worth noting that in Colombia, sex work is decriminalised, and last year a union of sex workers was established, for the first time ever.