When you awoke this morning, you may not have realized that March 3 is International Sex Workers Rights Day. If you live in a country where sex work is criminalized, you might be surprised to hear that sex workers have rights. You might even think that they should not have rights, though if that’s the case, I suspect you’ve never spoken with a sex worker.
The fact is, everyone has rights, but around the world sex workers face a wide range of human rights abuses, often as a result of the laws, policies, and practices of the very governments tasked with their protection. Even in countries where sex work itself isn’t illegal, sex workers suffer from inappropriate and sometimes illegal policing tactics, including physical and sexual violence, extortion, and false arrest. Sex workers are often afraid to report crimes committed against them for fear they will not be taken seriously or their reports will lead to further violations.
Despite the obstacles, sex workers around the world are organizing to claim their rights. Take Kisumu, Kenya, for example, where a woman named Phoebe lives and works. One evening around midnight she met a client at a local bar, agreed on a price of 400 Kenyan shillings (about 5 dollars), and went back to his place. Once they got inside he became violent, forced her to have sex without a condom, and then demanded his money back. When she refused to give him a refund, he held a knife to her chest, took her money, and threatened to kill her if she reported him. There’s no question that what Phoebe experienced was horrible, but what makes it all the more shocking is that the man was a police officer.
In a survey conducted by Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers in Kisumu in 2007, sex workers reported that they suffered more abuse at the hands of police than from any other source—including clients. Many sex workers believed that because their work was illegal there was nothing they could do to address abuses. It was a climate in which a sex worker who went to the police to report being raped risked being told that “prostitutes can’t be raped” and then arrested on other grounds.
Once in custody, sex workers experienced further abuse, including being made to crawl on their hands and knees on rough surfaces, being forced to clean police stations and mop the floors of their cells with water mixed with urine, and being locked in police officers’ houses for more than four days at a time, where they were forced to provide sexual services and perform domestic chores until other sex workers could be arrested as replacements.
The situation in Kisumu changed when sex workers joined forces with the organization Keeping Alive Societies Hope (KASH) to combat police abuse. KASH gained the support of the provincial police chief and conducted workshops for sex workers about their rights and for law enforcement about their responsibilities. KASH selected 10 police officers and 10 sex workers to train as peer educators, and tasked them with working together to develop a data collection system to document ongoing abuses and positive interactions between sex workers and police. The police then organized meetings for fellow officers while the sex workers conducted workshops for peer groups they’d formed, giving the project a viral effect in its reach. The 20 peer educators met every other month to discuss the data they had collected and strategize on how to address patterns of abuse.
Phoebe shared her awful story at a meeting organized by one of the sex worker peer educators and, to her surprise, several others described similar experiences with the same officer. The situation was discussed at the next meeting between sex workers and police and the offending officer was removed from his post. What’s so striking is that two years ago Kisumu’s sex workers felt they had no recourse when crimes like these were committed against them. Now, there is a mechanism for them to go straight to the top, and for action to be taken to defend their rights.
Even in contexts in which sex work is illegal, Phoebe and all sex workers have rights which must be protected. Research has demonstrated that the criminalization of sex work is associated with violence against sex workers, decreased access to health care, barriers to reporting human rights abuses, and disempowerment in condom negotiation. Governments should recognize and address the relationship between laws criminalizing sex work and the human rights violations that result from these laws.
International Sex Workers Rights Day isn’t just about securing the rights of sex workers; it’s about securing human rights.