Written by Preston Mitchum, Policy Research Analyst, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)

Decriminalization is a social justice issue for women and girls around the world. Laws that criminalize trans-diverse populations, sexual minorities, drug users, and sex workers increase stigma and drive the HIV epidemic. Decriminalization serves as a vehicle to ensuring that the health and human rights of women and girls everywhere are upheld, honored, and protected. The sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and girls will not be achieved without decriminalization.

Evidence shows that criminalization of sex work, for example, results in more human rights abuses, impedes prevention of women and girls from actually being trafficked for the purposes of sex, and creates barriers to accessing health care and other services. It’s time to break these barriers.

In May, the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) was proud to support Amnesty International’s new policy calling on governments to take specific actions in protecting the human rights of sex workers, including decriminalization of consensual sex work, the full engagement of sex workers in the development and implementation of laws and policies, ending discrimination, promoting gender equality, and ensuring sex workers can live a life free of coercion, harm, and policing. Amnesty International’s new adopted policy also underscores the negative impact that criminalization has on the health and safety of sex workers, and includes case studies from Argentina, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, and Norway. The policy makes clear that decriminalization is indeed a social justice issue.

As a woman’s rights organizations, CHANGE believes that human rights are universal, and apply to everyone – including sex workers. Ever since the establishment of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, CHANGE has advocated for the health and rights of sex workers by opposing the government’s conflation of those who engage in commercial sex work with those who have been trafficked against their will. CHANGE was also in early opposition to the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO) which prohibits PEPFAR’s foreign assistance delivery to any foreign non-governmental organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution.

In March, CHANGE, American Jewish World Service, and Open Society Foundations hosted “End Criminalization to End AIDS” in Washington, D.C. to coordinate a public conversation about how criminal laws and policies drive the global AIDS epidemic. The panelists discussed the decriminalization of sex work, drug use, HIV, and being LGBTQ, and explored ways that criminal responses and stigma have universally fueled the AIDS epidemic. One general theme resonated: if human rights and social justice are not centered in these conversations, then decriminalization of people and associated behaviors will never be realized.

This month, the International AIDS Conference (IAC) will take place in Durban, South Africa. Out of the five articulated conference objectives, number three addresses key populations; specifically, IAC aims to reinvigorate the response to HIV and AIDS by “Promoting HIV responses that are supported by and tailored to the needs of at risk populations or people living with HIV, including women and girls, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, young people, and people who use drugs.”

At CHANGE, we agree that it is essential to put women – including sex workers – at the center of HIV prevention, treatment, and response. However, we can’t stop there. Civil society organizations, the advocacy community, and donor nations must advance the full spectrum of the health and right of sex workers, and to do that, we must work to decriminalize sex work.

The fact is that the decriminalization of sex work is a human rights issue and all women, sex workers included, are entitled to the full enforcement of those rights so they can live meaningful lives.

Cover Photo Credit: CHANGE, American Jewish World Service, and Open Society Foundations co-hosted a briefing in Washington, D.C. in March on how criminal laws and policies drive the global AIDS epidemic. Photo Credit: John Nelson Photography

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