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

12 Ways to Give Back for Women and Girls

I love holiday traditions. Not only that, but the holidays are one of my favorite times of year. My family gathers and we spend time together. During this season, friends, faith leaders and mentors have challenged me to stop and be present. In the United States, Christmas is a time to spend with family, friends and, eat good food and give gifts. As someone committed to the Christian faith, it is also a time to reflect and celebrate Christ’s birth.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, a different Holiday tradition or simply the joy of being with family we have to admit it is so easy to get caught in the busyness. Several years ago, my entire family decided to do something non-traditional for Christmas. We decided to stop giving gifts at Christmastime. Instead of giving gifts we decided to focus on spending more time serving each other. Last year, we each picked a cause or non-profit organization to support. Going around in a circle, we drew names one by one. Each person agreed to learn about their selected family member’s cause and donate to the cause or organization on their behalf. For me personally, the joy of this experience came from the opportunity to teach my niece and nephew the importance of thinking about others and learning about global issues. I shared with them how many young girls and boys don’t have an opportunity to learn and go to school like they do. I talked with them about how so many girls don’t have a choice of when to get married or have a family. I showed them simple and kid-friendly videos related to issues like hunger, trafficking and children who don’t have access to a good education.

Not only during this season but every day we can affect change for women and girls around the world. Simple acts of understanding, justice and mercy can go a long way. This year, consider making giving back to women and girls a part of your Holiday traditions. Below are 12 simple ways you can choose to do just that.

1. Start a conversation

Whether you choose to speak with your children, faith group, friends or nieces and nephews, you can make a difference simply by sharing about the life of a woman or girl living in a different part of the world or in your own neighborhood.

2. Invest time

Consider volunteering your time to help an organization or serve an individual either near or far.

3. Learn about incredible organizations

There are so many wonderful featured organizations in the Girls’ Globe network working to empower women and girls. Take time to learn about them, read their posts and consider supporting their work.

4. Create new traditions

Does your family watch Christmas movies during the holidays? Consider switching it up and watching a documentary like A Path Appears or The Mask You Live In to learn more about important issues facing young women, men and communities around the world.

5. Support a holiday campaign

There are so many organizations who launch campaigns during this season. Check out the creative Dressember campaign to fight the issue of trafficking and support the International Justice Mission or Femme International’s holiday catalogue.

6. Use your talents

Do you have a hobby? What are you passionate about? Consider using your talents to raise awareness about issues affecting women and girls around the world.

7. Write a letter

Do you know someone working to empower women and girls in a different country? Write them a letter to encourage them in their work.

8. Make it a family affair

Get your whole family involved in the process. This can be a unifying way to decide what issues your family wants to prioritize and support.

9. Raise your voice

Are you a young woman from Africa, Asia, Middle East or Latin America and passionate about writing? Consider joining Girls’ Globe as a blogger.

10. Build community

Meet new people who are also concerned about similar issues. Together creating a collaborative effort to empower women and girls.

11. Make room in your budget for giving

This is so important. If you are able, consider making room in your budget for giving financially. This is a sustainable way to invest in long-term change for women, girls and communities.

12. Be present

One of the greatest things you can do is be present. Pay attention to the issues and needs around you. Is a girlfriend or family member struggling this time of year? Be present with those women and girls around you. Sometimes one of the greatest things you can do is be present and listen.


Cover photo credit: Andrew Seaman, Flickr Creative Commons

17 Ways to Support Grassroots Change Led By Women and Girls

Last week, I joined thousands of world leaders, activists, civil society members, young people, organizational leaders, and yes – even the Pope – for the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held in New York City. This is my third year attending UNGA and the energy is always buzzing with talk about how we can improve the world and complete global development agendas set forth by the United Nations and leaders around the world.


uring the Assembly, 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which were a set of eight anti-poverty targets to be accomplished by 2015. Development practitioners, economists, organizations, governments and other stakeholders have spoken about the progress made towards the MDGs. These groups would also say there is still much more to be done in order to ensure a more prosperous and achievable agenda through The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to finish the agenda started by the MDGs. But for whom are these Goals really for?

