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Fostering Enabling Legal and Policy Environments to Protect the Health and Rights of Sex Workers: A Report from Johannesburg, South Africa


This report synthesizes 2.5 days of lively presentations and discussions at a meeting organized on 22-24 June 2006 in Johannesburg, South Africa by the Sexual Health and Rights Project (SHARP) and Law and Health Initiative (LAHI) of the Open Society Institute (OSI). The meeting brought together sex workers, service providers, human rights advocates, researchers, and other constituencies to discuss how legal and regulatory environments affect sex workers’ health and human rights.

The meeting was organized to address the growing backlash against approaches to sex work that focus on the dignity and human rights of sex workers. Many countries in recent years have moved to toughen anti-prostitution laws, largely in response to a supposed link between sex work and transnational trafficking in human beings. The current attack on rights and empowerment of sex workers ranges from older, failed attempts to eliminate sex work through criminal penalties, rescue and the “rehabilitation” of sex workers to the undermining of strategies that aim to empower sex workers to protect their health and human rights. Some countries have discouraged or de-funded HIV-prevention strategies that seek to empower sex workers to use condoms and otherwise protect their health and rights. But there is little evidence-based research regarding the effect of anti-prostitution laws as a means of protecting women’s rights and prevent HIV. There is even less evidence regarding the impact of non-criminal laws, such as those governing immigration, employment, taxation, public health, and child custody, on the health and human rights of sex workers, yet repressive laws and policies have been developed in all of these arenas. One of the aims of this meeting was to describe research gaps in these areas in order to guide the eventual development of a research agenda to address these issues.

The meeting was also motivated by the desire to build connections between sex worker groups and among allies to advocate on their behalf. Sex workers’ issues are often misunderstood by those who do not share their experience, and even within ‘progressive’ movements, sex workers face discrimination. While various local, regional, and international sex worker groups have been building their expertise in law, health and human rights issues, their work does not always reach other actors, often because of limited resources for distribution.

In this context, the objectives of the Johannesburg meeting were:

  1. To reach a common understanding of the key laws and regulations governing prostitution

    and sex work globally, and to map, through sharing on-the-ground knowledge and experience, the elements of various regimes of official control and regulation of sex work and prostitution and to assess how they impact sex workers’ health and rights;

  2. To formulate the core principles of various approaches to sex work such as “public health,” “human rights,” and “harm reduction” approaches, and to better understand how these approaches work in practice;

  3. To foster dialogue both within and among various sex worker-related interest groups, with an eye to reducing barriers and expanding areas of common principles and goals; and

  4. To develop connections from the meeting as part of building a global network of advocates with expertise on sex worker’s health and human rights that will facilitate continued dialogue, better and more responsive research, and joint advocacy toward more rights-promoting policy development.

This report is not an attempt to track all the discussions or reflect all viewpoints presented at the meeting. Instead, we highlight specific issues in the debates and areas of substantial agreement for action and advocacy. The report also seeks to make visible the complexity and diversity of viewpoints among participants. Ignoring differences can lead to ineffective and even harmful interventions and lost opportunities for policy change. A commitment to the health and human rights of sex workers requires not only good laws, policies, and programs, but also a willingness to listen to complicated stories and to acquire new knowledge of local and global forces. 

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