Concern with UN Women’s Consultation on Sex Work

Published on October 26, 2016

A fundamental principle of human rights is the equal right to participate in political and public affairs. This is guaranteed by Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other several human rights instruments, and is a key component of a human rights based approach which seeks to eliminate marginalization and discrimination in the development of laws and policies. International human rights mechanisms acknowledge the rights of all people to be fully involved in and to effectively influence public decision-making processes that affect them. Public participation rights encompass the rights to be consulted at each phase of policymaking, to voice criticism and to submit proposals aimed at improving the functioning and inclusivity of all bodies engaged in the conduct of public affairs[1].

We are 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. Moreover, the framing and terminology of the consultations questions minimizes sex workers’ agency and provides an opportunity to conflate consensual sex work with sexual exploitation and trafficking.

The SRI urges UN Women to engage in a rights-based, comprehensive and valid consultation. The process should be well-planned, participatory, and meaningful with the engagement of sex worker organizations and sex workers as well as women’s rights and other organizations that support sex worker’s rights in different regions representing various class, race, ethnicity, health status, age, nationality, citizenship, language, education levels, disabilities, and many other factors.

The sex work policy consultation process undertaken by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) for its Guidance Note on Sex Work and HIV provides a good practice example in this regard as it was grounded in human rights principles and developed following a meaningful consultation process with sex workers and other stakeholders. The resulting policy enjoys widespread support and has played a positive role in addressing HIV/AIDS from an evidence- and rights-based perspective. As a co-sponsor of UNAIDS and the lead UN agency responsible for promoting the empowerment of women and gender equality, UN Women has an obligation to adhere to the principles of human rights in all aspects of the agency’s work, including and especially with regards to the development of policies affecting the rights of sex workers.


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 come from diverse backgrounds, life experiences and different sex work settings, depending on their country and community. Sex workers also belong to several different groups specifically targeted by the 2030 Agenda including women, people living with HIV, migrants, indigenous peoples, people suffering from malnutrition, people at risk of violence, women at risk of maternal mortality and morbidity, etc. All sex workers are entitled to the full range of human rights without exception and to benefit from international development frameworks.

The criminalization of consensual sex work and related activities perpetuates discrimination, stigma, and violence against sex workers and their families. Consequently, sex workers face difficulties in accessing healthcare, education, housing, justice and are at increased risk of violence, including from police, ill-health, poverty and social isolation and are therefore the most likely to be “left behind”.

According to the UNAIDS 2014 Gap Report[2], HIV prevalence among sex workers is 12 times higher than the general population. Punitive environments have been shown to limit the availability, access and uptake of HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for sex workers and their clients. On the other hand, evidence from several countries demonstrates that community- and rights-based programming in partnership with sex workers helps to reduce their vulnerability to HIV and mitigate the hostile environments that perpetuate their vulnerability.[3]

We encourage UN Women to promote the decriminalization of sex work and the empowerment of sex workers to claim their rights as a critical and effective strategy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals related to, inter alia, poverty, health, inequality, education, access to justice and inclusive societies.


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?

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.” People choose to engage in sex work as a viable alternative to other forms of work and their choices must be respected. Positive measures, including decriminalization of sex work, that respect, protect and fulfil the rights of sex workers and promotes the well-being of sex workers should be supported.

Human rights are universal, interdependent and indivisible. The rights of sex workers to be free from violence, to control their fertility, to own land and assets, and to live in inclusive societies cannot be separated from the human rights denied to sex workers through criminalization including access to health services, non-discrimination, self-determination, bodily autonomy, safe working conditions, participation in public and political life and equality before the law.

The legal status of sex work is a critical factor defining the extent and patterns of human rights violations, particularly in relation to violence. According to various studies, about 80 per cent of sex workers have been assaulted in the course of their work[4]. 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 and the Special Rapporteur on the Right of Everyone to the Enjoyment of the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health[5] have all recommended that policies should be geared towards the decriminalization of sex work as a means to address the wide ranging violations to sex workers’ human rights.

As the lead UN agency on gender equality, UN Women has an obligation to advance the rights of all women, including women who choose to do sex work. Progressive sex work policies can contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment, by: taking an evidence- and rights- based approach not a morality based approach; clearly articulating full support for the decriminalization of consensual sex work, health and safety standards and other regulations that protect the rights of sex workers; recognize sex workers right to work; meaningfully consult sex workers on the development of policies that affect them; emphasize the importance of advancing sex workers’ access to equal protection of the law, address their lack of access to justice, remedies and redress; advocate for sexual and reproductive rights of all persons; and ensure that policies are based on the best available evidence, human rights standards and in coherence with the recommendations from the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the WHO and UNAIDS.


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 and gender-nonconforming persons. 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. 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. Sex workers’ rights and voices must be at the centre of any UN Women policy on sex work.

The best protection from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination is to support the decriminalization of sex work, the empowerment of sex workers to advocate for



[1] A/HRC/27/29 para 21

[2] Available from

[3] UNAIDS 2014 GAP Report

[4] S. Law, “Commercial sex: beyond decriminalization”, Southern California Law Review, vol. 73 (March 2000), p. 537. [5] A/HRC/14/20