Press Release

IACHR Holds First Hearing on the Rights of Sex Workers in the Americas

March 23, 2017

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its concern regarding the lack of legal certainty faced by female sex workers in the Americas. The IACHR urges States in the region to design regulations and public policies that guarantee sex workers’ human rights, including measures to protect their lives, their integrity, and their honor and dignity, as well as to put an end to the stigma and discrimination against them.

The IACHR received alarming information about the human rights situation of female sex workers in the Americas during a hearing held on March 18, 2017, during its 161st session. “This is an historic hearing, because it marks the first time this issue is being addressed in this setting,” said Commissioner Margarette Macaulay, who chaired the hearing and is the IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Women. “The information the Commission received is extremely troubling, and we are going to ensure that whenever we are dealing with the rights of women that we bring up the issue of the rights of sex workers in the entire hemisphere,” she said.

The organizations that requested the hearing reported on the high rate at which female sex workers are killed, the high rate of impunity for such crimes, the barriers faced in terms of access to justice, and the institutional violence carried out by security forces, judicial officials, and other agents of the State, among other serious problems. They also brought up problems in the enforcement of laws and regulations to combat human trafficking, indicating that anti-trafficking operations often end up harming sex workers.

“States should adopt laws that recognize sex workers’ activity as a lawful activity, and should generate public policies to create better working conditions for us. The world says that our work is undignified. We say that work is always dignified, but it is the poor conditions in which we sex workers in the region are immersed that are undignified,” said Elena Reynaga, president of the organization Red de Mujeres Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (RedTraSex).

Responding to the participants comments, Commissioner Macaulay said she agreed that work is always dignified, and that what is not dignified is, for example, the treatment of sex workers by State agents, such as police forces and judges. In order to advance in the protection of the rights of sex workers, sex work should be decriminalized.

María Lucila Esquivel, another leader of RedTraSex, provided figures on the large number of sex workers who have been killed in various countries in the region. These homicides are motivated, she said, by the women’s “refusal to work or to continue to work for pimps, by their refusal to pay off the mafias, the gangs, or the security forces to be able to keep doing their work, by their having filed complaints against certain power sectors that seek to profit from sex work, by the simple fact that they are sex workers, where factors of stigma and discrimination come into play, by the fact that they are doing their work in places that are absolutely unsafe, known as exempt areas.”

These crimes tend to go unpunished. “The guilty rarely appear, and investigations are not concluded. This is because of the stigma that weighs upon us,” Esquivel explained. She said some families do not want to follow up on the investigation to keep others from knowing that the person engaged in sex work, other families lack the economic resources or do not know how to access justice, and in other cases in which family members do decide to press for an investigation, they tend to face threats and intimidation to get them to stop their efforts.

The participants provided the result of an investigation indicating that 7 of every 10 female sex workers had been victims of violence in the past year. “Nearly 9 in 10 of these women identified their assailants as members of the police, armed forces, immigration agents, and justice officials. In other words, most of the cases involved institutional violence,” said Haydeé Laínez Cabrera, another RedTraSex leader. The same study indicates that 8 of every 10 sex workers do not file complaints.

“The most serious part of the situation is the absolute lack of protection. If someone does violence to you, you should report it. What happens if that someone who assaults you personifies the very institution where you should file your complaint? The police or the justice system? What we feel in that situation is impotence. You feel that you can’t do anything, you feel that someone else can assault you and humiliate you, and that person has absolute impunity to violate our rights,” she said.

Another troubling issue raised in the hearing was the negative impact that laws against human trafficking have on sex workers. In most countries, these laws “do not make a clear distinction between human trafficking and autonomous work, and create different types of police, judicial, and administrative interventions that result in a criminalization of sex work, reduce the areas of work available to independent sex workers, and end up severely affecting the human rights of those of us women who have chosen to do this work,” said María Lucila Esquivel. “Irregular procedures that are announced as rescues of trafficking victims in practice result in going after female sex workers, instead of going after pimps and exploiters.”

For her part, Elena Reynaga asked that “the States truly consider us as valuable political actors, and not as something better swept under the rug,” and that sex work be legislated as legitimate and legal, because this “will help to combat human trafficking.”

Among their appeals to the IACHR, the participants brought up the need to clearly differentiate sex work from human trafficking and smuggling, as well as sexual exploitation and labor exploitation, both at the legislative level and in national public policy. They also called for creating effective public policies to prevent, combat, and punish discrimination and violence against sex workers; establishing effective mechanisms to protect them from the actions of security forces and public institutions that carry out discrimination and violence against sex workers; promoting the development of laws that regulate sex work without criminalizing it; and ensuring optimal conditions for female sex workers to develop in a context of respect for their human rights.

“It is urgent for countries in Latin America to have a law defending the right to engage in sex work, a law that sees us as human beings, subjects of our own rights and not subject to someone else doing violence to us, discriminating against us, assaulting us, and killing us, as is happening in Latin America,” Adriana Castillo said.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 036/17