‘Has anything changed?’ A Decade of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to violence and other hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the world. Conceptualised by Dr. Annie Sprinkle, the first annual day was observed in 2003 by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. On that day sex workers gathered to honour women and sex workers murdered by the serial killer Gary Ridgeway. In the killer’s own words: “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

Today, ten years from that first annual observation we should to pause and take stock. Has anything changed substantively in the last decade?

“Sex workers are subject to violence from the general community, who do not view us as deserving of protection. Sex workers are often rejected by family and peers, and for transgender and HIV-positive sex workers, the stigma can be even more intense.” (Friends Frangipani, Papua new Guinea, Asia-Pacific Regional Dialogue, 16–17 February 2011, quoted in Global Commission on HIV and the Law (GCHL) report “Risks, Rights & Health”)

In a public letter, Sprinkle states: “Violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished. There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered. No matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and families.”

The GCHL report published in July 2012 highlights that more than 100 countries globally criminalise some aspect of sex work. Some countries, such as most of the United States, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Vietnam and South Africa, outlaw sex work entirely. Some in Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, and South Asia prosecute activities related to sex work such as brothel-keeping or transporting sex workers, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, street soliciting and living off its profits. Norway and Sweden do not criminalise workers themselves, but paradoxically criminalise buying sex and arrest clients of sex workers.

Most countries use other laws against civil and administrative offences such as “loitering without purpose”, “public nuisance”, and “public morality” to penalise sex workers. Often anti-human trafficking laws are targeted against adults involved in consensual sex work rather than ensuring that the enforcement of those laws identify and punish those who use force, dishonesty or coercion to procure people into commercial sex, or who abuse migrant sex workers through debt bondage, violence or by deprivation of liberty.

The report goes on to say that for sex workers, the threat of violence – from both police and other actors – is a daily reality. Criminalisation, in collusion with social stigma makes sex workers’ lives more unstable, less safe and far riskier in terms of HIV. There is no legal protection from discrimination and abuse when sex work is criminalised. These kinds of laws invite police harassment and violence and push sex work underground, where it is harder to negotiate safer conditions and consistent condom use. Some sex workers fear carrying condoms, which are used as evidence against them, sometimes as an explicit provision of law. Police violence prevents sex workers from seeking their assistance, which ingrains a culture of more client and police violence.

Stigmatised, criminalised sex workers are unable to access programmes of HIV prevention and care. Police, criminals and clients deploy the threat of criminal sanctions to control and exploit sex workers. Rape and assault are difficult to report when the sex worker fears that she will be arrested, and sexual violence heightens exposure to HIV. Working in the informal sector reduces sex workers’ access to education and housing, thus increasing their dependence on others, including pimps.

Today, to make the observation of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers meaningful, we must join the demands of sex workers, and their friends and allies to address the structural factors that continues to perpetrate, condone, and justify persistent violence against sex workers world-wide. Given this unsupportive legal environment around the world and the stigma against sex work, sex workers, and their clients, the critical first step towards ending violence against female, male, or transgender sex workers would be to repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living off the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Moreover, sex workers must have access to justice to ensure safe working conditions and security against violence from state and non-state actors.

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The author of this blog, Nandinee Bandyopadhyay, is an independent consultant. She has been working on issues of class, gender, and sexuality for over thirty years. She has worked extensively with sex workers’ movements in India and internationally. 

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Keeping Violence at Bay in Andhra Pradesh: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers 2013

Violence, stigma and discrimination decrease the capacity of sex workers to access health care and other social services. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Violence, stigma and discrimination decrease the capacity of sex workers to access health care and other social services. (Photo by Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

“I filed an application for a ration card in the mandal (block) administrative office. The clerk made me come to office 15 times, and every time he slept with me,” rues Meena  (name changed), a sex worker from Andhra Pradesh. “Wherever we go – offices, schools, hospitals or banks – we are sexually exploited and discriminated against.”

Sex workers across the world are easy targets for violence and discrimination at work, at home and in society at large. Data show that violence faced by sex workers ranges from slapping to sexual assault, physical and psychological torture, and sometimes even murder. HIV programmes across the world are grappling with this reality of sex workers facing high levels of stigma, discrimination, gender-based violence and other human rights violations, which prevent them from accessing HIV information, health care and needed social services.

To tackle the problem, India HIV/AIDS Alliance has worked through our Avahan programme to develop community-led strategies for prevention and mitigation of violence among female sex workers and other sexual minorities. Working in a total of six states, the Avahan India AIDS Initiative is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In Andhra Pradesh, our programme covered over 40,000 sex workers in 14 districts. Programme strategies on violence include: community mobilisation and empowerment, crisis response systems and teams; and sensitisation of police and other law enforcement agencies, media personnel and service professionals. The crisis response teams respond within 24 hours to any violence reported by liaising with legal services in the event of unlawful arrests, sexual assault, violence and other rights violations against sex workers.

Since 2006, our team has successfully sensitized around 7,000 police officials at state, district and block level. Over 700 community members have received training on law and human rights and have been recognized by the District Legal Cell Authority as para-legal volunteers (PLVs). PLVs from sex-worker communities provide support to those in need. In addition, community collectivization and legal education has empowered sex workers to recognize and address cases of violence against them.

Routine monitoring on violence and crisis response including data collected from Targeted Interventions for HIV prevention and from special Behavioural Tracking Surveys (BTS) among 2,000 female sex workers in five districts in Andhra Pradesh between 2009 and 2012 showed an improved response to violence in sex worker communities. The number of cases of violence against sex workers has declined by 68 percent, from 900 cases in 2009 to 288 cases in 2011. The BTS data indicate that there has also been a reduction in violence by police (from 29% in 2009 to 19% in 2011-12). The perception of fair treatment by police has increased from 14% (2009) to 29% (2011-12), and around 70 percent of sex workers now experience what they consider to be fair treatment at public institutions.

“Earlier we shuddered at the sight of police. Not anymore. We now know our rights and what to do in a crisis,” says Meena with confidence.

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The author of this post, Dr. Parimi Prabhakar, is Director of Alliance India’s Regional Office in Hyderabad.

The Avahan India AIDS Initiative (2003-2014) is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The programme aims to reduce HIV transmission and the prevalence of STIs in vulnerable high-risk populations, notably female sex workers, MSM, and transgenders, through prevention education and services such as condom promotion, STI management, behavior change communication, community mobilization, and advocacy. Avahan works in six states, and Alliance India is a state lead partner in Andhra Pradesh.