Concerns about UN Women’s process for developing a policy on the rights of sex workers

The Best Practices Policy Project has submitted a letter of concern to UN Women about their email survey to ostensibly develop an organizational policy position on sex work. The full text of our letter of concern is below and is also available for download.

Sex worker organizations and allies have critiqued this UN process because it uses complex bureaucratic language and is occurring on an extremely short time frame (UN Women’s consultation ends October 16, 2016 October 31 extended deadline). BPPP is also concerned that process is biased towards harmful policies because it is being directed by UN Women Policy Director Purna Sen who has written that prostitution is a form of violence against women and who has dismissed sex worker rights organizing.

Writing a letter of concern about the process to the Executive Director of UN Women by email to <> is one of several actions groups can take, including signing this Call for UN Women to Meaningfully Consult Sex Workers as they Develop Policy on Sex Work and engaging with the UN Women email consultation process critically by October 16. The NSWP has sent in a response which is a useful example of how we may engage with this process.

October 11, 2016

H.E. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
Executive Director, UN Women
c.c.       H.E. Lakshmi Puri
Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations
Deputy Executive Director for Intergovernmental Support and Strategic Partnerships, UN Women
c.c        H.E. Yannick Glemarec
Assistant Secretary-General
Deputy Executive Director for Policy and Programmes, UN Women

Dear H.E. Mlambo-Ngcuka,

We write to echo fellow human rights advocates’ concerns about UN Women’s process for developing a policy on the rights of sex workers, and to call for UN Women to support a human rights-based approach to sex work and the sex trades. Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) supports organizations and advocates working with sex workers, people in the sex trade and related communities in the United States, by producing materials for policy environments, addressing research and academic concerns and providing technical assistance. As other advocates have already pointed out, UN Women has failed to conduct in-person regional and national consultations for its process, opting instead for a brief online comment period that will exclude countless voices of directly impacted people. Prior engagement by relevant UN agencies on this issue has involved meaningful sex worker consultation processes and arrived at policies that uphold human rights protections for sex workers and people engaged in sex trades. These documents should guide UN Women’s further engagement on this issue.
We add that this type of process places enormous stress on sex worker organizations, which generally operate with limited or no funding, in environments marked by stigma and ostracism. Across the globe, these organizations are engaged in local, regional, and international struggles to eliminate discrimination, violence and other abuses their members face at the hands of police and other state and private actors. They struggle for the realization of their and their families’ basic human needs, including adequate health services, housing, food, water, education, and economic wellbeing. While it is critical that sex worker organizations be consulted for a policy that will directly impact their access to human rights, it is also important that agencies like UN Women recognize and accommodate for the obstacles they face. This means UN Women should meaningfully involve sex workers in developing the very process through which they will inform any policy that affects them, in order to ensure its accessibility. The principle of meaningful consultation of those most impacted by an issue at hand is at the heart of a feminist approach to social change, and one which we recommend UN Women adopt.
We are alarmed that UN Women’s process is being directed by Policy Director Purna Sen, who has equated sex work with violence against women, and who has portrayed the movement for sex workers’ human rights as one located in wealthier countries. Someone who has taken such a clear stance against recognizing sex workers’ human rights should not be in a position to direct policy development that will impact sex workers on a global scale. Her perspective fails to recognize the important leadership of extensive sex worker collectives and organizations in developing and global south countries. We are concerned that her views have already shaped UN Women’s current process, which has failed to ensure sex workers in developing countries, and sex workers with limited resources in developed countries, are meaningfully consulted.
We echo the call for UN Women to meaningfully consult sex workers across the globe in developing any policy related to sex work, and to ensure their statements uphold sex workers’ human rights and recognize sex workers’ agency and self-determination. We further ask that UN Women follow and publicize transparent, established research standards to determine both the quality of information it receives, and the amount of consultation with directly impacted communities necessary to inform its policy. At this juncture, we believe that without significant changes, the process UN Women has embarked on is neither legitimate nor helpful to the struggle for human rights.

Best Practices Policy Project


UN Women: Sex Workers Will Not Be Silenced

UN Women has sent out an email survey to develop an organizational policy position on sex work. Sex worker lead organizations and allies have critiqued this process. Ruth Morgan Thomas of the Network of Sex Work Projects has said that this process is “not an accountable, transparent way to connect with sex workers” because it uses complex bureaucratic UN language and because the process is occurring on an extremely short time frame (UN Women’s consultation ends October 16, 2016 extended to Oct 31, 2016).

BPPP received an email from UN Women about the consultation as a follow up to a meeting we had with the agency earlier this year. We agree with our colleagues that the process is extremely difficult to access. Further, confusion within UN Women regarding their own ability to hear the voices of sex workers calls the consultation process into question. Purna Sen, the Director of UN Women’s Policy Division who is leading the consultation process and the development of the policy, has written that prostitution is a form of violence against women and was a keynote speaker in 2007 with Catherine MacKinnon and Sheila Jeffreys.

What can sex worker lead organizations and their allies do? Here are some suggestions.

