Sex Work

Sex work is the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation. Criminal laws prohibiting aspects of sex work violate a person’s sexual rights and increase harm to sex workers themselves.

Planned Parenthood Ottawa and HIV Community Link win 2017 Bentley Awards!

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is excited to announce the winners of the 2017 Helen and Fred Bentley Awards of Excellence: Planned Parenthood Ottawa (first place) and HIV Community Link (second place)!

We received a strong number of applications but Planned Parenthood Ottawa’s Parent Peer Leadership (PPL) program and HIV Community Link’s Shift Program stood out for their innovation and leadership.

Planned Parenthood Ottawa’s Parent Peer Leadership (PPL) program improves parent-child communication on sexual health in Ottawa’s immigrant communities through training and discussion about healthy development and sexuality. Parents feel they can communicate more openly and accurately with children and youth about healthy sexuality while upholding their cultural values and have reported increased comfort and less fear of the Ontario Sexual Health Curriculum. Click here to read the Planned Parenthood Ottawa press release »

For over 10 year’s, HIV Community Link’s Shift Program has provided safety planning, access to basic needs, safer sex education and supplies, case management, and trauma-informed supportive counselling to adults involved in sex work. In 2016-2017, Shift saw 129 registered clients and 193 unique sex worker contacts through street outreach. Unlike most sex worker services, Shift is non-denominational and exiting the sex work industry is not a primary goal. Click here to read the HIV Community Link press release »

Action Canada is proud to count Planned Parenthood Ottawa and HIV Community Link among its Associate Organizations. Our Associate Organizations and partners continue to encourage and motivate us with their creativity and success. We are constantly inspired and look forward to ongoing collaboration and experience sharing to ensure that all people are guaranteed their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

For more information about both programs and the Helen and Fred Bentley Awards of Excellence please contact [email protected]

Action Canada Statement on the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers

On December 17, the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights pays tribute to the sex workers in Canada and around the world who are fighting for their right to autonomy, health and safety.

Despite strong evidence that clearly demonstrates the harmful impact of criminalizing sex work on the health and human rights of persons engaged in sex work, Canada and many other countries continue to punish sex workers, their families and their allies. In doing so, Canada restricts access to important safety strategies, which leads to serious violations of sex workers’ right to health, to security, to safety and to equality.

International human rights standards are clear. Every person is entitled to the full range of human rights, without distinction of any kind; yet, sex workers are regularly excluded from policy making processes that directly affect their lives and denied justice when subjected to violence and discrimination.

As Canada’s human rights record comes under scrutiny in May 2018 at the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review, we encourage government officials, civil society organizations and parliamentarians to engage with the research and recommendations submitted by the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform and the Sexual Rights Initiative. The report highlights the particular ways in which sex workers’ rights are denied and their safety put at risk under current Canadian law. The report also sets out steps for Canada to take in order to comply with its human rights obligations to ensure all persons in Canada can live in dignity and free from violence, stigma and discrimination.

This December 17th, Action Canada calls on all human rights advocates to strand in solidarity with sex workers, sex worker rights organizations and their allies by practising the fundamental principle of universality to ensure that all people, including sex workers, can claim their rights.



Now is The Time To Decriminalize Sex Work

Originally published in the Huffington Post

The Trudeau government has tackled several key pieces of its criminal law reform strategy but it’s long past time to decriminalize sex work.

Being elected to lead our country involves more than easy victories, politically expedient “people-pleasing” issues. The Trudeau government has a moral obligation to address the public health and safety of all its citizen. The weight of the Liberal majority needs to be put behind the health and safety of all people, including sex workers.

In Canada, in 2017, sex workers continue to live and work in unsafe conditions, to face predatory and state violence, immigration raids, deportation, surveillance and arrest as well as see their human rights violated. The failure to address it so far suggests that this human rights issue is intentionally being left off the legislative agenda, which is a serious concern.

