AMNESTY International has introduced its first policy to protect the human rights of sex workers and called for the decriminalisation of sex work globally despite vocal opposition from within its own organisation.

When Vixen in Victoria’s Jane Green and sex workers were invited to speak at Amnesty’s Australian National Meeting in 2014 to discuss issues surrounding decriminalisation of sex work, they were shouted at and abused.

“When the proposal to endorse the decriminalisation of sex work was discussed at Amnesty’s National Meeting in Australia in 2014, sex workers who had been invited to speak were objected to, shouted at, called “pimps” and continually abused,” Green said.

The CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s Sex Workers Association, Jules Kim welcomed the move but said it was sad that many at the public consultations did not believe sex workers had a right to speak about their lives.

“This policy is important as it recognises the importance of the human rights of sex workers. Sex workers have the right to basic human rights that others take for granted and the decriminalisation of sex work is instrumental in achieving this,” Kim said.

An Amnesty International spokesperson acknowledged that many people had opposed the policy and the issue “has been passionately debated amongst Amnesty’s membership, in particular, some members have a range of strong views for or against decriminalisation”.

“Ultimately, after an extensive two-and-a-half year democratic consultation process; considering a wide range of evidence, lived experiences and best-practice policies; and conducting our own in-country research, Amnesty settled on this policy as the one that would most protect the rights of sex workers,” the spokesperson said.
Christian Vega, who is a sex worker and sex worker rights advocate, also welcomed the policy but admitted the process was a “battle”.
“The international leadership have always supported the evidence that decriminalisation has always been the best practice model,” he said.
“The discussion around this stuff isn’t new and the controversy we’ve seen it in other debates… but it’s a massive relief to have the organisation mobilising to have our community’s human rights recognised.”
Leda Avgousti, a researcher and advisor with Amnesty International’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program, said they recognise that it can be a controversial issue.
“We’ve had diverse responses from people,” Avgousti said.
“Sex workers are positive, they are happy that we have done this work and done the research and that is a positive first step.
“Because Amnesty International is a huge organisation with millions of members around the world… some people disagree with the policy and we respect the fact that there are differences in opinion.”

In 2013, following countless reports of human rights violations against sex workers, Amnesty International decided to compile an official policy which can be accessed publicly and referred to by lawmakers.

Avgousti said a 2010 report on violence against women in Uganda revealed a number of sex workers would not report incidents to police, or were shunned when they did.

The Amnesty team heard harrowing accounts of discrimination from LGBTI sex workers including trans women sex workers being thrown into male prisons and having their heads forcibly shaved, police harassment and ongoing physical violence.

“The motivation to create this policy was that we were witnessing consistent human rights abuses against sex workers across the world,” Avgousti said.

“This lead to the fact we did not have consistent policy, how it would respond and what we would recommend to the governments to do in this area. That was a gap in the policy organisation.”

Avgousti and her team embarked on a painstaking two-year research mission, which included scouring through previous research on sex work and hitting the ground in various countries around the world to speak to sex workers directly.

“Some of the elements that we weren’t prepared for when we started this and what turned out to be the most valuable thing for us, to fill in this policy was to have the testimonials and to be able to speak to sex workers themselves to guide policy. We are putting the needs of sex workers at the forefront,” she said.

While sex workers face an disproportionate amount of discrimination, LGBTI sex workers fare much worse because they face intersectional discrimination and marginalisation.

“LGBTI sex workers often face intersecting stigma and discrimination,” Jules Kim of Scarlet Alliance said.

“There’s a lot of moral panic behind people’s opposition to sex work. Sex workers are seen to be transgressing sexual norms, and for LGBTI sex workers, who may be perceived as transgressing gender and sexuality norms, the impact of misplaced judgement and marginalisation is compounded.”

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