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New Report Details violence, threats and attacks on sex workers rights defenders

Aug 26, 2021
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Front Line Defenders has released the findings of a 4-year investigation into targeted violence, threats, and attacks against sex worker rights defenders – the first-ever global report documenting violence against sex workers who advocate for their communities’ rights.

Front Line Defenders interviewed more than 350 sex workers in 20 countries about the violent, targeted attacks faced by those who protect others.

The report found cases of arrest; sexual assault in detention; raids on their homes and offices; immense psychological pressure; threats from managers, family, and clients; physical attacks; police surveillance while conducting health outreach work; public defamation campaigns; extreme financial burdens because of activism; and discriminatory exclusion from policymaking in areas in which they have clear, demonstrable, and unmatched expertise.

“In interviews, we conducted in living rooms, train stations, mosques, brothels, salons, hotels, warehouses, boats, beaches and clinics, sex worker rights defenders echoed one another’s experiences of life at the intersection of these two resistant identities: sex worker and human rights defender. They are the known community advocates that others call during emergencies, arrests, and raids. Their visibility sustains life for the collective. But that recognition also magnifies the risk of being targeted by authorities, arrested, detained, and abused using the laws and discriminatory policies typically deployed against sex workers.” – Erin Kilbride, report author

Front Line Defenders researchers found cases of arrest; sexual assault in detention; raids on their homes and offices; immense psychological pressure; threats from managers, family, and clients; physical attacks; police surveillance while conducting health outreach work; public defamation campaigns; extreme financial burdens as a result of activism; and discriminatory exclusion from policy making in areas in which they have clear, demonstrable and unmatched expertise.

Meerim Ilyas, Head of Protection, Front Line Defenders

“On fact-finding missions in Tanzania, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador, Front Line Defenders researchers spoke with hundreds of defenders and communities members about the risks, threats and protection needs of sex workers who become visible advocates for human rights. The report finds that a large majority of violence perpetrated against these HRDs is demonstrably in retaliation for their activism.”
– Meerim Ilyas, Head of Protection, Front Line Defenders

Sex workers, like many marginalised and stigmatised groups, experience extremely high rates of human rights violations, including of their rights to health, to justice, to live free from violence and torture, to a fair trial, to housing. In response, SWRDs’ human rights work includes emergency response following attacks and arrests, establishing safe community spaces, public health advocacy, gender rights trainings, police reform, protection planning, legal and health counselling, prison aid and promoting access to justice for survivors.

The Front Line Defenders report documents a range of strategies and tactics SWRDs use to protect their communities (before discussing the types of attacks they face for doing so). The report features cases, stories and testimonies which transcend narratives of a victimised, sexualised population employing ad hoc survival tactics, and explores a broader, more nuanced collection of strategic, creative, methodical and intersectional systems of protection designed and deployed by HRDs.

It is critical to note that the collective protection strategies and tactics of sex workers have been well documented by sex worker communities themselves. They appear in this report – in the framework of human rights defenders – to contextualize the documentation of risks and threats that HRDs face as a direct result of such human rights work. Additionally, SWRDs consulted for this report explicitly requested that Front Line Defenders document and structure the report in this way, to push back on the frequent devaluation of their human rights work.

The report also documents the ways in which the human rights activities of these HRDs benefit not only people who identify as sex workers, but also those who were forced, compelled or trafficked into selling sex unwillingly. This includes life-saving human rights activities such as: negotiating access to brothels, trainings on how to access justice mechanisms and report experiences of violence, identifying medical needs, harm reduction, building connections and trust with establishment managers, emergency response, and advocacy for freedom of movement and free choice of employment for those seeking to leave sex work.

“Sex worker rights defenders are at risk because they are defending the basic human rights of communities that are amongst the most marginalised in every society. And that means they must be an integral part of our core work.”
– Andrew Anderson, Executive Director, Front Line Defenders

Why Sex Worker Rights, Why Front Line Defenders, Why This Report?

In 2017, Front Line Defenders identified a gap in organisational knowledge, and in the human rights defender field more broadly, on how to best support and protect sex worker rights defenders, who operate at the intersection of multiple economically and politically marginalised identities.

The organisation embarked on process of internal learning which included consultations with multiple SWRD networks to identify gaps in organisational knowledge vis-a-vis the human rights work, risks, and specific protection needs of SWRDs at risk. While this process was originally conceptualised of as an internal learning endeavour related to the organisation’s campaigning, grant making, trainings, digital security support, and other protection programs for HRDs, sex worker rights defenders consulted during this period requested that FLD make the findings of these consultations public.

The vast majority felt that a report on the specific risks faced by leaders of their communities, produced by what they perceived as one of the leading HRD protection organisations, could significantly impact access to HRD services, protection, funding, trainings, and in general to support existing efforts to validate the human rights work of sex worker rights defenders as a legitimate strand of human rights work amongst broader human rights and HRD networks.

Defenders explained that while hundreds of studies detail attacks against sex workers in general, and several academic studies have explored various aspects of sex worker organizing, no publicly available documentation had examined, in an in-depth, intentional, and global manner, the risks facing sex workers who dare to advocate for their communities.

While this report constitutes the largest and most comprehensive work Front Line Defenders has undertaken with SWRDs, but it is not the first. Front Line Defenders has previously supported, documented and given visibility to the work and risks of SWRD in Urgent Appeals, Statements, Universal Periodic Review submissions, opinion pieces by staff researchers, Cypher digital magazine, national and international campaigns, public events and in collaboration with media networks such as the Guardian, NPR and RTE. Front Line Defenders has worked in solidarity with SWRDs via its various protection programmes including security grants, digital protection, Rest and Respite, Risk Assessment and Protection Planning, regional protection coordinators, and the Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders.

COVID-19: Responding to the Immediate Needs of Defenders

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, sex worker rights defenders were among those hardest hit and report launch plans were delayed out of respect for the capacity of HRD partners. During the crisis, Front Line Defenders produced a new crisis response report documenting the impact of the pandemic on LGBTI and sex worker rights defenders.

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