Meaningful sex work law reform in Canada is long due. Among those concerned, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health has condemned the criminalization, full or asymmetrical, of sex work as a violation of the right to health by creating barriers to sex worker’s access to health services.

Governments have an obligation to show due diligence in the protection of sex workers’ human rights, including their right to health and to freedom from violence. Laws and policies must be evidence-based and address the intersecting and layered systems of oppression impacting sex workers’ experiences. This can only start with our government taking the necessary steps toward the decriminalization of sex work in Canada.

In December 2013, a victory was almost within reach. The Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down harmful laws that stood in the way of effectively protecting sex workers and the broader community.

The move toward decriminalization was backed by thousands of pages of evidence and expert testimony as well as decades of government sponsored commission reports and research, topped with relentless activism from grassroots organizations.

The Supreme Court’s Bedford decision marked a huge step in recognizing sex workers’ rights specifically, and human rights in Canada more generally. For more than thirty years, sex workers had been calling on Canada to repeal laws that target them, their clients and the people they work with, pointing to the harm in criminalizing elements of sex work and the inability of criminal prostitution laws to protect them from violence. Many lives were lost waiting for this victory.

Almost immediately, the Harper government communicated their intention to introduce new laws. A shift toward a discourse that conflated sex work and human trafficking soon kicked into high gear and introduced the idea of sex workers as victims to justify the continued aggressive regulation of sex work and sex workers. In December 2014, bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, became law.

Like the laws struck down in 2013, this new regulatory regime fails to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the requirements outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in its Bedford decision.
This turn of events dealt a serious blow to those directly impacted by the criminalization of sex work, some of whom had spent decades fighting for their rights and were being told to wait once more. The social science evidence from Canada and throughout the world clearly indicates that criminalization of the sex industry – whether clients, third parties or sex workers – continues to send the sex industry into the shadows, restrict sex workers’ access to important safety mechanisms and has significant and profound negative consequences on sex workers’ health, security, equality and human rights.

The Liberal Party of Canada, then an opposition party, clearly denounced the new law. They took a clear stance and expressed serious concerns about the new legislation failing to adequately protect the health and safety of vulnerable people, particularly women.

During the electoral campaign in 2015, then-Liberal health critic Hedy Fry told an all-candidates women’s equality forum that her party maintained its staunch opposition to Bill C-36 and planned to scrap it. When the Liberal party won its majority government, they pledged real change and branded Canada’s new prime minister as a feminist. Where’s the change?
Once elected, the Trudeau government took the unprecedented step of publicly releasing all ministerial mandate letters. These documents provide a framework for what Ministers are expected to accomplish, including specific policy objectives and challenges to be addressed. The public mandate letter received by newly minted Attorney General of Canada and Justice Minister, the Honorable Jody Wilson-Raybould, did not mention sex work; a timeline to address the criminalization of sex work was not included.

The Trudeau government has touted itself as one that promotes, respects and fights for Charter rights; yet, their response to sex workers’ Charter rights is dismal to date – a year and a half later, we wait.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould needs to promptly begin a process of sex work law reform that culminates in the decriminalization of sex work as part of this government’s criminal law reform strategy. The time is now. In fact, the time was long ago.

Budget 2017: What’s good, what’s getting there, and what’s still lacking.

A Gender Based Analysis should result in financial commitments to women’s health, development assistance and economic drivers such as a childcare. While a few notable pieces were present, overall the budget fails urgent needs.

In 1995, Canada committed to the UN Beijing Platform for Action – a commitment requiring the government to conduct fulsome Gender Based Analysis (GBA) of all public spending. Twenty-two years later, the government has conducted its first GBA of the federal budget. It is a good first step but needs to be used in a way that prioritizes how spending should be allocated to promote gender equity. Something this budget still lacks.

GBA exposes all the ways that collecting and spending taxes is never gender neutral. If the government spends money on subsidized housing, for example, we can use GBA to know exactly how many women benefit from every dollar spent and how. It uncovers how any single program implementation increases or corrects growing gender inequality.

