Dear UN Women,
Thank you for the opportunity to submit a contribution to your ‘Consultation seeking views on UN Women approach to sex work, the sex trade and prostitution’.
This submission is made by the International Secretariat of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and the member organisations listed as signatories at the end of this document.
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is an Alliance of more than 80 non-governmental organisations from Africa, Asia, Europe, LAC and North America. The GAATW International Secretariat is based in Bangkok, Thailand and co-ordinates the activities of the Alliance, collects and disseminates information, and advocates on behalf of the Alliance at regional and international levels. Member Organisations include migrant rights organisations; anti-trafficking organisations; self-organised groups of migrant workers, domestic workers, survivors of trafficking and sex workers; human rights and women's rights organisations; and direct service providers.
Our Alliance was established over twenty years ago to respond to the needs of people, in particular women, whose rights have been violated in the process of their labour migration. As feminists from both the global South and the global North, we share a deep concern for the rights and well-being of women who are trying to make a living for themselves and their families in a world increasingly characterised by inequality, globalisation, conflict, environmental degradation and precarious labour. In these constraining circumstances we have seen how women show extraordinary resilience and ingenuity in resisting oppression, claiming their rights and asserting their agency. Listening to women and trying to understand their aspirations and the complexities of their life journeys has been at the core of our work. We hope that in this consultation, UN Women will similarly be guided by the desires and experiences of the people whose lives will be directly affected by the policy you are developing – those currently working in the sex industry.
Since the establishment of our organisation, we have made a clear distinction between sex work (or ‘prostitution’) and human trafficking. While sex work is an income-generating activity and viewed as labour by those engaged in it, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are criminal acts and severe human rights violations. The conflation of sex work and trafficking trivialises trafficking and victimises, infantilises and patronises sex workers and creates a hostile atmosphere against them. It further weakens the legal, social and labour conditions of sex workers, making them more vulnerable to abuse from clients and law enforcement. These circumstances facilitate their dependency on pimps and managers and exacerbate their vulnerability to trafficking in the context of sex work. The conflation of sex work and trafficking ultimately blurs the understanding of human trafficking and impedes the identification of victims and prosecution of the criminals.
In response to the specific questions posed in your call for submissions:
1. The principles of universality and ‘leaving nobody behind’ mean, in relation to sex work, that sex workers – women, men and transgender people – are able to take equal part in all areas of civil and political life, including in the development of laws and policies that affect them. Unfortunately, the criminalised status of sex work in many countries and the persistent societal view of sex work as ‘immoral’ or as ‘violence against women’ mean that sex workers are left behind politicians, academics and activists who claim to know better how sex work should be addressed. Sex workers have been particularly left behind in the development of anti-trafficking policies and measures, despite their contribution to addressing abuses and trafficking in the sex industry. These measures have led to violations of their rights as ‘Collateral Damage’, as GAATW documented almost 10 years ago. But sex workers from all walks of life and working in all sectors of the industry are the true experts on the impacts of policies concerning the sex industry, including its regulation. We know from them that the decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work is the only policy that helps them be recognised as rights-holders, as workers and as citizens and take active part in the political and social life of their communities. We have learnt this from listening to sex workers and walking with them in their struggle for rights and freedom from oppression.
2. The empowerment of women and girls begins with their equitable access to education, healthcare, property and work opportunities and removal of the patriarchal norms and attitudes that limit this access. In this sense, gender equality can be achieved through legislative and social measures that promote respect for and recognition of girls’ and women’s potential, as well as their contribution to economic and social life, including through their unpaid and care work. In terms of policies on sex work, we do not condone the participation of girls (children) in the sex industry. As for adult women, there are examples how the removal of criminal sanctions empowers women who sell sex. For instance, the decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work in New Zealand has been successful in empowering many women in the sex industry to report violence against them and has increased their trust in the police and justice system. Similarly, in the Netherlands the government runs campaigns encouraging sex workers and clients to report suspicions of trafficking and forced sex work to an anonymous hotline. These campaigns lead to increases in reports of such instances and the identification of victims and apprehension of suspects. Such initiatives are not possible in countries where sex work is criminalised and pushed out of sight or where it is framed as ‘violence against women’. Thus the decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work contributes to the elimination of violence against women, including human trafficking.
In the current economic regime, sex work is for many women the best option to earn money to secure their livelihoods. Many engage in sex work only temporarily in order to pay for their education, raise their children, or make investments, which allows them to move on from sex work and pursue other life goals. In this way, sex work can contribute to women’s ownership of land and assets and their economic empowerment. While we agree that the current global economic and social systems need significant change, so that no person feels that sex work is her/his only or best option to make a living, until this change comes, people engaged in sex work need to be able to work in an environment that ensures their safety and protection and recognises them as workers.
