A Good Year for Red Umbrellas: Advances in Sex Workers Rights in 2012

All activists have good years, bad years and the rare great one. For sex worker rights activists 2012 was a great year.

In July, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law recommended that countries repeal laws against sex work to encourage safe working conditions and access to effective HIV and health services and commodities for sex workers and clients.  

It also warned against mandatory testing for HIV and criminalization of HIV transmission. Later in the year the United Nations Development Programme released another important document, ‘Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific’. It maps the laws and policies that affect sex workers’ human rights and health in 48 countries and also recommends removal of laws against selling, buying and brokering commercial sex.

In July, the 2012 International AIDS Conference attracted up to 25,000 delegates to Washington DC, but because sex workers are prohibited from entering the United States an alternative conference hub for sex workers was held in Kolkata. Sex workers and their allies in Kolkata attended conference sessions, held a street march and produced a film and some sessions were interactive with Washington. Ironically sex worker activism being divided like this may have meant that AIDS 2012 was particularly successful for sex workers because so much attention was focused on the discriminatory and counterproductive policies of the USA on sex work, as Melissa Ditmore explained to Forbes magazine.  

The Red Umbrella Fund was launched to strengthen the sex worker rights movement through sex worker-led organisations. The fund says that sex workers will ‘act as majority stake holders in deciding how funds are allocated.’ The Global Fund for HIV, Aids and Malaria has also taken steps toward ensuring more funding for sex workers.

Throughout the year we saw a steady stream of good news from countries. We saw discussions about legalizing sex work countries in places as diverse as Rwanda and Fiji. (See PRLI Twitter for news of sex work law reform globally). In the United States,  Human Rights Watch came out against police confiscating condoms as evidence of prostitution with measurable success. Sex workers challenged mandatory testing in Macedonia, the US, Greece, and Australia. Court cases as well as legislatures continued to make important differences to sex workers lives. We saw more evidence of this from Canada and South Africa where courts have overturned sex work laws and recognised  some sex workers rights. (See Pivotlegal Twitter for news on court cases.) In India, the Supreme Court moved to ensure that sex workers and their children can access the same services and benefits as other citizens.

Sex worker groups grew stronger all over the world, including in Africa where there is a new regional network as well as national groups in many countries. (Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Malawi). Sex workers are now routinely invited to conferences about issues that affect them and they made a big impression at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development Forum (AWID) conference this year.

Of course like most things in life sex workers rights in 2012 can be seen as a glass half full or half empty. Oppression and violence continues. Criminalization of clients or ‘the Swedish Model’ has been taken up by more countries (including Ireland and Scotland,). Sex workers continue to complain that sensationalism and myths about trafficking drives bad laws and violent ‘raids and rescues’ —often by corrupt or abusive organisations. Calls for abolition of sex work through law enforcement sometimes seems to be increasing among governments, large media interests, powerful interest groups and celebrities alike. We have just heard that the European Women’s Lobby has added their voice to that call. Although sex workers groups have limited power to challenge those demanding stronger state action against sex work, 2012 saw some success in working with academics who are also questioning the discourses that define sex work as trafficking/exploitation. 

PEPFAR, the Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, appears on both sides of my 2012 ledger. By preventing U.S. money going to sex workers, the PEPFAR anti-prostitution pledge has done enormous damage. Hopefully it will be overturned in court in 2013. At the same time, PEPFAR has saved millions of lives, including sex workers’, with Anti Retroviral Treatment for HIV. Although there are some good results about HIV prevention in some places sex workers remain very vulnerable to HIV in many places. Worrying spikes in HIV and STI persist as well as issues such as significant numbers of sex workers not collecting HIV results. This reminds us that stigma, poverty, criminalization and abuse continue to form powerful barriers to access to services.   

The year ended on a bright note with an activists meeting in Sydney to discuss decriminalization of sex work. That takes us into 2013 with confidence that the sex workers rights movement will continue to build on its successes and lessons and be ‘part of the solution.’    

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  • him-moderator

    While we are checking reality, it might be possible for the author to remember that many sex workers were denied visas to attend the International AIDS Conference last July. They were sold out by the International AIDS Society and their supporters.

    http://tinyurl.com/a8l3czb or http://www.hivinfo4mm.org/the-international-aids-society-betrayed-sex-workers/

    [him] moderator

  • vineeta

    Criminalization of clients or ‘the Swedish Model’ has been taken up by more countries (including Ireland and Scotland,)

    You forgot France and Israel, too.

    Calls for abolition of sex work through law enforcement sometimes seems to be increasing among governments, large media interests, powerful interest groups and celebrities alike. We have just heard that the European Women’s Lobby has added their voice to that call.

    The call to end women’s sexual servitude is definitely increasing across the globe. Which is terrific news since Sweden is a beacon of gender equality in so many ways and their model of dealing wtih prostitution strikes a sensible balance between the failed experiements of full criminalization and full legalization. I am sorry you cannot exhibit a similar balance in your reporting of the worldwide shifts happening.

  • arachne646

    It’s a given that human slavery is an injustice that our religion must struggle against, wherever it occurs, but too often anti-trafficking programs are really anti-sex-work crusades instead of actions focussed on justice and what is best for people being exploited in all kinds of slavery around the world. Often the corporations that we do business with in our daily lives, or the foods we buy and eat daily are tainted by slavery and what we do in “anti-trafficking” as it’s usually conceived, is more oppressive and puts sex workers in more danger than doing nothing.


    God loves human beings, and God loves fair and equal justice–it’s a basic theological tenet, though not the most popular one in the US, or other authoritarian religious systems. Sorry for any offense, but churches, and other religious institutions working for justice for sex workers is one of the bright spots in 2012. 

  • cheryl-overs

    That’s hard for me to forget since I was the sex worker refused entry to the US that set off the fuss. I can assure you that the humiliation, distress,fear and expense of the day I was pulled from a plane at Heathrow and accused of ‘moral turpitude’ by US immigration is fresh in my mind. But hey, thanks for your kind, supportive words. 

  • colleen

    being accused of ‘moral turpitude’ by those assholes must be  quite a lesson in restraint.