Although sex work is a major economic contributor in the region, sex workers in Asia and the Pacific face regular human rights violations ranging from lack of access to the justice system, to unsafe work conditions, forced STI/HIV testing, police abuse, and detention.
Sex work or activities related to sex work are criminalised in almost all countries in Asia and Pacific (with the exception of New Zealand and the state of New South Wales in Australia). Criminalisation contributes to stigma and discrimination, which in turn impacts on HIV response, access to justice, access to healthcare and violence against sex workers. Crucial in addressing all of these, is a human rights based approach to sex work.
APNSW supports female, male, and transgender sex workers to stand up for their rights, and builds bridges with other networks and decision makers to raise awareness on sex worker rights.
APNSW’s strategic efforts seek to address the following four priority areas:
- Legal Rights
- Rights-based approach to HIV response
- Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Sex Workers
- Violence Against Sex Workers
Criminalisation of sex work affects all countries in the region, except New Zealand. Punitive law enforcement practices, especially violence by police, are common. Confiscation of condoms as evidence of illegal activity remains a problem, as is the use of compulsory detention for ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘re-education.’
Denial of identity documents, and citizenship rights in some countries, compound the wider problems caused by the lack of labour rights and social protection.
Where sex work is legal, licensing and registration systems often means the majority of sex workers operate outside the legal system. Even within a legal framework, sex workers face mandatory medical testing and 100% condom use policies that undermine rights-based HIV response.
Rights-based approach to HIV response
The HIV epidemic is currently growing in the Asia and Pacific region with 340,000 new infections reported in 2014.
Prevalence of HIV among sex workers continues on a downward trend overall, but there are regional variations and sex workers remain a key population.
Programmes that put sex worker engagement and leadership at the heart of HIV response have achieved good results and have proved to be cost effective in many countries in the Asia Pacific region.
However, shifts in global funding on HIV have increased emphasis on integrating HIV response into state health care rather than specialised services. While there are strategic reasons for this, work is needed to address stigma and discrimination among national healthcare providers and ensure sex workers’ human rights are upheld.
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Sex Workers
Criminalisation and other punitive regulations drive sex work underground and make health services harder to reach for sex workers in the Asia Pacific region, as they do globally.
Sex workers are less likely to access health services due to fear of arrest or being denied services, and this has a significant effect on sex workers’ sexual and reproductive rights and health. It impacts on diagnosis and treatment of STIs including HIV, availability of condoms and post-exposure prophylaxis, as well as maternal health, contraceptive and abortion services.
Even when reaching health services, sex workers are likely to face poor treatment due to discrimination and stigmatization by health care providers.
Some systems of regulating sex work impose mandatory health checks; and where authorities are involved in enforcement of this regime, this creates opportunities for corruption, blackmail and other abuses of power.
Violence Against Sex Workers
Research shows that some sex workers experience violence in all areas of their lives including at work, in police custody, in health facilities, their neighborhoods and homes.
This includes economic, emotional, physical and sexual violence, perpetrated by a wide range of actors including police, clients, agents, managers, neighbors and domestic partners. The impact of this violence is severe, including significant long-term physical and mental health problems.
Few sex workers ever report this violence, citing fear and mistrust of the police as a primary reason. Female, male and transgender sex workers experience and respond to violence differently. Female sex workers may experience more domestic and agent/manager violence, with male and transgender sex workers being more likely to experience physical assault during raids – including trans-phobic police violence.
Stigma and discrimination created by legislation and policies is a form of institutional violence against sex workers. This also leads to impunity for perpetrators of physical violence.
APNSW plans for 2016-2020
APNSW’s strategic plans for this period include:
Organisational strengthening to develop leadership and management skills, improve governance, accountability, transparency and monitoring and evaluation.
Revive and strengthen engagement with members and external stakeholders – through developing communications platforms, exchanging information, developing resources and responding to urgent situations.
Accelerate and intensify community action – through training and capacity development in leadership, programming and advocacy; and encouraging cross-learning among member organisations.
Promote and support sex worker rights advocacy – by supporting member organisations engaging in country-level advocacy with advocacy tools, collaboration and networking, communication strategies and use of different media, and representation of sex workers at high level regional meetings and platforms.