  1. sign this Call for UN Women to Meaningfully Consult Sex Workers as they Develop Policy on Sex Work and/or publicize the petition on social media and in your networks.
  2. develop and share our own organizational stances on UN Women’s policy process and what we want. We can send our own letters of concern to the Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (the Executive Director of UN Women), comment in the media, post about the policy process, and make our own demands clearly about how to have a better process, up to and including saying that UN Women should not proceed with a policy process at all at this time.
  3. engage with UN Women email consultation process critically and on our own terms, and support sex worker lead organizations to engage in the process should they wish. UN Women must acknowledge our responses. The NSWP has sent in a response which is a useful example of how we may engage with this process.

How to send a response to UN Women’s consultation: UN Women is asking for “people and groups” to send responses to the following three questions to by 16 October 2016 with the subject title “Written submission.” According to the UN Women, “these questions relate to the current framing of the UN’s work, around Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.” However, people do not have to respond to the questions as UN Women has framed them, and can simply write in their own terms about the ways in which sex workers’ human rights should be actualized. According to UN Women emails should include “your name” and “organization and title, if relevant.” Please note that UN Women will post all responses online, but, “if you do not want your submission to be posted for reasons of confidentiality or for any other reason, please note this on your response.”

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?

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?

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

UN Women is asking that responses to the above questions be kept to a maximum of 1,500 words in total.

US Sex Worker representation at AWID

The 2016 forum for the Association of Women in Development will be held in Costa do Sauípe, Bahia, Brazil, September 8 to 11. The forum’s theme is Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice.

The Best Practices Policy Project is supporting two sessions. The first will extend our human rights work on the Universal Screenshot 2016-08-31 03.05.21Periodic Review (UPR) beyond our borders to inspire similar campaigns by sex workers and allies in Brazil.  The session “Working the Universal Periodic Review: Advocating at the United Nations for sex worker and trans rights” will describe how community groups can engage with the Universal Periodic Review and how this process allows the issues central to the rights of sex workers and transgender people to attention globally and to bring change in country. This is a vital training giving the forthcoming UPR of Brazil in 2017 (shadow reports are due in February 2017 to the Human Rights Council). This session will take place at Ala Mar – Vera Cruz 1-2  on September 9th, at 4.30 pm. Speakers include Penelope Saunders, Monica Jones, Laura Murray and Brazilian colleagues.

We are also proud to support “Not Your Rescue Project: film and performance from the sex worker rights revolution-our reality, visions and collective power.” The purpose of this session is to use community materials, film, performance and presentations celebrating the activism of sex workers to engage in lively discussion with a diverse audience. The session will be introduced by PJ Starr with a special guest appearance by The Incredible, Edible Akynos and Brazilian colleagues. Session will take place at Ala Terra – Sao Tome 1-2  on September 10 at 2.30 pm.

In addition to these sessions Monica Jones has been invited to participate in the Black Feminist pre-conference, Penelope Saunders will visit Rio to work on a collaborative project with Brazil’s Prostitution Policy Watch and Brazilian sex worker groups, and Akynos will present a burlesque workshop in Rio on September 3rd.


Tiommi Luckett, steps forward for Sharmus Outlaw

The Best Practices Policy Policy is glad to welcome Tiommi Luckett as a consultant on HIV Policy and Advocacy, with the specific goal of continuing the vision of Sharmus Outlaw on HIV policy and bringing her own passion and direction to our work.

Tiommi Luckett is a nationally recognized advocate for the rights of people living with HIV and for trans* rights, focusing on the issues particular to transgender women of color. She was also a close friend and colleague of Sharmus Outlaw, a leading policy advocate at the Best Practices Policy Project who passed away in July 2016.

Tiommi contributed to the report Nothing About Us Without Us last year, she was interviewed by Sharmus Outlaw and brainstormed many key ideas that emerged in the report that focused on the intersections of sex work, HIV policy, and transgender rights. In the report Tiommi advocates for the intertwinned rights of sex workers and trans* people noting that Federal policy makers need to acknowledge both groups in the National HIV Strategy. “They need an indicator for sex workers and transgender women,” she says “Now they mention sex workers just one time in the whole 22 page document. What I am doing is working with a network of people living with HIV… to speak about the issue and how they can correct it.” Today Tiommi has released a blog posting on the ongoing erasure of the issues faced by trans* people in HIV policy. “People often ask me what can they do to help,” she writes, “and my response is always the same: First, there is an entire community of people who are too frequently not at the table, so in our absence, be our voice and advocate. Even better, no one can educate you on my lived experience but me. Help get us a seat at the table – and when we’re there, don’t stifle our voices even when what we say is difficult to hear.”

Tiommi will be attending the Speak Up Conference in September 2016, and among one of the many things she will do at the convening is to honor two trans* leaders who passed away within 9 days of each other (Channing-Celeste and Sharmus). She will be distributing copies of the Nothing About Us Without Us report to the trans* pre-conference convening. She will also be traveling to the US Conference on AIDS.