Decriminalization of Sex Work is a Human Rights Issue

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

What Do The World’s Women Want?

What do the world’s women want?

Put simply:

  • Control over their bodies
  • Education
  • Economic autonomy
  • Access to health services
  • To choose who and when to marry
  • To choose if and when to have children

This should not come as a surprise. These are fundamental rights that advocates for gender equality have been working towards for years. At a recent event hosted by the Foreign Policy Association, Francoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition, outlined the demands, spoke about what over 600 women’s groups worldwide are doing to make these demands a reality and how large foreign investors need to realign their efforts.

The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) takes a three-pronged approach that combines global policy promotion, youth leadership/advocacy workshops and partnerships with local women’s organizations. Through partnerships with 80 grassroots countries, IWHC uses the local expertise to inform their global advocacy.

Girard’s talk covered the state of the world as it relates to the Millennium Development Goals and how that has shaped the formation of the soon-to-come Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But what I found most captivating about her presentation was the strikingly honest and positive approach she takes to women and girls’ rights.

Francoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition
Francoise Girard, President of the International Women’s Health Coalition

Girard explained that the women’s movement is the most organized in getting their demands included in the SDGs. The outlook for women is positive and we are set to have one goal completely dedicated to women with more comprehensive metrics than the Millennium Development Goals provided.

But the United States government could certainly do more to meet the demands of women worldwide. Girard noted that international funding cannot take the place of domestic commitment. However the U.S. spends millions on international investment each year and its policy limitations exclude the most vulnerable women and girls from the services they need.

First, the U.S. government funds abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been very successful in reducing the AIDS death rate and the number of babies born HIV-free. But through its ABC Approach (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condom use), the funding only goes to programs that teach abstinence-only-until marriage. Of course, delaying the first sexual encounter will have positive results, but this is not the reality for teenagers and young girls around the world today. Young girls are having sex – by choice and by force – and they need the sexual intelligence to understand when something is wrong and how to take care of their bodies.

Second, the U.S should change its funding policy for abortion in the case of rape or incest. The Helms Amendment forbids funding for abortion as family planning, however it needs to explicitly say that the amendment does not apply in cases of rape or incest. Right now the amendment is taken to mean abortion in all instances. When the first sexual experience is forced for 30% of women worldwide, the level of support must increase.

Finally, the new Let Girls Learn program is a good step in supporting girls’ retention in secondary school. But this program is executed through the U.S. Peace Corps and with less than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers worldwide, we are only reaching a small fraction of young girls. Additionally, keeping girls in secondary school requires attention to contextual factors such as school fees, early marriage, absence of latrines at school, early pregnancy and the prevalence of sexual harassment by teachers and peers. With a more integrated approach, the Let Girls Learn initiative could yield tremendous results.


“It won’t happen because governments see the light, it will happen because they feel the heat.” – Francoise Girard

Despite the shortcomings of the U.S. government, I left Girard’s speech feeling inspired and confident that women’s demands will be met. For example, thanks to IWHC’s 12-year partnership with Uruguayan organization Mujer y Salud en Uruguay, Uruguay became the first Spanish-speaking country in South America to legalize abortion in the first trimester.

The women’s empowerment movement is strong and it is founded in local activists and youth leaders fighting for justice. Equality and justice will come when we all want what the world’s women want.

What Indiana’s New Religious Freedom Restoration Act Means for Women 

Today, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allowing for individuals and companies with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to refuse service to individuals who do not align with their beliefs. Although the Governor and his Republican colleagues refute the claim that this bill legalizes religious discrimination, it clearly does.

For example, the law protects Christian bakers, florists, and photographers from punishment if they refuse to participate in a homosexual marriage. (Same-sex marriage was legalized in Indiana in October of 2014.) Now, that might sound seemingly harmless. After all, if same-sex partners are looking for wedding day caterers or other services, they could always choose another, more LGBT-friendly company. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done when 80 percent of Indiana’s population follows the Christian faith. But that’s beside the point. The point is that they shouldn’t have to look elsewhere. (Before students staged the 1960 Nashville sit-ins at Woolworth’s lunch counter, the same argument was used to justify segregation in restaurants.)

I got married in 2013 and I know from experience that planning a wedding can be a time-consuming albeit exciting task. It’s a big day and a big celebration, and you and your partner both want it to be memorable and meaningful. If, for some people, memorable and meaningful means hiring the best photographers, the best caterers, so be it. They should not be limited to companies who are not anti-LGBT. And who knows, maybe no companies will be left that support same-sex marriage. Who will help those couples on their special day?

Although this law is aimed primarily towards the LGBT community, its consequences stretch much further.

Around the world, communities often use religion as the foundation of political and social norms. For women, this can mean discrimination and gender inequality.

In America, religious extremists often argue against women’s rights – particularly sexual and reproductive rights. In the 19th century, the Catholic church established that life begins at conception, creating the religious-based anti-abortion war that still rages to this day.

Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons
Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

Many anti-abortion Catholics and evangelicals cite Psalm 139 in the Bible, which says “it was (the Lord) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Another common religious argument against abortion is the story of Moses’ birth, whose mother defied Pharaoh’s order to kill all Hebrew boys and, instead, placed her infant son in a basket to float down the Nile, only later to be rescued, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, and grow up to share God’s Ten Commandments.

Unfortunately for women in the United States, anti-abortion activists are gaining momentum and support. This past January, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared that his goal as governor was to “end abortion in Mississippi” and, a few weeks later, the state’s last remaining abortion clinic was severely vandalized.  Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who recently announced he’s running for president in the 2016 elections, once referred to birth control as abortion-inducing (which is just scientifically incorrect). When Republicans took control of the Congress in January, one of its first acts was to propose a 20-week abortion ban, a proposal that included efforts to require women to officially report having been raped in order to be qualified for an abortion.

Let’s be honest, the vast majority of women do not want to get an abortion. Getting an abortion is a serious, emotionally draining, and life-changing decision. Women have differing and equally valid reasons for seeking an abortion – whether it be they are not financially able to support a child; they were raped; the fetus, when born, will suffer from extreme disabilities; or otherwise.

However, the consequences of the religious argument against abortion do not limit themselves to just abortion. In Texas, a judge banned the use of federal funding for abortions and, as a result, Planned Parenthood, a leader in the pro-choice movement, lost millions in federal funding. To be clear, Planned Parenthood is not solely an abortion provider. In one year, over 110,000 lower-income women in Texas received preventative treatment for breast and cervical cancer treatments, 48,000 of whom were treated by Planned Parenthood. Additionally, Planned Parenthood enables women to access a variety of birth control methods including the pill, IUDs, menstrual cups, and more. (I, myself, can thank Planned Parenthood for inserting my IUD. Thanks Planned Parenthood!) Therefore, by eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood, Texas effectively eliminated funding for women’s health.

When the United Nations calls access to safe, voluntary family planning a human right and “central to gender equality and women’s empowerment,” why are we using religion as an excuse to deny women their sexual and reproductive rights?

Indiana’s passing of RFRA fuels the fire behind the aforementioned religious-based arguments. We, as a society – no matter your race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, age, income – need to band together, raise our voices, and reject this law. If we don’t, we are looking at a world of consequences, for the LGBT community, for women, for everyone.

Sign the petition to recall Governor Mike Pence.

Cover photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images