Every sex worker is a human rights defender

Wednesday, 28 January, 2009 - 09:50

In response to the denial of human rights and ongoing violence and discrimination against sex workers in Africa, the first ever sex worker-led conference will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 3-5 February 2009.

The first ever African sex worker-led conference will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 3-5 February 2009. The conference is a response to the denial of human rights and ongoing violence and discrimination against sex workers in Africa.

Sex workers, sex worker organisations, advocates, and supporters from across Eastern, Western and Southern Africa will come together to form an alliance and to share their knowledge and expertise on specific sex worker issues that cut across Africa’s countries and regions. These include but are not limited to:

  • Definitions and understandings of sex work
  • Stigma and discrimination
  • Sex workers’ human rights
  • Criminalisation and structural violence
  • Police brutality and arbitrary arrest
  • Abuse, violence, and exploitation within the sex industry
  • Health risks, access to health care services and facilities, and sexual and reproductive health rights
  • Diversity, representation, and collectivism

The conference takes a rights-based approach to sex work issues, advocating that all sex workers are human rights defenders. As such, sex workers will lead the conference, alliance, and movement, so that they are in charge of their own civil, economic, social, cultural, and political development and progress.

The immediate outcome of the conference will be a position paper and petition that demands an end to the violation of sex workers’ human rights that will be presented to the media and other key bodies and institutions.

Participants will examine controversial debates on sex work. Often sex work is considered in binary terms, defined as being ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. However, like all other activities, sex work has its advantages and disadvantages. Arguments around sex work have become clouded by other interacting debates on morality, religion, sexuality, love, desire, relationships, health, the body, laws, public-private distinctions, gender identity, and different power relations.

The conference will attempt to go deeper into the sex debate – unpacking the different aspects and characteristics of being a sex worker. It hopes to dispel prejudices, embrace different viewpoints, and look at sex work in all its complexities. As a sex worker-led campaign, it will represent all kinds of sex workers and demonstrate the diversity that exists within the sex worker population in terms of gender, class, race, and sexual orientation.

A fundamental principle of the conference is the recognition that sex work is work and sex workers need rights, not rescue.

Grounded in this principle, the conference will ensure that sex workers be given a human face and debunk overly simplistic and essentialist arguments about sex work which frequently leads to them being stripped of their human integrity. Participants will focus on how sex workers are active agents of their lives and in this way, more credit and analysis to the dynamic ways sex workers manage their own livelihoods.

The conference will examine basic human rights as a concept and practice and explain why sex workers deserve the same rights as everyone else; why sex workers are denied their basic human rights; and how sex workers can successfully claim their rights from their communities and governments.

The issues of sex trafficking and child sex work interact with the adult sex industry, but are pressing concerns that demand separate special attention. Trafficking should not be automatically conflated with sex work and the plight of people forced to have sex and work in abusive and exploitative conditions should not be limited to trafficked persons. Sex trafficking and child sex work are particular forms of human rights violations, akin to torture and slavery. Sex trafficking and child sex work thrive in environments where sex work is criminalised since those involved in the sex industry are afraid to report cases of trafficking and exploitation. The conference takes a united stand in the fight against trafficking in any form - sexual slavery, child labour, body parts. Moreover, the conference organisers believe that empowering sex workers as human rights defenders will allow sex workers to be better equipped and enabled to assist in the struggle against trafficking. While the conference will explore ways sex workers can expose cases of trafficking, conference will the focus on those adult individuals who have the physical freedom to leave or remain in the commercial sex industry.

Participants at the event will develop new ideas and ways to enhance and empower sex workers’ capacity to defend and demand their human rights. It will deal with issues of law and law enforcement including how to decrease the number of arbitrary arrests; how to get legal recourse for police brutality and state-sanctioned violence; and how to advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work.

Amongst other issues, the conference will highlight health rights, particularly sexual and reproductive health rights including how to combine the knowledge of one’s health with the knowledge of one’s right to health; how to ensure that health care services and facilities treat sex workers effectively and fairly; and how to include sex workers in national health policies, programs, and projects.

Labour issues will also be discussed, including how to make working environments safer; how to increase the bargaining power of sex workers with their client; and how to guarantee that sex workers are treated fairly by their employers. Since sex work is not regarded as work by the law, exploitation of sex workers is common.

The conference will explore the ways in which sex workers can organize themselves: why it is important to unite and collectivise; how to find safe spaces for sex workers to assemble; and how to manage national, regional, and global sex worker-led movements.

This conference represents an important opportunity to make a positive change in people’s lives, not only for sex workers, but also for their children and other dependents. It is a way of legitimising democracy, diversity, and development.

Devi Leiper (Wonetha)
Dianne Massawe (SWEAT)
Catherine Maternowska (ICRHK)

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