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Amnesty's decriminalisation of sex work: Encouraging or deterring exploitation?

Mariam Mecky , Monday 17 Aug 2015
Prostitution
Prostitution (File Photo: Reuters)
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Amnesty International made headlines around the world last week with its newly adopted policy calling for the full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work, stirring up debate on to what extent this would actually protect women.

The London-based watchdog adopted the resolution last Tuesday in Dublin in its international decision-making forum in order to "protect the human rights of sex workers" as they are “one of the most marginalised groups in the world," the statement from Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary-general said.

It further called on states to “ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.”

Proponents of such a decision endorse Amnesty’s argument that decriminalising the sex trade would protect sex workers' labour rights, highlighting that prostitution is a matter of free choice. 

Nisha Varia, Advocacy Director for the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, said in a written statement to Ahram Online that the decriminalisation of sex work will make better protection measures for women in this sector possible.

Nevertheless, many women’s rights advocates and anti-trafficking groups criticised the decision, arguing that it further endorses the sexual exploitation of women and puts them more at risk of abuse and oppression.

Speaking to Ahram Online, Donna Hughes, international researcher on human trafficking and professor at the University of Rhode Island, argued that decriminalising prostitution would greatly increase the exploitation of women and children and would not help women escape sex trafficking.

SPACE International, a group founded by a number of sex trade survivors worldwide, said in a statement that "through the experiences of our own lives, the sex-trade is a damaging, dehumanising and demeaning system of exploitation which should 'never' be decriminalised.”

The group, whose name stands for ‘Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment’, contends that such a policy gives a free pass to all parties involved in the sex trade, including those who exploit for sexual gain and those who exploit for financial gain.

Refuting that sex work is a matter of free choice, SPACE International went on to argue that most female sex workers entered the sex trade from situations of desperation and/or destitution, and most were forced by life circumstances into prostitution.

Also, not all Amnesty International chapters support this policy. The Amnesty International chapters in Luxemburg and Sweden voted against it.

“We are against the demand for a universal decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution, that is, even when it comes to buying sex or of those activities enabling sex purchase, such as brothels,” said Anna Lindenfors, secretary-general of Amnesty in Sweden, in a statement reported by the Swedish news network the Local.

Amnesty's vote came after hours of a heated debate among 400 delegates from 70 countries.

The New York based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) slammed Amnesty's decision saying in a statement that "it underlines a willful and callous rejection of women's rights and equality."

Earlier, the group penned an open letter saying that Amnesty's name would be "severely tarnished" if it approved the policy, which it said sides with "exploiters rather than the exploited."

The letter was signed by prominent individuals and organisations worldwide including women's rights groups, sex trade survivors and actors including Len Dunham, Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, and Kate Winslet.

More than 8,500 people have signed an online petition by CATW.

Former US president Jimmy Carter rejected Amnesty's proposal for the full decriminalisation of sex work.

There are around 77 countries around the world decriminalising prostitution, most prominently Holland, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Criminalisation of the sex trade is dominant in the Middle East, with the exception of Lebanon, Turkey and Israel. Moreover, in Tunisia, there are government-sanctioned brothels which are not penalised and the workers reportedly have regular medical exams. 

In Egypt, prostitution has been illegal since 1949.

Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) criticised the policy, describing it as contradictory to “public morality and human dignity."

“The vote violates women’s rights and turns women into a sex commodity,” the head of NCW, Mervat El-Tallawi, was quoted as saying in the statement.

One of the most prominent models of the criminalisation of the sex trade is in Sweden. Sweden made a legal distinction between buying and selling sex, and thereby decriminalising the selling of sex and criminalising buying sex in 1999. Such a model has been cited as a system that addresses the exploitation of female sex workers.

Norway, Iceland and Northern Ireland have adopted similar legislation since 2009.

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