Experts Debate Tough Questions on Sex Work and Human Rights

On July 13, 2011, the Open Society Foundations' Sexual Health and Rights Project sponsored a panel discussion at the International Human Rights Funders Group meeting, which brought together activists and donors to better understand approaches to protect the human rights of people engaged in sex work.

Debates rage over what legal and policy environments would best promote the human rights and health of those engaged in selling sexual services. What is often lost in this debate is what happens to the lives of people engaged in sex work as a result of the laws, policies, and programs that are intended to protect them.

The discussion featured comments from Meena Saraswathi Seshu, General Secretary of SANGRAM in Maharashtra State, India; Ruth Morgan Thomas, Global Coordinator of Global Network of Sex Work Projects; and Deon Haywood, Executive Director of Women With a Vision in New Orleans, Louisiana. The speakers discussed how criminal laws put adults engaged in sex work at higher risk of HIV infection and other health risks, as well as human rights violations, particularly from police. Participants described the way that their communities, whether in New Orleans or in Maharashtra State, suffered violations from ill-advised programs that further marginalize an already vulnerable population.

The speakers called for more appropriate services for sex workers, including drop-in centers and comprehensive and non-discriminatory health services, as well as rights-based services for victims of trafficking. The services required for adult sex workers and victims of trafficking are distinct and both are currently under-funded. The participants called for the removal of criminal laws that further marginalize sex workers and contribute to the human rights violations these communities suffer around the world, and for donors to invest in communities of sex workers themselves so that they can drive the programs and policies that change their lives.