13 December 2013 – Today, the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the Bedford v. Canada case regarding sex work. Striking down the elements of the Criminal Code, which include (1) communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public space, (2) living off the avails of prostitution and (3) keeping a common bawdy house, represents an important step towards greater respect for the human rights of sex workers, including their sexual and reproductive rights.
“We’re very excited to hear the news. This decision is crucial to the realization of sex workers’ rights to bodily autonomy and to have control over and decide freely upon all matters relating to their sexuality, free from violence, stigma and discrimination. Deeming such laws unconstitutional not only ensures greater protection for sex workers’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but also represents a step towards aligning Canadian law with international human rights standards,” said Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD).
Increasingly, over the last decade, UN experts have been calling on governments around the world to end the punitive regulation of consensual adult sex work. In a groundbreaking 2010 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health emphasized that laws which criminalize sex work or activities related to sex work, such as solicitation and brothel-keeping, violate the right to health of sex workers: they create barriers to sex workers’ access to health services which can lead to poor health outcomes. These discriminatory laws create fear among sex workers that they may face legal consequences or harassment and judgement by service providers, police and health professionals. Last year, in its final report, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law called for the repeal of laws that prohibit ‘living off the earnings’ of sex work and brothel-keeping, as they “invite police harassment and violence and push sex work underground, where it is harder to negotiate safer conditions and consistent condom use.” Criminalizing sex work increases the risk to the health and well-being of sex workers by making it more difficult for them to negotiate their working conditions, including condom use, and to access the commodities and services they need to safeguard their health.
The Supreme Court’s decision provides greater protection and support for sex workers’ ability to freely exercise their right to engage in sex work in safe environments. With these laws struck down, sex workers are better positioned to live free from violence and discrimination and access a comprehensive and integrated package of sexual and reproductive health services, without fear of stigma or discrimination. This means that sex workers will be better able to seek police assistance or redress when faced with violence and protect themselves from the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and unwanted pregnancies.
“The government must now act to ensure that this decision is fully implemented,” concluded Prasad. “In particular, further police sensitization and training is needed to ensure sex workers are able to conduct their business without fear of violence and harassment. Sex workers must be meaningfully involved in this effort. The government must value them as key stakeholders in all decisions affecting their health, livelihoods and well-being.”
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The full decision from the Supreme Court of Canada can be read here.