Category: Policy Updates

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 <phumzile.mlambo-ngcuka@unwomen.org> 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.

Sincerely,
Best Practices Policy Project

 

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.

SILENCE is still death for sex workers: the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Implementation plan

by Penelope Saunders (BPPP), Cristine Sardina (Desiree Alliance), Katherine M Koster (SWOP-USA) and Derek Demeri (NJRUA)

Impassioned community leaders at the beginning of the HIV pandemic took to the streets and called out in policy fora that “SILENCE=DEATH” to ensure that people took notice. They sought to inspire action to address HIV, to seek treatments and to prevent the transmission of HIV among the most affected groups of people, people who happened to be highly stigmatized in other ways because of their sexual orientation: gay men, drug users, sex workers.

As leaders of sex worker rights organizations we applaud the attention that HIV receives on World AIDS Day, we express joy that the United States actually has a national strategy (after decades of not having one) and we celebrate the fact that with medication, comprehensive health care, housing and support that HIV is no longer a death sentence at all.

But a silence continues and that silence is immeasurably harmful. Despite the clear global understanding that we cannot address HIV without sex workers, the United States of America somehow didn’t get the memo. Despite the nearly dozen strong and solid recommendations by US sex workers rights organizations to the Office of National AIDS Policy and Douglas Brooks, our concerns were not included in the national strategy.  Sex work was mentioned only once in the recently updated National HIV/AIDS National Strategy (NHAS), and, was not mentioned at all in the National HIV/AIDS Federal Action Plan released December 1, 2015.  For this sector of society to be omitted entirely limits the scope of HIV and AIDS conversations, discussions, and policies. It is grossly negligent and inexcusable to ignore one of the most vulnerable populations that suffer the consequences of silence.

In the plan, “high-risk populations” are defined as “gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men; Black and Latino women and men; people who inject drugs; youth aged 13 to 24 years; people in the Southern United States; and transgender women.” Yet an estimated 20 to 40% of women at high risk of HIV infection in the United States reported having sex in exchange for money or drugs within the past year, and according to current epidemiology women engaged in commercial sex have a higher risk of contracting HIV not only than general population, but also other similarly high-risk women who do not engage in sex work. The plan also makes no mention of trans women who engage in sex work, despite the fact that trans people with sex trade experience are nearly 6 times as likely times as likely to be living with HIV (15.32%) than the general trans population (2.6%) and 25 times as likely to be positive than the general population (0.6%).

Beyond epidemiology, consider the social reality: Not one mention of sex work even though all across the United States sex workers–and people profiled as such under laws and policies against sex work–are detained and searched for their condoms and for HIV medications. Not one mention of sex work even though the most egregious state laws criminalizing HIV are those specifically targeting prostitution. 13 states have laws specifically criminalizing people living with HIV arrested for prostitution-related charges, statutes that can raise penalties to felonies even if condoms are used, even if all the acts are safe with no possibility of transmission. Even if the person’s viral load is zero. Not one mention of sex work even though our community-led research project “Nothing About Us Without Us” we have documented the vast, almost entirely unfunded sector of sex worker-led grassroots outreach initiatives doing the day-to-day work to end HIV and AIDS. Not one mention of sex work, even when sex workers are recognized by other national governments globally and international health organizations like the World Health Organization as a vital partners in order to end the HIV epidemic. Not one mention of sex work, when even international pressure has forced PEPFAR to include sex workers as a key population in the fight against HIV.

Silence still equals death for people in the sex trade who are living with HIV, and unable to access healthcare because they don’t have a home because of prior convictions for prostitution. Silence still equals death when they are turned away from mainstream health care services/providers who discriminate against them because they are “suspected to be prostitutes.” Or, because they can’t walk through the neighborhood safely to reach the clinic because of policing.

We know that with our advocacy there will be change because we refuse to be silent. Tucked away in the “implementation plan” that will guide the coming year’s work on HIV across the country, our community has some pressure points that we can use for change. For example, that by 2020 the National Institute of Health is supposed to “increase awareness of, and build support for, HIV prevention and treatment clinical and behavioral research nationally with specific community engagement and education activities for historically underrepresented communities and populations at greatest risk for HIV infection.” Historically underrepresented communities would seem to include sex workers.

Given the current poor record of HIV policy in the United States, sex worker rights organizations expected nothing significant from the NHAS Federal Action Plan. However, neither elimination nor silence will deter us from being recognized as a voice in HIV and AIDS strategies. We continue to organize with national HIV and AIDS groups that will ensure our place in the next NHAS update in 2020. As we begin to strategize our long-term plans of inclusion and collaborative work with key policy and scientific research stakeholders, sex workers must be at the table in these necessary and pertinent decisions of who is included in the NHAS. Join us and make sure that there is no longer a silence about sex work in the United States. Join us because it is no longer acceptable to silence, harass, arrest, abuse, deny healthcare, incarcerate, make homeless, or murder anyone because they are a sex worker, or because you think they are one. Those days are over.

Second UPR of US: Minimal Talk and No Action on Rec 86

During the first Universal Periodic Review of the United States in 2010, the Human Rights Council at the United Nations made Recommendation 86 to the United States to “…ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of sexual workers to violence and human rights abuses.” The Obama Administration accepted the recommendation stating, “we agree that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution…” This position was repeated earlier this year in preparations for the 2015 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United States. However, now that the United States has made no mention of sex workers rights in its official response to the 2015 UPR, sex worker advocates are frustrated that there is no sign that Recommendation 86 will actually be implemented. Our concern is that the United States is failing to ensure that the human rights of sex workers are protected and that the systematic violations of sex workers–and people profiled as such–that have been documented by our organizations continue with impunity.

While other recommendations are followed up with plans of action, the U.S. government has failed to make any plans on actually implementing Recommendation 86 and ensuring sex workers have access to public services to ensure safety.

Unfortunately, sex workers continue to experience violence and extreme forms of discrimination from state actors across the country. In May of 2013, Monica Jones, a transgender woman of color in Phoenix, was arrested for “manifestation of prostitution” while on her way to a LGBT venue. These kinds of arrest are a common practice in which law enforcement profiles trans feminine people of color as sex workers. In late 2014, the North Jersey Regional Director of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance was unconstitutionally arrested in relation to her prior prostitution charge with claims of an active warrant which were later discovered to be false. These actions were likely taken in retaliation for her efforts to speak out against police violence. In Alaska, anti-trafficking rhetoric has become so radioactive that Amber Batts was found guilty of trafficking herself. This is the reality that sex workers and people profiled as such have to endure.

The continuing human rights violations that sex workers experience are a direct result of the inaction the United States government has taken to address our concerns. The federal government has the capacity to set restrictions on human trafficking funding so they go to people who actually have been coerced in their labor, and not into the hands of law enforcement efforts that are incompatible with addressing these issues or towards forcing people out of the sex trade who do not want to leave. The federal government can end travel restrictions on those who trade sex that are often enforced in ways that reinforce racial stereotypes. Importantly, the federal government has the ability to formally recognize the labor of sex work and allow labor violations to be reported.

If the government is serious about enforcing Recommendation 86, then the sex worker community requires a plan of action, as current policies run contrary to their rhetoric that sex workers should not be discriminated against. This plan should incorporate ways to work with state and local governments to reverse the trend of using laws against prostitution, solicitation, and loitering to harass sex workers and those perceived to be sex workers. Sex workers want the talk about rights to result in meaningful action.

By Derek Demeri, New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance; Penelope Saunders, Best Practices Policy Project; and Cristine Sardina, Desiree Alliance.