Because Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights’ budgetary requests around sexual and reproductive health and rights disproportionality and positively affect women, we’ve put together a quick review of Canada’s 2017 “Women’s Budget:” what’s good, what’s getting there, and what’s still lacking.


LGBTQ2 Secretariat 

Budget 2017 commits $3.6 million over three years to establish an LGBTQ2 Secretariat to support the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on LGBTQ2 issues. This is a first step towards earmarking future spending that will meet the needs of healthy, thriving queer, trans, intersex and 2 Spirit individuals and communities.


National Strategy to Address Gender Based Violence

Taking steps to establish a National Strategy to Address Gender Based-Violence is worth applauding; however, $100.9 million over five years is simply not enough. Violence against women in Canada affects far too many women and their families and is estimated to cost $12 Billion dollars every year. The systemic enablers of violence, such as a lack of affordable housing, have gone untreated and ignored for so long that gender-based violence is regarded as an ongoing crisis, particularly for Indigenous women. Any National Strategy must carry with it the potential to correct years of chronic underfunding. Intersectional anti-violence against women’s organizations and service providers are already warning that $100.9 million falls short.


Childcare got a budget line this year but the commitment falls short of what is needed to create meaningful change. Budget 2017 commits $7 Billion dollars over 10 years to build an accessible, affordable childcare system in Canada but Canada is among the worst OECD countries when it comes to childcare costs and on average, Canadian parents are spending one quarter of their income on childcare. The federal budget allocation is too small in the first years to finance any serious improvement to access, affordability or quality care. Universal affordable childcare is a commitment to reproductive justice that we need to see in Canada.


Official Development Assistance 

One of the greatest disappointments in this year’s federal budget is in the complete lack of increase for Canada’s Official Development Assistance. Canada is obligated to meet a global target of 0.7% GNI for development aid and is lagging far behind other OECD countries and G7 partners. In a climate of instability heightened by Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule and mass deportations, it is increasingly important that Canada meet its promise to lead in the fight against global inequality. Canada’s recent announcement of $650 million towards Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights is worth commending but it is deeply concerning that budget 2017 includes no funding for overall development assistance.

Abortion Access

Canada’s Health Minister has recognized that unequal access to abortion is a major problem in Canada; yet, budget 2017 does nothing to try and fix the problem. If this government is serious about committing to a feminist future that includes sexual and reproductive health, both strategy and funding must be allocated in areas where inequality persists.

Without cost-coverage, there is no choice. Health Canada recently approved the gold standard abortion pill (Mifegymiso) for use in Canada. The drug has the potential to dramatically increase access to abortion throughout under-serviced regions but its roughly $400 price tag means it is out of reach for many.

Sex Work

Following the 2015 federal election, the Trudeau government agreed that the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PECA) is a problematic piece of legislation that does not meet the Charter Rights set out by the Supreme Court of Canada. Since then however, the government has taken no steps to repeal this Act, which puts the health and lives of sex workers at risk.

In addition to a repeal, dedicated funding for meaningful engagement of sex worker rights, advocates and organizations to support their efforts to advocate towards sex work law reform is needed.

National Pharmacare Strategy

The absence of federal leadership and resources invested in health creates inequalities and poor outcomes in the areas of reproductive health care across the country. Incidents of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise while barriers to abortion and contraception remain across remote and rural regions.

Canada is the only country with public health care and no national drug cost-coverage plan. A National Pharmacare Strategy would guarantee access to a comprehensive range of medication, devices and appropriate supports that are critical to the full realization of people’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Take Action: Here’s how you can support the UN in calling on Canada to guarantee sexual and reproductive rights!

The UN is calling out Canada for failing to guarantee essential sexual and reproductive health services.

In 2016, the Government of Canada underwent two reviews by UN treaty monitoring bodies: The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR, March) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, October). Canada’s record on sexual and reproductive rights drew serious concern from both.

