The struggle for sex worker rights has been a marathon, not a sprint, but the chorus of voices calling for an end to stigma, abuse, and criminalization is growing. The United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women and girls released a landmark report in October calling for the full decriminalization of voluntary adult sex work globally.
The report examines the “polarizing” debates around sex work, which often usurp calls for evidence-based policies to protect the rights of affected women and girls. Human Rights Watch research, as well as credible investigations and analysis from academics, health journals, anti-trafficking organizations, and sex workers themselves, consistently find that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder.
A 2021 investigation found that criminalization endangers and undermines the work of sex worker rights defenders, who are often best placed to do “life-saving” anti-trafficking work, including negotiating access to brothels, identifying sexually exploited children, training survivors on accessing justice, offering harm reduction, and increasing pathways to healthcare for survivors deprived of freedom of movement.
The latest report is the Working Group’s seventh time addressing sex work. It previously advocated for the decriminalization of adult sex work in its reports on gendered discrimination in health (2016), women deprived of liberty (2019), women’s rights in the world of work (2020), and poverty (2023), as well as in two country-specific interventions on behalf of criminalized sex workers in Nigeria and South Africa.
Several other UN agencies oppose criminalization, including the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization, the UN Population Fund, and the UN Development Program. Civil society organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation have also published evidence-based policies supporting the decriminalization of adult sex work.
Local sex worker rights defenders face an immensely complicated and often brutal landscape of defamation, smear campaigns, legal challenges, and even physical violence and killings in retaliation for their struggle for rights in their communities. The unequivocal support of one the UN’s leading women’s rights bodies is deeply meaningful and shows they listened to sex workers.
The evidence is clear and the network of institutions willing to take a rights-based stance is growing. Decriminalization is the path forward for those interested in rights and justice for all women.