Global Violence Against Women

Amnesty Votes on Policy to Decriminalize Sex Work, Sparks Feminist Debate

Amnesty International adopted a resolution last week at an International Council Meeting allowing for the development of a policy supporting the decriminalization of sex work. As part of a greatly contested debate on the issue, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) has released an open letter to Amnesty asking them to reconsider.

Via  Shutterstock
Via Shutterstock

In announcing the vote from the International Council Meeting, Amnesty International wrote of its intentions to protect sex workers from prosecution, exploitation, and violence.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.”

Amnesty cited the evidence brought before them by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, UN Women, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health in informing this decision.

CATW, however, feels that this Council Meeting vote and the decriminalization of sex work “renders pimps ‘business people’ who sell vulnerable individuals, overwhelmingly with histories of poverty, discrimination, homelessness and sexual abuse, to buyers of sex with impunity.” This legitimizing of buying and selling sex has many concerned. Over 400 women’s rights groups including US-based and international groups, medical doctors, and survivors of the sex trade signed an open letter to Amnesty International expressing their concern with Amnesty’s decision.

Those signing the letter make it clear that those bought and sold in the sex trade must not be criminalized, agreeing with Amnesty. They disagree, however, in “the wholesale decriminalization of the sex industry,” which they feel will make the industry much less safe for the women involved.

The letter cites data from Norway and Germany following the governments’ decriminalization of the sex industry in the early 2000s. Both countries saw an increase in violence against the women being bought and sold in this industry, as well as a notable increase in sex trafficking. “Without a vibrant sex industry, there would be no sex trafficking,” the letter reads.

One signatory was Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem.  “I hope and believe that Amnesty will understand the parallels with other forms of economically compelled body invasion — for instance, the sale of organs,” Steinem said in a press release for CAWT. “The millions who are prostituted experience trauma and shortened lives. Legalization keeps pimps, brothel keepers, and sex-slavers in freedom and riches.”

Media Resources: Amnesty International Press Release 8/11/15; CAWT Press Release 7/23/15;

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