During each review Canada was specifically called out for its failure to regulate conscientious objection and to ensure access to abortion services, affordable contraceptives and quality sexuality education. Both Committees provided specific recommendations to Canada, with 5 (CEDAW) and 6 (CESCR) years to implement.

We need your support in holding the government accountable. Join Action Canada by ringing in the New Year with a call to action for sexual and reproductive rights for everyone, everywhere!

Keep reading to learn how!

Get Started! Pick an issue (or issues) you want to support

Get Informed! Read the short backgrounder to learn about the issue(s)

Take Action! Pick from our list of actions you can take

Access to abortion services

Only 1-in-6 hospitals provide abortion services, with most located in large urban areas (same goes for clinics offering the service). Many provinces place restrictions on abortion by:

  • Denying coverage for abortions performed in clinics
  • Refusing to require hospitals to perform abortions
  • Placing gestational limits on when abortions can be performed
  • Forcing those who need an abortion to travel long distances at their own expense

Some doctors refuse to provide abortions or even referrals. This creates stigma and discrimination that can result in carrying unwanted pregnancies to term or self-inducing abortion with unsafe methods. Young and marginalized women and trans folks suffer disproportionately under the current system as they may lack the means and information to access safe abortion services. Want to know more? Click here to read our policy brief on the issue »

Take Action!

The New “Abortion pill” (Mifepristone/Mifegymiso)

Women in Canada lack access to the World Health Organization’s gold-standard drug for medical abortion (Mifepristone). The drug has been available in the US since 2000 but only approved for use in Canada last July 2015 under strict conditions. Once available, imposed restrictions will limit its availability because of:

  • a shortage of physicians across Canada
  • physicians who refuse to provide the service on moral or religious grounds
  • the high cost of the drug
  • limited information on how, when and where to access medical abortion
  • the limited number of physician clinics equipped to stock and dispense medication

The imposed restrictions are not based in scientific evidence. They contribute to abortion stigma and create roadblocks to real access to abortion across Canada. Want to know more? Click here to visit our campaign website on the issue »

Take Action!

  • Write and/or meet with your local MLA, MP, Provincial/Territorial Minister of Health, and/or Federal Minister of Health. See sample letters here (MP) and here (MLA)
  • Write an op-ed or pitch the story to local news outlets. See tips here
  • Speak up on social media! See sample messages here
  • Engage your community: host an event, share information through your networks
  • Encourage your physician to become a medical abortion provider of Mifegymiso. See tips here

Affordable Contraceptives

Canada is the only high income country in the world with publicly funded universal health care and no national drug plan. In Canada, 24% of the population has no drug coverage and are forced to pay out of pocket for pharmaceutical products, including contraceptive drugs and devices. Women are more likely to lack coverage, less likely to have employer-provided benefits and may not be eligible for public benefits. This results in differential access to essential health commodities across the country. Women in Canada also have a narrower range of contraceptive options with varying coverage for specific methods (i.e., implants are not available in Canada). This leaves many relying on the contraceptive method they can afford rather than the method of their choice. Want to learn more? Click here to find out what options are available to you »

Take Action!

Conscientious Objection

The Canadian Medial Association does not require physicians to provide timely referrals if this conflicts with their personal values. Many provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons also have yet to amend their Conscientious Objection policies in line with human rights standards that require effective referrals and mechanisms to seek redress or remedy for violations. There are ongoing reports of women being refused sexual and reproductive health information and services on moral or religious grounds, with countless cases of women being denied access to accurate information by administrative gatekeepers across the country, particularly when seeking abortion services in hospital settings. There is evidence to suggest that some Canadian institutions have an institutional-wide conscientious objection policy (refusing to offer abortion services) despite the fact that institutions do not have human rights and only individuals may exercise their right to conscientious objection. Want to know more? Click here to read our policy brief on the issue »

Take Action!

  • Write to your provincial/territorial College of Physicians and Surgeons requesting that they update their policies to include effective referrals and mechanisms for remedies of violations.
  • Make a complaint if your rights have been violated. See examples of how to file a complaint through your provincial or territorial college of physicians and surgeons here or hospital here.
  • Go to the media! See an example here.

