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Sex Workers from Southern Africa Speak Out at International Women's Forum

Sex workers from across Southern Africa participated in the November 2008 International Forum on Women's Rights and Development in Cape Town, South Africa, to demand respect for their rights, an end to violence, and acknowledgement of sex work as work. The Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) and the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) supported ten sex worker activists from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe to attend the forum to learn from and contribute to the dialogue and build strategic alliances with the women's rights movement.

A recent regional assessment commissioned by SHARP, OSISA, and the Public Health Program's Law and Health Initiative, entitled Rights Not Rescue: A Report on Female, Trans and Male Sex Workers' Human Rights in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, documents the widespread human rights abuses sex workers face in the region. SHARP and its partners used the forum as an opportunity to release the report's executive summary and provide local advocates with a platform to speak out about their experiences. The opportunity to meet other advocates and together claim rights has galvanized enthusiasm among sex worker activists for further collaboration and organizing.

Held every three years by the Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), the forum brings together women's rights leaders and activists from around the world to strategize, network, and learn. Although AWID has been supportive of sex workers' rights in panels and materials, there has been a lack of sex worker voices in the forum itself.

The absence of sex worker participation in international dialogues like AWID has contributed to a harmful divide between those who promote women's rights and those working to advance the human rights of sex workers. The experiences of sex workers in Southern Africa—including police abuse, denial of health services, forced "rehabilitation," and lack of access to mechanisms for redress—exemplify the importance of building alliances across movements to amplify sex workers' voices and improve their health and wellbeing.

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