Fifteen years ago, when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted, I was sixteen years old. Crazy, right? At that time, I was just beginning to explore my love and passion for other cultures. I knew the path that appeared before me included working to understand and empower women, girls and communities around the world. Over the past ten years, I have had the privilege to both live in and travel to beautiful countries. In the past ten years (since I was 21), some of my most fruitful experiences in global development have taken me to the most unexpected places. I have learned and been a part of change for women and girls on dirt floors, in mud huts, on top of remote mountains and distant islands. It is in these safe and sacred spaces, I have listened to women’s and girls’ stories. I have watched young women and girls initiate conversations on gender based violence in their communities, work to improve maternal health through creating health responses and even go into the deepest of brothels to rescue young girls from being sexually exploited. I have seen women and girls empowered, healed, restored and strengthened through rallying their communities to understand the issues they face on a daily basis.

Can I be completely honest here? If I were to ask those women and girls, “What are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)?” or “How have the MDGs improved your lives?”  I guarantee you most would have no clue what I was talking about. This is not because they are unintelligent or do not understand global development. They are actually some of the most intelligent women and girls I have ever met. It is simply because it does not affect their every day lives. The chasm between drafting and implementing global goals and the reality of what is happening to improve the lives of women, girls and communities is wide. World leaders sit behind closed doors to discuss development agendas that often are rarely implemented effectively and simply do not reach the most vulnerable. At the same time, young women, girls, and communities are working tirelessly to create change. Why are we calling for more action from the United Nations when we should focus our efforts on the change already happening for women and girls? The lives being empowered both at a local and grassroots level is astounding. Do we really need celebrities to endorse a cause to make it trendy or get people to listen? I don’t think so. We have amazing women and girls, those at the heart and center of the issues, they are the real celebrities.

In honor of the women and girls I have worked with over the past ten years, I want to share 17 ways we can continue to support grassroots change and ensure women, girls and communities are supported. Let’s call these HER goals.

  1. Stop talking and start listening. Listen to the incredible work happening to empower women, girls and communities around the world.
  2. Give. Consider supporting an organization empowering women and girls at the grassroots level.
  3. Go. Don’t take my word for it. Wherever you live you can find out who is working to create change for women and girls. If you live in the U.S., Africa, Asia or another region of the world. Explore who is creating change and consider joining them.
  4. Stay informed. There is so much grassroots change happening outside of top-down systems.
  5. Look for unique opportunities. The best conversations with women and girls you may have will be in the most unlikely places.
  6. Forget jadedness but be realistic. It can be difficult not to get bogged down in high-level political jargon. Instead let’s focus on supporting the change actually happening.
  7. Read about it. There are so many amazing books and resources highlighting grassroots change women and girls.
  8. Organize. Get together with a group of your friends and talk about the issues facing women and girls in your community and around the world.
  9. Know the facts. Research, research and do more research!
  10. Use your talents and gifts to volunteer and help in your spheres of influence.
  11. Empower a young girl or woman to share their story. We do not want to be voices for others but enable others voices to be heard.
  12. Learn about an issue. Take time every month to learn about something new.
  13. Invest in legit partnerships. There are so many wonderful organizations partnering with indigenous movements.
  14. Advocate.
  15. Add to this list! Do you have an idea? Please comment and share below!
  16. SHARE YOUR STORY. Want to comment or write about it? I would love to hear how you are working to create change for women and girls in your community.
  17. Take Action!! (see the helpful goals above)

I think these are acheivable goals we can all wrap our heads around. In fact, I know so many women, girls, men and boys who are doing this in their communities. Let’s be their champions. Because true change is often purely reflected in the every day lives of women and girls.

Cover Photo Credit: Jared Rodriquez, Flickr Creative Commons

From MDGs to SDGs: Stepping into the World We Want

In Africa, there is a common phrase that says, “When the drummers change their beat, the dancers must change their steps.”

In September, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are set to be adopted by Heads of States at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This meeting will bring together developed and developing countries, politicians, private sector leaders, civil society organizations, faith groups and others to adopt a set of 17 goals that aim to  take forward the job that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in motion by intensifying action to empower the poorest and the hardest to reach. Will the global community be dancing to a new beat that will truly be transformative and have a positive impact on the lives of women and girls or will the new development agenda play out like a broken record?

