Concern with UN Women’s Consultation on Sex Work

Posted on October, 26 2016 by Action Canada


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

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