UN Women Consultation on Sex Work 2016

UN Women organized an online consultation to develop an explicit policy position with regard to sex work, the sex trade or prostitution, which ended in November 2016. In calling for submissions to the consultation, UN Women highlighted that the issue is an area of considerable debate and contest, as reflected in the language used to discuss it -  "sex work, the sex trade, prostitution".

APA collaborated with Asia Catalyst and Swasti to develop a Joint Response to the Consultation, with an emphasis on protecting, promoting and fulfilling the human rights of sex workers. The response, including references , can be downloaded here. The text is available below.  

Question 1) The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is underpinned by human rights principles and values; grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties and instruments . The importance of physical and mental health and well-being is underscored 1 in the declaration, with a commitment to universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, information and education . This right is also codified in the 2 International Covenant on Social Economic and Cultural Rights [article 12] on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including the freedom to control one’s own health and bodies; as well as the right to freely chosen, gainful work [article 6].

Any policy response to sex work and sex workers must also be grounded in and predicated on these same human rights instruments and principles, which emphasize empowerment of individuals to make educated and informed decisions over their own bodies, and their sexual and reproductive freedom. As identified by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, sex work is an act of agency​ where sexual services are negotiated between consenting adults .

Criminalization, on the other hand, impedes the work, health and dignity of sex workers. In the majority of the countries in Asia and the Pacific, criminalization has meant that a significant 4 group of people – female, male and transgender sex workers – have been excluded from enjoying the rights enshrined in international human rights law , and it can also impede national public health initiatives to address HIV/ AIDS. Globally, sex workers bears the burden of highest prevalence of HIV , as a result of stigma, discrimination, violence and punitive laws.  According the Special Rapporteur on the right to health, the criminalization of private, consensual sexual interaction between adults re​ presents a significant impediment to the realization of the right to health​ of all persons, particularly those against whom the law is directed .

The WHO has urged all countries move towards decriminalization, stating that in addition to establishing anti-discrimination and other rights-respecting laws to protect sex workers against discrimination and violence; health services should be made available, accessible and acceptable to sex workers based on principles of avoidance of stigma, non-discrimination and the ​right to health.

In Asia and the Pacific, specifically, governments have already committed​ to providing a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health information and other services that includes adequate counselling, information and education, paying particular attention to hard-to-reach and underserved groups ​, and to address the legal and policy barriers that impede access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support, particularly among key affected populations, such as sex workers. 


Question 2) The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as a) reproductive rights b) women’s ownership of land and assets c) building peaceful and inclusive societies d) ending the trafficking of women  e) eliminating violence against women.  How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution can promote such targets and objectives?

 In addition to human rights principles and values, gender also crosscuts the entire Agenda. Thus Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender empowerment and gender equality can only be achieved through a human rights based approach which incorporates interlinkages and integration with the other goals and targets. A rights-based approach to sex work focuses on the empowerment of sex workers to be rights claimants and the creation of an enabling environment.

Seen in this light, the narrow focus of Question 2 on selected targets inhibits robust and meaningful discussion on the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women. There are inherent synergies with the fulfilment of sexual and reproductive health and rights , and not just reproductive rights as it is reduced to in the question, which are integral to the health and wellbeing of sex workers, and all people. Sexual and reproductive health is included in two targets in the SDGs (3.7 and 5.6), with direct links to additional targets such as 3.1, 3.3, and 4.7, along with indirect links to others.

In another example, target 10.3 calls for the removal of discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and actions. As highlighted by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, national laws in some countries deny sex workers fundamental civil entitlements​: they may be unable to own or inherit property; register the births of their children; access education, justice, health care or banking services; or purchase housing or utilities .  When sex work is criminalized it poses challenge for sex workers to freely participate in regulations, policies and laws that have direct impact in their lives, resulting into little or no legal recourse for stigma, discrimination and violence directed against them. According to the Special Rapporteur on the right to health violence towards sex workers is ‘often perpetrated by those in positions of authority… [and a] corollary of criminalization​ [of sex work]’ .

 In other countries, such as India, though sex-work itself is not criminalized , brothels and  places used for the “purposes of sexual exploitation or abuse for the gain of another” are deemed illegal. When sex-work is placed in a legal vacuum,​ it is also immensely difficult for sex-workers to be protected from gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination. Often, they are still treated as criminals when activities around sex work are criminalized, or through the use of other pre-existing laws (not specific to sex work) to harass, intimidate or justify the use of force against sex workers.

 The conflation of trafficking with sex work is also detrimental to the human rights of sex workers, the harmful impacts of which is documented extensively . Numerous international organizations and bodies recognize that this conflation results in the not only in the denial of the human rights of sex workers and creates barriers in accessing health services and justice but, due to its narrow focus on sex work, also fails to provide critical support for victims of trafficking for other forms of labour. Conversely, removing criminal sanctions enable sex workers to engage as partners in addressing irregularities within the sex work industry, including in eliminating trafficking within the industry​.

As already recognized by governments in Asia Pacific​, trafficking is symptomatic of deeper structural inequalities within society that are bound to the devaluation of the girl child, along with other harmful practices that include child, early and forced marriage, and female infanticide .

 Decriminalization, and acknowledging the rights of women, men and transgender people to make a decision to engage in consensual, transactional sex can help challenge stigma and discrimination, and improve their ability to seek justice for rights violations. It can also have a profound impact on addressing risks and vulnerabilities related to HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases by eliminate barriers to health services, including sexual and reproductive health services. Policies on sex work must support the empowerment of sex workers and ensure that their human rights are protected, respected and fulfilled.


Question 3) The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?

As underscored in the President’s Summary of the High Level Political Forum 2016, the involvement of vulnerable and underrepresented groups (such as sex workers and sex worker groups) as partners and rights holders and as a source of knowledge is necessary for the achievement of sustainable development. UN Women should listen to the voices of sex workers, hear their lived experiences, recognize their agency and respect their ability to make decisions based on the available options.​ As an agency promoting equality for women and eliminating discrimination against them, the first step is to appreciate infinite power each woman holds to make the best possible decision given the circumstance of their own lives.

In this regards, we urge you to look to the input of organizations such as APNSW, the joint response of CREA, India; All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), India; Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), India and Lawyers Collective (LC), India and 43 sex worker community based organisations, and other sex worker groups for their recommendations to the UN Women’s approach to sex work, sex trade, and prostitution.

Protecting women from harm, stigma, discrimination and violence required tackling the underlying structural inequalities which lead to the devaluation of the status of women, and the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and disempowerment that prevent women from realizing their potential and from exercising their human rights.

Decriminalising sex work, acknowledging the right to freely choose an opportunity to gain livelihood and respecting a decision to engage in sex work will create an environment conducive for the elimination of violence, stigma and discrimination. As long as people engaging in sex work are looked upon as inferior and lacking in morality, they will continue to be vulnerable to these violations. Empowering women comes from ensuring they have the access to information and education to make informed decisions about their lives, including their sexual and reproductive health, and respecting their choices when they do so.

Achieving gender equality and empowerment of women and girls requires addressing patriarchal norms that have influenced the social lens through which sexuality, particularly that of women, is viewed. Challenging these harmful norms and ensuring women’s equal participation in political, social and economic spheres empowers women. Agenda 2030 cannot be achieved without addressing these inequalities.

Additional Info

  • Topics Article: Advocacy, Agenda 2030 and SDGs, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
  • Sub Regions Article: Asia Pacific

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