The following are a few reflections of the proposed 2030 agenda:

Looking Back What Worked

The MDGs have been praised for being useful tool in providing benchmarks for the achievement of special development gains, for priority setting at country levels and for mobilizing stakeholders and much needed resources towards common goals.  However, the MDGs were created through a top down process where Member states came together and formulated a set of development goals through a process that was dubbed a ‘donor driven agenda. The SDGs have been far more consultative process where women civil society groups such as the Women’s Major Group and Post 2015 Women’s Coalition have been actively involved in negotiations around developing this new global agenda. What this meant was that the “missing” voices, aspirations and realities of feminist, human  rights, environmental and social justice movements’ were heard and considered alongside Member states in the framing of the new development agenda.

Looking Forward What Needs Work

The main lesson learned in the (under) performance of the MDGs was the lack of a rights based approach. Sadly, the SDGs equally missed out on a historical opportunity to infuse this critical element that would have contributed to a truly transformative development agenda. For example, the MDG 5 that relates to reproductive, maternal, adolescent and child health is the most off-track in term of progress with the global community far from achieving it. However, the new agenda fails to raise ambition by re-affirming that sexual and reproductive rights are indeed human rights. Notably absent from a young woman perspective is that the  SDGs fail to recognize the necessity of providing comprehensive sexuality education to all young people, in and out of school. For the development agenda to improve reproductive health outcomes, policymakers and practitioners need to draw on a growing evidence base in this field. Most importantly, sustainable development can only occur when women and girls have the right to control all aspects of her sexuality, including her sexual and reproductive health, free from violence, discrimination and coercion.

Looking Up What Promises To Work

Gender equality, human rights and the empowerment of women and girls remains a critical driver to the achievement of the sustainable development goals. As in the MDGs, the SDGs have retained a standalone goal on gender, Goal 5: “Achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls” This particular goal goes beyond MDG 3, which focused on parity in education, political participation and economic empowerment, and targets to end all forms of violence, discrimination, early and forced marriage and harmful practices against women and girls and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. Gender equality has further been addressed in other goals such as the goal on equal rights to education and life-long learning, to decent work and equal pay for work of equal value; goal on inequalities within and between countries; the goal on peaceful inclusive societies and the goal on Means of Implementation (MOI). Care economy, paid or unpaid work, which tends to rely on women and girls’ cheap or invisible labor has also been recognized in the SDGs.

New Steps, New Beat

Unsustainable development and inequality and/or the violation of the human rights of women and men are closely linked. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin. The disproportionate impact of poverty on women and girls is not an accident, but as a result of systematic discrimination. Until and unless the underlying deep rooted problems that prevent women and girls from escaping poverty are tackled, progress towards the proposed agenda will merely remain a pipe dream. The MDGs failed to address this which resulted in uneven performance of the goals. Still, poor past performance should not hold us back from future action.  The post 2015 development framework remains a major development milestone and a potentially positive agenda waiting to be implemented by the international community. With strong political and financial commitment and gender equality, women’s human rights and women’s empowerment at its core, the 2030 Agenda shall be realized. Ultimately, advancing the rights of women and girls is not just the most effective route to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is also a moral obligation.

Featured image by Salahaldeen Nadir / World Bank.

The Integration Hypothesis: Let’s Empower Women and Girls

The challenges women and girls experience around the world are interlinked and multi-dimensional. Addressing and developing effective solutions to empower women, girls and communities requires a coordinated global and local response. Last month, Girls’ Globe had the opportunity to be a part of FHI 360’s Integration Hypothesis event in New York City. The event gathered organizations, thought leaders and those working at a community level to discuss the importance of creating sustainable integrated solutions to effectively address issues such as education, violence against women, health and poverty. Creating successful and sustainable integrated development programs for women, girls and communities is not a new conversation. For years, development practitioners, advocates, governments, organizations and communities have sought to address global  issues through talking about the need for more integrated and holistic approaches.

Last week, FHI 360 and Girls’ Globe hosted an interactive Google+ hangout to continue the conversation on the importance of integrated development for women and girls. The live discussion was a continuation of FHI 360’s Integration Hypothesis series. A diverse group of panelists took the “virtual stage” in what was an engaging and robust discussion. All panelists agreed there is no better time than the present to begin to turn the integration discussion into effective international development solutions.