3. Stigma and discrimination are pervasive in the lives of all women as a result of patriarchal attitudes in society. Women in the sex industry are particularly affected by these attitudes which consider them as ‘immoral’, ‘loose’ or ‘fallen’ women, but also by some supposedly progressive attitudes that, ironically, consider them subdued, non-agential ‘victims of male violence’. These views marginalise and disempower sex workers and impede their access to health and social services and the justice system and empower those who seek to exploit and harm them. As long as women are considered inferior to men, and as long as women in the sex industry are considered inferior or less equal to other women, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The removal of stigma and discrimination against any group of people is a long process that takes time and requires concerted legislative and social measures. The decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual adult sex work can be one part of such a process, combined with social measures to promote acceptance of sex work as work and respect for the rights and dignity of sex workers. Such a process is a requirement towards building peaceful and inclusive societies. Also importantly, the decriminalisation of sex work and removal of stigma has the potential to significantly reduce the number of HIV and STD infections among sex workers, according to leading experts in the field, including UNDP, WHO and the medical journal The Lancet. Thus, decriminalisation of sex work is important for the realisation of the right to health, including the reproductive rights of sex workers.
Finally, we would like to stress again the need for UN Women to meaningfully consult with sex workers and the organisations representing them in the development of this policy that may affect their lives, including their income, health and wellbeing. The policy should respond to the current needs and best interests of the people who sell sex and be grounded in sound evidence. In addition, UN Women should also take note of the extensive research on sex work and the rights of sex workers already done by other UN agencies and human rights organisations, such as the ILO, UNDP, UNAIDS, WHO, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women – International Secretariat, Bangkok, Thailand
La Strada International, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
LEFÖ – Beratung, Bildung und Begleitung für Migrantinnen, Vienna, Austria
Associação Brasileira de Defesa da Mulher, da Infância e da Juventude (Asbrad), Sao Paolo, Brazil
Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer, ‘Elisa Martínez’, A.C., Mexico City, Mexico
Action for REACH OUT (AFRO), Hong Kong, SAR
Human Security Policy Studies Centre (HSPSC), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Durbar Mahila Samanawya Committee (DMSC), Kolkata, India
Women's Rehabilitation Centre, Kathmandu, Nepal
Buhay Foundation for Women and the Girl Child, Manila, The Philippines
Colectivo Hetaira, Madrid, Spain
Ban Ying, Berlin, Germany
ASTRA – Anti-Trafficking Action, Belgrade, Serbia
Animus Association Foundation, Sofia, Bulgaria
International Public Association ‘Gender Perspectives’, Minsk, Belarus
Association for Action on Violence against Women and Trafficking in Persons, Skopje, Macedonia
La Strada Foundation against Trafficking in Persons and Slavery, Warsaw, Poland
La Strada Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic
International Center for Women Rights Protection and Promotion ‘La Strada’, Chisinau, Moldova
International Women’s Rights Protection Centre ‘La Strada’, Kyiv, Ukraine
FIZ – Fachstelle Frauenhandel und Frauenmigration, Zurich, Switzerland
Pro-Tukipiste, Helsinki, Finland
GAATW-Canada, Victoria, Canada
Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN), Vancouver, Canada
GENERA - Associació en defensa dels drets de les dones, Barcelona, Spain
Launch of Issue 6 of the Anti-Trafficking Review 'Prosecuting Human Trafficking', guest edited by Anne T. Gallagher
In the Debate Section of this issue, nine authors take sides to defend or reject the proposition: 'Prosecuting trafficking deflects attention from much more important responses and is anyway a waste of time and money'. While there is considerable diversity in views among contributors, most authors argue around one of two central ideas: failure to prosecute trafficking effectively makes a mockery of criminalisation and ensures the cycle of exploitation will continue unchecked; and, prosecutions that ignore the rights and needs of victims are hollow victories that will never deliver true justice.
28 May 2016
The International Secretariat of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women welcomes Amnesty International’s ‘Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect and Fulfil the Human Rights of Sex Workers’, developed after two years of in-depth research and consultations with sex workers and various other stakeholders.
GAATW was launched over twenty years ago in order to challenge the dominant discourse on trafficking as occurring exclusively in the sex industry and of the women in the sex industry as pitiful victims of exploitation. As feminists, we have stood in solidarity with women in both the formal and informal economy, including the sex industry, and have maintained that even in the most difficult situations, women demonstrate extraordinary power, agency and resilience. Sex workers’ struggle for rights is the same struggle as that of women, migrants and workers around the world.
Amnesty’s policy acknowledges this struggle, as well as the multiple rights violations that sex workers experience, often not by traffickers or clients, but by states and, unfortunately, all too often in the name of combatting human trafficking. We, too, have documented these rights violations extensively, often in partnership with sex workers organisations, and have repeatedly stated that the fight against human trafficking should not result in ‘collateral damage’. But as the Amnesty research on sex work in Norway, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea and Argentina points out, nothing has changed over the past decade and sex workers still face multiple discriminations and denial of many of their human rights.
