Indian partners reflect on a year after sex workers’ human rights affirmed - the All-India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) conducted a three-day National Consultation

Dehli, India

5 October 2023

In 2022, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that sex workers were covered by Article 21 of the Constitution which assures every person the right to life. It recognized that sex workers are entitled to equal protection under the law.

The court instructed both central and state governments that sex workers should not be arrested, penalised, harassed or victimised during brothel raids. (Running a brothel is illegal in India. Individual sex work is not.) Nor should the possession of condoms and other safer sex commodities be treated as evidence of an offence. And the police should be sensitised to the community’s rights.

Moreover, the court also stressed the vital need to uphold the basic protection of human decency for the children of sex workers who, “bearing the brunt of social stigma… are removed to the fringes of the society, deprived of their right to live with dignity”. This ruling will help ensure that the children of sex workers can access essential services, including healthcare and education.

To commemorate this landmark judgment, the All-India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW) conducted a three-day National Consultation titled ‘Sisterhood and Solidarity with Sex Workers: One Year Since the Historic Supreme Court Ruling of 2022’. AINSW has been working on the issues of sex worker rights since 2011 across several states.

“Laws make a difference,” said David Bridger, UNAIDS Country Director to India in his keynote address. “The Supreme Court ruling was historic because with this, India joins a handful of countries like Canada and New Zealand that have explicitly instituted legal protection for sex workers. Recognizing the equal worth and dignity of every person is not only ethical, but also critical for ending AIDS.” 

While giving an overview of the Supreme Court ruling, Senior Advocate, Anand Grover, noted that sex workers have taken steps which have contributed to the decline of HIV in India by negotiating condom use with their clients.  A 2021 study found that 98% of sex workers used condoms. The work to educate and empower this community to have safer sex is paying off. HIV prevalence among female sex workers is now just under 2%. Protecting the safety and human rights of key populations expands their access to HIV services, accelerating progress in the response to HIV.

But despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that “sex work is a profession” with the same human rights as others, and that sex workers should not be harassed by the police, inequalities, stigma, and discrimination persist. Many sex workers are still reporting police harassment; some say they are still charged for soliciting clients.

To safeguard the human rights of sex workers, experts reiterated the need to implement the Supreme Court judgment at the grassroots level. UNAIDS and its cosponsors are committed to working with communities, policy makers and law enforcement to increase awareness and to ensure the universal upholding of sex workers’ human rights. 

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Rhode Island Report Recommends Full Decriminalization of Sex Work

Rhode Island, USA

14 October 2023

new report by a Rhode Island study commission recommends the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in the state. The commission of thirteen individuals, including legislators, sex workers, medical professionals, and police representatives, spent two years reviewing research and evidence, and listening to lived-experience testimonials, before releasing the report, which highlights multiple reforms intended to reduce human trafficking and promote the health and safety of sex workers.

For Melissa Sontag Broudo, Legal Director at Decriminalize Sex Work, a national advocacy and lobbying group, the commmissions findings and report are a step in the right direction when it comes to ending the national prohibition of consensual sex work.

Melissa Sontag Broudo

“The commission document is more than a starting point, it’s an example to be followed around the country,” said Broudo, who also co-wrote the legislation calling for the study commission.

“Because we need to be ensuring that the health and safety of sex workers are prioritized  and right now they are definitely not.”

In fact, one of the Rhode Island study commissions first findings was that human trafficking is distinct and different from consensual sex work and that when indoor prostitution was legal in Rhode Island, from 1980 to 2009, there was a significant decline in sexually transmitted diseases and sexual assaults. When prostitution was again criminalized in 2009, the decline ended.

In addition, the report found that the widespread criminalization keeps the sex industry underground, removes the ability of workers to exert their rights or redress wrongs or violence committed against them, and places people in a cycle of arrest and incarceration. This legal approach fuels stigma and discrimination against sex workers, which impedes their access to basic necessities, including healthcare, housing, and other social services.

Broudo and Decriminalize Sex Work agree that more talks are needed, but they hope that the commissions recommendations will lead to new laws in 2024. Specifically, the reports recommendation to re-evaluate and reconsider legislation introduced in 2021 that intended to grant immunity to sex workers if they are victims or witnesses to crimes while engaged in prostitution-related activities.

“The immunity bill in Rhode Island is the number one priority for the state,” said Broudo.

“It’s common sense and it is very attainable.”

Other recommendations from the commission’s report include:

  • Considering legislation which provides that police officers cannot claim consent as a defense to having sex with any individual who is formally in their custody.
  • Considering specifically exempting prostitution-related offenses from some forms of penalization that generally apply across the board for criminal offenses.
  • Evaluating the “Loitering for Prostitution” Rhode Island statute §11-34.1-4(a) which provide that it shall be unlawful for any person to stand or wander in or near any public highway or street, or any public or private place, and attempt to engage passersby in conversation, or stop or attempt to stop motor vehicles, for the purpose of prostitution or other commercial sexual activity.
  • Considering a Rhode Island law to restore the pre-2009 landscape, such that private, consensual sexual activity remains out of the reach of criminal laws. Alternatively, consider adopting the New Zealand Model (referenced in the above findings), which decriminalizes prostitution.

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Sex Workers in Tennessee May No Longer Be Penalized for Having HIV

Tennessee, USA

25 October 2023

Tennessee is being sued to overturn a law that punishes sex workers with HIV and forces them to register as "violent sex offenders."

The so-called "aggravated prostitution" statute, which was instituted at the height of the AIDS crisis in 1991, makes sex work a felony for those living with HIV. Convictions under the law typically result in prison time and require offenders to disclose their HIV status on the sex offender registry list for life.

A lawsuit seeking to overturn the statute, filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Transgender Law Center on behalf of local group OUTMemphis and four people convicted under the law, accuses Tennessee of singling out people with HIV for illegal discrimination.

The lawsuit notes that Tennessee’s statute is the only one of its kind in the nation and that being HIV positive is a protected disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiffs allege that the law disproportionately affects marginalized groups, including Black women and LGBTQ+ people.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Department of Correction Commissioner Frank Strada and Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch are all named as defendants in the lawsuit.

While most prostitution in Tennessee is treated as a misdemeanor, the suit argues that making it a felony based on HIV status alone is a "drastic difference in treatment" that "is so unmoored from medical facts as to punish sexual encounters that pose no risk of HIV transmission."

HIV treatments have advanced significantly in the decades since the law was passed, when the virus would inevitably lead to AIDS, a disease that is nearly always fatal without treatment.

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