Comprehensive Sexuality Education “Sex-Ed”

The Canadian Government has failed to implement a comprehensive set of national guidelines for sexual health education. There are no national standards through which sexuality education curricula can be monitored and evaluated. Provinces are left to develop their own implementation, monitoring and evaluations strategies, with severe discrepancies in content and delivery. In the absence of federal standards, young people and adolescents often lack the knowledge and skills required to lead healthy sexual and reproductive lives. Want to know more? Click here to read our policy brief on the issue »

Take Action!

  • Write and/or meet with your local MPP, MLA, Provincial/Territorial Minister of Education and Federal Minister of Health.
  • Volunteer at your local sexual health clinic. They often provide comprehensive sexual health education; see how you can help!
  • Take to social media! Create Memes about Bad Sex Ed or why it’s important
  • Promote sex-positive resources like Beyond the Basics
  • Join a youth council/advisory group
  • Are you a student? Talk to your parent(s)/guardian(s), teacher(s), principle, school board trustee
  • Are you a parent/guardian of a student? Meet with their teacher(s), principle, school board trustee
  • Share your #BadSexEd stories online and tag @action_canada
  • Are you an academic? Research it! We need more data!

Rights of Sex Workers

Current laws effectively criminalize the purchase, communication, receiving of material benefit from, procurement to offer or provide, and advertisement of sexual services. Research clearly indicates that this type of legislation forces sex workers into unsafe and unprotected areas restricting access to important safety strategies that can have significant and profound negative consequences on their health, security, safety, equality and human rights. Criminalizing the selling and/or buy levitra online and purchase of sexual services, places sex workers in a precarious position. The fear of harassment or legal repercussions for carrying condoms and lubricant (evidence of sex work), reduces their ability to negotiate safer sex with clients, creates distrust with service providers (such as those providing condoms and harm reduction supplies) for fear of entrapment, which heightens risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Take Action!

  • Write and/or meet with your local MPP, MLA, Provincial/Territorial Minister of Justice and Federal Minister of Health asking them to engage in meaningful consultation with sex workers themselves regarding the current laws.
  • Support your local sex worker rights organization. See here for more information.
  • Speak to members of your community about ways to respect, protect and fulfil sex workers’ human rights.

Press Release: UN human rights body slams Canada for failure to ensure access to abortion, affordable contraception

November 21, 2016
For Immediate Release

Geneva – On Friday November 18, the UN body responsible for assessing Canada’s progress on upholding women human rights (CEDAW) released its Concluding Observations to Canada. Central to Canada’s review was the issue of the accessibility, affordability, acceptability and quality of sexual and reproductive health services.

The UN Committee expressed grave concern regarding continued disparities in access to abortion in Canada. Only 1-in-6 hospitals provide abortion services with most service points (hospitals and clinics) located in large urban areas. Many provinces restrict the medically necessary service by denying coverage of abortion performed in clinics; by not requiring hospitals to perform abortions; and by placing gestational limits on abortion, thus forcing individuals to travel long distances at their own expense.

People in Canada also lack access to the World Health Organisation’s gold-standard drug for medical abortion (Mifegymiso), approved only recently under strict conditions which will severely limit its availability in Canada.

In addressing the many barriers to access abortion, the UN Committee called on Canada to ensure the exercise of conscientious objection does not impede women’s access to the service. Many provincial Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons have yet to amend their policies in line with human rights obligations to include effective referrals and mechanisms to seek redress or remedy for violations.

The UN Committee also urged Canada to ensure contraceptives are affordable, accessible and available to all women and girls. Individuals in Canada have a narrow range of contraceptive options with varying coverage for specific methods (i.e., implants are not available in Canada), leaving them to rely on the method they can afford rather than the method of their choice.

