[Brussels, 5 August 2015] This week, Amnesty International delegates will meet to discuss, amongst other issues, a policy on “sex work” which calls for the decriminalisation of “sex work”. The European Women’s Lobby (EWL) is deeply concerned about this positioning of Amnesty International, which we believe will have a detrimental impact on the lives of not only the persons currently involved in prostitution (whether they’ve been trafficked or not), but also on the lives of all women and girls and on the realisation of equality between women and men.
It is clear that Amnesty International has - in cooperation with women’s rights organisations as well as independently - worked a lot on promoting women’s human rights and on mainstreaming women’s rights into the human rights agenda. The EWL and its members have been working together with and supported Amnesty International, its national sections and its European institutions office over the last years, on several campaigns related to women’s rights such as violence against women, women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, or female genital mutilation. In Amnesty International’s new position on “sex work”, we however don’t see any clear women’s rights perspective, apart from stating that “women make the majority of sex workers globally”. The demand side of prostitution is barely addressed, while it is constituted of a great majority of men, which is an important indicator of gender dynamics in the system of prostitution. This reality should give a clear insight about the links between the system of prostitution and the broad society where structural inequalities between women and men are unfortunately still the norm.
We therefore don’t understand why Amnesty International’s proposed policy doesn’t address the issue of prostitution as part of a broader system where the human rights of women and girls keep on being systematically violated, where sexualisation and pornification play a role in conveying negative images and stereotypes about women and normalising men’s entitlement to women’s bodies. By neutralising the gender power dynamics at stake in the system of prostitution, Amnesty International endangers its universal vision of human rights.
It’s clear that there is a global consensus on decriminalising the persons engaged in selling sex. We support this vision very strongly, and support the organisations and coalitions struggling to get rid of national laws criminalising persons in prostitution, like in France, in Ireland or in the UK. But decriminalising “sex work” goes beyond promoting the human rights of individuals: it is about legitimising a whole system that implies many actors, including sex buyers, pimps and traffickers who don’t care about human rights. Will Amnesty International vote on a policy which considers that decriminalising pimps and procurers will effectively support the human rights of the persons in prostitution? Let us not be naïve about the reality of the sex industry; let us be courageous enough to have a critical eye on its power dynamics, functioning and benefits, and how it fosters trafficking.
We strongly believe that the system of prostitution is at the core of the current neoliberal/patriarchal/neocolonial system and plays a key role in perpetuating it. We know from evidence that the vast majority of persons in prostitution are women, from minority groups, including transgender persons, from Indigenous communities, from low-caste communities, from poorer countries… and that they are becoming younger and younger. This is not by chance: the system of prostitution makes the most of the multiple inequalities and discrimination. And it is perpetuated by a demand constituted of those having power and resources: mainly men. As long as we don’t transform our societies and mentalities (including through legislation), we will continue to see the most vulnerable ones being used by a system driven by profit. Decriminalising a whole system which benefits from inequalities will not strengthen the human rights of the persons in that system. On the contrary, it will strengthen the impunity of those benefiting from inequalities and injustice.
Amnesty International’s mission is “campaigning for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all”: we would like to see a more inclusive vision of human rights as a collective project for our societies. We would like to see a stronger women’s human rights perspective in Amnesty International’s paper, especially in a context where women’s human rights are under attack at all levels, and existing human rights instruments need reinforced support.
From the point of view of women’s rights organisations, the possibility of a global Amnesty International policy on the decriminalisation of the sex industry would be a real setback, a major step away from the recognition of women’s rights as fully integral to the spectrum of human rights. We urge Amnesty International delegates not to support this move, to work more closely with women’s rights organisations, to get more evidence especially from frontline organisations working with persons in prostitution, and to listen to survivors.
Find out more about EWL’s campaign ’Together for a Europe free from prostitution’.
Read ’18 myths on prostitution’, with facts and figures comparing the situation in Sweden and the Netherlands.