We are pleased that Amnesty recognises GAATW, along with our friends from La Strada International and the Freedom Network USA, as anti-trafficking organisations that stand up for sex workers’ rights. Sex workers have the most interest in a clean and safe industry, free from coercion and exploitation. Sex workers and their clients are uniquely positioned to detect cases of exploitation and human trafficking. The work of our members and allies in the sex workers rights movement is a testimony to that. But the criminalised status of sex workers or clients in many countries means that they would implicate themselves if they report cases of abuse. Indeed, as Amnesty points out, the decriminalisation of sex work can have a positive impact on the fight against human trafficking and this needs to be recognised by governments and other anti-trafficking stakeholders.
We hope that Amnesty’s policy will give sex workers and their organisations new impetus to demand their rights from their governments and that the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ will finally become reality.
Stringent border control has often been used as a measure to stop human trafficking and members of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) have raised their voices against such misguided, ineffective and discriminatory measures.
Today, on International Women’s Day, GAATW is calling for an end to restrictions placed on migration of women domestic workers in some parts of the world! These bans have been justified as a way to prevent trafficking, exploitation and abuse. Not surprisingly, such policies have made women vulnerable to abuse rather than making their migration safe. Instead, states need to empower women to exercise their rights by focusing on non-discrimination, access to education and training, protection of their citizens abroad and creation of more safe and legal migration opportunities.
Since the early 2000s, with an increase in women’s migration and the expansion of the care industry, there has been an increase in reports of the exploitation and abuse of South Asian women working in the Gulf States. As a response to such reports, many South Asian countries have sought to prevent trafficking and exploitation through partial or total bans on women’s migration, especially for ‘low-skilled’ work. These bans have done little to protect women and have, at times, actually made women’s situation even worse.
In 2015 GAATW and the ILO published a joint study, exploring the effects of different bans on women’s migration for domestic work in place in Nepal. The study found that the bans limit women’s economic opportunities in their most productive years and prevent them from supporting themselves and their families. They also placed women at greater risk of abuse during their journey, and gave them less control over their migration experience. These bans do not address the motives that prompt women to migrate, such as lack of income-generating opportunities at home, the social pressure to migrate or the desire to explore the world. Second, they push women to seek irregular migration channels through the help of smugglers and traffickers, thus making them more vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and debt bondage. Third, a ban on migration means that women miss out on the same skills training, pre-departure training and knowledge of their human and labour rights, as the migrants who travel through the state-approved recruitment agencies.
Bans on women domestic workers’ migration are also a form of discrimination and contravene states’ obligations under international treaties. Most Asian countries have signed and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which obligates States to take steps to eliminate discrimination against women on the basis of gender and to realise women’s rights through equal access and opportunities. CEDAW also has specific provisions related to non-discrimination in work, including the right to equal employment opportunities and selection criteria for work. The Convention specifically calls on origin countries to ensure the lifting of discriminatory bans or restrictions on migration ‘on the basis of age, marital status, pregnancy or maternity status. They should lift restrictions that require women to get permission from their spouse or male guardian to obtain a passport or to travel.’1
Based on GAATW’s decades-long work in supporting and listening to migrant women workers, today, on International Women’s Day, we call on concerned countries of origin to:
Reject policies on restrictions and lift any existing restrictions on women domestic workers’ migration. Migration can be a positive experience in whole or in part, and may enable women to achieve goals they would not be able to achieve in their home country. Banning women domestic workers from migrating to protect them from harm is a disproportionate response to the challenges women face and does not recognise their strong impetus to migrate, nor the rights of all people to leave their own country.
Ensure the availability and accessibility of skills training before departure. Skills and language training will help women better understand what will be required of them and communicate with their employers in the destination country, the authorities and social service providers in case of need, and facilitate access to justice to ensure their rights. Skills training centres should be available not only in the capital city, where women have to incur additional costs for travel and accommodation, but also throughout the country.
Ensure that embassies in the countries of destination have trained female officers, or officers trained in the specific challenges faced by women. Where appropriate, more missions and embassies in destination countries should be opened.
Open migration channels to more countries. Migration to countries with a better track record of protecting the rights of migrants may lead to more positive experiences. South Asian nations need to sign bilateral agreements with destination countries that would guarantee a certain wage and the right to annual leave.
Further, we call on all countries of destination to:
Ensure that migrant domestic workers have the right to organise, join trade unions or form their own trade unions.
Take all measures so that migrant domestic and other workers can effectively access justice and uphold their rights.
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) is a network of over 100 NGOs across the globe, who provide assistance to women, migrants and trafficked persons and promote their human rights, including the right to migrate abroad and be protected from violence and abuse. GAATW opposes any anti-trafficking measures which adversely affect the human rights and freedom of movement of people.
1CEDAW General recommendation 26