The UN Committee further called on Canada to establish national guidelines or standards to harmonize sexuality education curricula among provinces/territories and to hold provinces/territories accountable for implementing such guidelines or standards. There are severe discrepancies in content and delivery across the country as provinces are left to develop their own implementation, monitoring and evaluation strategies. In the absence of federal standards, young people and adolescents often lack the knowledge and skills required to lead healthy sexual and reproductive lives.

Finally, on the issue of sex work, the UN Committee called on Canada to “decriminalize women engaged in prostitution.” While this is a step forward, the recommendation fails to recognize that decriminalization requires the removal of all specific laws related to sex work, including those that criminalize clients and third parties. Canada’s Minister of Justice has committed to engage in an evidence-based review of sex work laws, in consultation with sex workers. Action Canada is working with sex workers and their allied organizations to ensure policy in this area is informed by evidence, not ideology.

“Canada must take immediate action to implement these recommendations,” said Sandeep Prasad, Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. “The federal government is responsible to ensure that all people in Canada can fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. The federal government has an obligation to seriously engage provincial and territorial governments on issues like the availability and accessibility of medical and surgical abortion, access to contraceptives and standardized sexuality education that is human-rights based and comprehensive.”

Action Canada participated in the review, drawing the Committee’s attention to these important issues. In preparation for the review, Action Canada submitted a joint report to the Committee in collaboration with Sexuality Education Resources Centre Manitoba, Sexual Health Centre Saskatoon, Sexual Health Nova Scotia, Pictou County Centre for Sexual Health, SHORE Centre, and Calgary Sexual Health Centre. The report addresses comprehensive sexuality education, access abortion services (including medical abortion), conscientious objection, affordability of sexual and reproductive health services, health and safety of sex workers and the criminalization of the non-disclosure of HIV.

– END –

Media Contact

Ani Colekessian
Communications Officer
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
[email protected]
613-241-4474 ext. 7

Notes to Editors

CEDAW: Recap from Canada’s review

Action Canada awaits release of recommendations to Canada

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is in Geneva this week to participate in Canada’s review before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

In preparation for the review, Action Canada submitted a joint report to the Committee in collaboration with: Sexuality Education Resources Centre Manitoba, Sexual Health Centre Saskatoon, Sexual Health Nova Scotia, Pictou County Centre for Sexual Health, SHORE Centre, and Calgary Sexual Health Centre. The report addresses: comprehensive sexuality education, access abortion services (including medical abortion), conscientious objection, affordability of sexual and reproductive health services, health and safety of sex workers and the criminalization of the non-disclosure of HIV.

Click here for more information regarding the questions received by Canada in advance of the review, and responses provided back to the Committee.

Interactive dialogue with the Committee

Canada recognized the importance of access to sexual and reproductive health services in its opening statement.  The committee then asked the following questions:

  • What is the status of the Convention in Canada’s legal system, and what strategies are in place to ensure provincial/territorial implementation of commitments?
  • What is the availability of comprehensive sexuality education across online pharmacy Canada?
  • How affordable and available are modern methods of contraception, particularly for young women?
  • Recognizing the absence of legal restrictions to abortion in Canada, what are the strategies in place to address administrative barriers in access to the services?
  • What are the strategies to address conscientious objection, specifically in the case of abortion?
  • How many medical versus surgical abortions are provided in Canada?
  • What is the availability of national data related to contraceptive use, and sexual health more broadly?
  • Why does Canada criminalize the non-disclosure of HIV?
  • How do the new sex work laws comply with the 2013 Bedford decision (which struck down provisions of the criminal code found to violate sex workers’ human rights), and what strategies are in place to address the conflation of trafficking and sex work in the news laws?
  • In anticipation of the passing of bill C-16 (legislation to amend the criminal code and Canadian human rights act to include gender identity as grounds for discrimination), will it be applied across all Canadian jurisdictions?

Committee members drew attention to the fact that Canada has already been asked to address many of these issues (related to access to abortion services, conscientious objection and access to contraceptives) by other UN treaty monitoring bodies, including the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which reviewed Canada in March 2016.