Greg Beck, Director of Integrated Development for FHI 360, began the conversation by defining integrated development as a coordinated response across sectors to create an amplified impact for communities. FHI 360 is committed to building the evidence needed to show where integration and development solutions can be most effective and sustainable. Through a four million dollar FHI 360 Foundation grant, FHI 360 has launched a new integrated development initiative which utilizes their research and technical expertise as well as experience in international gender programming to produce evidence-based integrated solutions. Greg emphasized the importance of awareness and education among the donor community and private sector as essential elements to the process of advancing successful integrated development outcomes.

The Google+ Hangout panelists included: Greg Beck, Director of Integrated Development at FHI 360; Rose Wilcher, Director of Research Utilization at FHI 360; Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver; Joyce Adolwa Head of Girls’ Education, Empowerment and Programming at CARE; and Catalina Escobar, CEO of the Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar Foundation. The panelists shared their experiences as well as the challenges and opportunities to implementing integrated solutions for women and girls at both a macro and micro level.

Creating lasting opportunities for women and girls requires a multi-prong approach. Katja Iversen emphasized the importance of continued advocacy for women and girls. Clear messaging and advocacy are critical components to building successful integrated solutions. Katja stated, “We need to make it so delicious for governments and others to invest in girls and women.” Evidence  is the foundation while advocacy and messaging are powerful vehicles for creating change and moving the conversation into effective action for women, girls and communities.

Joyce Adolwa spoke of the importance of listening to and involving communities in the process of integration. Women, girls and communities must be at the center and thoroughly involved in the change making process. Joyce emphasized, “Societies change because people change.” Sustainability can not occur unless we involve communities and people in the change-making process.

Simply put, integrated development solutions for women, girls and communities must meet people where they are. We all have a responsibility to carry this conversation forward. Integrated solutions and decision making must both come from the grassroots community level as well as involve donors and those at an international decision making level. Let’s continue to think critically about how we are investing time and resources into holistic solutions for empowering women and girls.

Watch the recorded hangout and continue to share your thoughts at #IntegratedDev

Read our Storify recap to learn more.

Celebrate Women and Water this March

At 19 years old, my French professor asked me if I believed in female solidarity, strengthening the core of women’s empowerment by supporting other females. At the time, the concept didn’t mean much to me. As I grew more aware of the issues women face around the world and of the exemplary women that spark positive change, it has developed into one of my fundamental values.

Photo Credit: Jordan Teague/WASH Advocates
Photo Credit: Jordan Teague/WASH Advocates

March is a time to not only celebrate the commencement of spring, but it is also the season to raise our voices for both women and water. As global citizens around the world stood together on March 8th for International Women’s Day, we must also stand behind our nearly 750 million other counterparts who face each day without access to safe drinking water. Let International Women’s Day serve as a reminder to us of the importance of safe drinking water and sanitation. Let it remind us of the girls who are struggling to stay in school because they don’t have a bathroom in which to manage their menstruation in a safe and hygienic way. Let it help us remember the women who spend 25% of their day collecting water for their families.

World Water Day is celebrated each year on March 22nd to inspire positive change for the global citizens who suffer from water-related problems. This year, I’d like to draw attention to a notable woman who has empowered hundreds of women through water: Gemma Bulos. As the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Global Women’s Water Initiative (GWWI), Gemma works to create water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) initiatives that are led by local women in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya through providing training and coaching. Through GWWI, women have learned how to build biosand filters, latrines, and rainwater harvesting tanks. Over 36,000 people have access to clean water and sanitation because of the efforts of the women of GWWI. Rose, a graduate and Fellow of the GWWI training program, said that it not only changed her life, but everyone’s around her by providing:

  • Increased productivity,
  • Financial independence, and
  • A significant reduction in violence against women.

Empowering women through water has a ripple effect with exponential benefits. One woman has the power to change her community through her leadership in WASH efforts, such as building a water storage tank. One community has the power to change a nation through economic gains as a result of WASH projects. And one nation has the power to inspire the entire global community. So in this month of International Women’s Day and World Water Day, let’s be thankful for the opportunities that water can give to women, and let’s recognize the women who change their communities through water.

WASH Advocates is proud to support the empowerment of women through water. You, too, can help start the chain reaction.

Holly Kandel is a Research Assistant at WASH Advocates, and a senior at SUNY Geneseo in New York.