In response to the initial set of questions, Canada shared some best practices in relation to comprehensive sexuality education and policies to regulate the use of conscientious objection. Specifically, the Canadian delegation made reference to the 2008 revision of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Guidelines for Sexual Health Education and Ontario’s new sexuality education curriculum, recognizing its inclusion of topics such as gender identity . The Ontario College of Physician and Surgeons’ policy on conscientious objection was also raised as a good example for requiring physicians to provide effective and timely referrals, to maintain effective referral plans and to provide care in emergency situations. The delegation mentioned the government’s commitment to engage in an “evidence-based review of the new laws related to sex work,” ensuring that those involved in the industry are meaningfully engaged in the review.

While the Committee welcomed the sharing of such best practices, it questioned the extent to which they are being applied throughout the rest of the country.  The Committee also suggested that Canada adopt a more holistic approach to addressing the barriers associated with access to abortion in Canada, similar to the approach taken to address violence against women.

Looking forward

Canada has agreed to provide the Committee with written responses to some questions posed by the Committee – namely those related to the availability of national statistics regarding contraceptive prevalence rates, the proportion of medical versus surgical abortions and the criminalization of the non-disclosure of HIV.

In the coming weeks, the Committee will release its Concluding Observations. We hope that these will include strong recommendations to Canada on issues raised during the review. An update will be available on our website and social media as soon as available.

Check out the hashtag “#Rights4CdnWomen” for commentary from NGOs.

Watch the recording of the review here and here.

Concern with UN Women’s Consultation on Sex Work


Action Canada is deeply concerned that UN Women’s methods of consultation to develop a policy on sex work will not allow for many sex workers to meaningfully participate in the process or to be at the center of the consultations. An electronic consultation excludes sex workers who do not have access to the internet, who are not literate in the languages of the United Nations and who are unfamiliar with the documents referred to in the consultation questions. Action Canada urges UN Women to consult with sex workers, sex worker organizations and women’s rights organizations that support the rights of sex workers directly in different regions of the world to determine the most effective, participatory and meaningful process to develop this important policy.

Question 1)
 The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?   

Sex workers are entitled to the full range of human rights including rights to health, to non-discrimination, to be free from violence, to be free from torture, to equal participation in public and political affairs, to security of the person, to work, to equal access to justice, to privacy and to live in dignity.  Engagement in consensual sex work, even where such work is criminalized, does not diminish the inalienable and universal nature of human rights.  Moreover, as a marginalized group facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, a human rights based approach requires special attention be paid to ensuring the rights of sex workers are fulfilled at all stages of the policy making process.

Sex work and its related activities are criminalized or subject to punitive regulations in a majority of countries in the world.  As a consequence, sex workers face heightened levels of stigma and discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives.  Sex workers are more likely to be at risk for ill-health, poverty, social isolation, sexual and other forms of violence and are often denied access to any form of effective remedy.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) promise to “leave no one behind” can only be fulfilled if all stakeholders recognize the unique challenges facing sex workers, the impact this has on development goals and the need to move beyond morality-based approaches to regulating consensual sexual activity towards a legal framework that recognizes the rights of all persons to have control over their sexuality and their bodies.

Action Canada encourages UN Women to promote the decriminalization of sex work and the empowerment of sex workers to claim their human rights as a critical and effective strategy to achieve the SDGs and to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of sex workers.

Question 2) The Sustainable Development Goals set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as a) reproductive rights, b) women’s ownership of land and assets, c) building peaceful and inclusive societies, d) ending the trafficking of women, e) eliminating violence against women. How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

Paragraph 96 of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action states that “The human rights of women include their right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including sexual and reproductive health, free of coercion, discrimination and violence…” This text represents the most progressive language on women’s sexuality ever to have been negotiated at the inter-governmental level and is a critical component of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.  If women choose to engage in sex work, then their choice must be respected as an autonomous decision about their sexual lives.  A UN Women policy on sex work that affirms women’s rights to bodily and sexual autonomy would be consistent with human rights standards[1] and global consensus.  Conversely, a policy that negates women’s autonomy to choose to do sex work would undermine the framework for women’s sexual and reproductive rights and women’s agency more generally.

Consensual sex work must not be conflated with trafficking or sexual exploitation which are human rights abuses.  UN Women recognized this in its 2013 Note on Sex Work, Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking stating “The conflation of consensual sex work and sex trafficking leads to inappropriate responses that fail to assist sex workers and victims of trafficking in realizing their rights. Furthermore, failing to distinguish between these groups infringes on sex workers’ right to health and self- determination and can impede efforts to prevent and prosecute trafficking.”  Action Canada urges UN Women to ensure that clear distinctions are made between sex work, trafficking and sexual exploitation and that consensual sex work is not considered to be violence.  Such distinctions are critical to the development of an effective and legitimate policy on sex work and can be validated by consulting with sex workers and sex worker organizations.

A policy that supports the decriminalization of sex work and related activities is essential to address the high levels of violence perpetrated against sex workers, including by police, and the impunity for such violence.  According to various studies, about 80 per cent of sex workers have been assaulted in the course of their work[2].  Where sex work is criminalized, violence against sex workers is often not reported or monitored, and legal protection is seldom offered to victims of such violence.  The Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the WHO, UNAIDS, the CEDAW Committee[3], and the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health[4], the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty[5] have all recommended that policies should be geared towards the decriminalization of sex work as a means to address violence against sex workers and the wide ranging violations to sex workers’ human rights.

Some laws not only criminalize sex work and the activities related to it but also deny sex workers fundamental civil entitlements. Sex workers may be unable to own or inherit property; register the births of their children; access education, justice, health care or banking services; or purchase housing or utilities. Deprived of the means by which others can make claims on elected officials, employers and service providers, sex workers experience social exclusion and entrenched poverty[6].

Policies that support the decriminalization of sex work and it related activities, as well as recognizing sex work as work, are essential to the realization of women’s rights, gender equality and the SDGs.

Question 3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

Laws and policies that regulate and/or criminalize sex work are based on patriarchal gender norms that seek to control and punish the exercise of consensual sex outside of heterosexual marriage and which disproportionately impact negatively on women, gender-nonconforming persons and men who have sex with men. Criminalization and the application of other punitive or restrictive regulations that violate the rights of sex workers and foster discriminatory practices and stigmatizing social attitudes, do not eliminate sex work, but rather , create barriers to sex worker’s access to essential services like health care or legal redress , for sexual health sildenafil . It places people engaging in sex work at a higher risk of violence and reduces sex workers’ ability to organize with the aim to improve their health and safety or advance their rights.

Sex workers are not passive victims, they are rights-holders entitled to participate in and benefit from social, economic, cultural, civil and political progress at the local, national, regional and international level. In its 2012 Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, UNAIDS recognized that community engagement and empowerment requires involving sex workers in the design, research, implementation, monitoring, evaluation, of policies and programmes that affect their lives and acknowledging that without their active engagement and involvement efforts to provide universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support will not be optimally effective. Building capacity in sex-worker networks and communities is part of a fundamental commitment to the protection, promotion and respect of the human rights of sex workers.

Action Canada urges UN Women to ensure its policy on sex work is coherent with the recommendations from UNAIDS, the WHO, treaty monitoring bodies, human rights experts mandated by the Human Rights Council and most importantly, sex workers themselves.

[1] See E/C.12/GC/22 CESCR General Comment 22 The Right to Sexual and Reproductive Health available from

[2] S. Law, “Commercial sex: beyond decriminalization”, Southern California Law Review, vol. 73 (March 2000), p. 537.

[3] CEDAW. 2010. Concluding Observations to Fiji. (CEDAW/C/FJI/CO/4)

[4] A/HRC/14/20

[5] A/HRC/23/36/Add.1.

[6] See Global Commission on HIV and the Law Risks, Rights & Health, 2012,Rights&Health-EN.pdf