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As the global economic crisis has entrenched deeply over the past few years, people of all income levels have become desperate for some level of financial stability. This is particularly true for those who were already living on the edge financially before the crisis hit. Some of those who have been most affected have been workers in the informal economy: street vendors, domestic workers, and sex workers. Informal workers are those who work in sectors that lack stable conditions, job security, and protection of their basic rights. Amongst informal workers, sex workers are often targeted in the worst ways. They are treated as criminals or victims, with little genuine help or protection of their human rights. As we search for solutions that support a fair chance for all, we also need to make sure we examine existing policies that drive vulnerable informal workers, and especially sex workers, even further underground.
One such policy is what has become known as the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. This policy applies to international HIV/AIDS funding, and to domestic and international anti-trafficking monies. While the pledge is found in different areas of law, and the actual language of the two pledges differs a bit, both have prohibited recipients of U.S. funding from engaging in activity or taking positions that might be construed by the U.S. government as supporting the legalization or practice of prostitution. There has been no clear guidance or definition as to what this means, and funding recipients have been left to figure it out on their own. Groups have erred on the side of caution, meaning they have avoided associating with sex workers and organizations that fight for their rights and empowerment.
The idea of a pledge against prostitution initially sounds harmless, especially since it is unheard of for service providers and advocacy organizations to actively promote prostitution. But there are serious repercussions. The vast majority of people get into sex work because it is a way to make more money than they can make in the other limited work options open to them. Even before the current economic crisis, many sex workers engaged in this work as a way to supplement income from mainstream jobs—they were not being paid living wages in the mainstream economy. A report from the Sex Workers Project includes information about jobs people had engaged in before they began sex work. These largely included jobs like waitressing or food service, domestic work, and freelance jobs that did not offer a living wage. One research participant, “Dana,” (not her real name) stated about her work, “[In other jobs, you are] enslaved by people, especially in minimum wage jobs. Bosses wield a lot of power. Sex work is better because you have your own hours and money and no boss to humiliate you.” For others, engaging in sex work meant that they had the time and flexibility to raise their families, go to school, or have another day job.
Despite this very real and human reason for engaging in the work—providing for themselves and their families—sex workers face violence and abuse (from police as well as customers), isolation, and most of all, stigma. Their basic human rights and their sense of dignity are often ignored, even by the institutions that should be helping them, like law enforcement and public health agencies. The reality is, organizations with the most effective HIV-prevention and anti-trafficking programs build their efforts on a sophisticated understanding of the social and personal dynamics faced by sex workers, and start by building trust and credibility among them. They recognize that it is necessary to provide social, legal, job placement, and health services to men and women in sex work without judging them.
When it was first implemented, the impact of the pledge was immediate and severe. Around the world, groups that offered basic services and empowerment programs to sex workers lost funding, meaning that organizations that offered drop-in programs or literacy services to sex workers were imperiled, and organizations who had reservations about working with sex workers were now given a handy excuse to stay away. For example, in the video Taking the Pledge, a sex worker advocate from Bangladesh described the closure of dozens of drop-in centers that were the only places homeless women could use a toilet or bathe. In the United States, some service providers in the anti-trafficking arena were subjected to off-the-record reminders from government officials not to make any public statement that might indicate anything other than a firm judgment against prostitution, and others were told they simply could not discuss sex work at all. Advocates have censored themselves in public speaking engagements in order to ensure they do not risk the funding they need to be able to continue necessary service provision for their clients. The effect of this kind of pledge is chilling precisely because it compromises the ability of advocates to speak honestly and engage in an open discussion of ideas. This also negatively affects the quality of services provided to the most vulnerable among us.
The U.S. government has sent mixed signals about how it enforces the pledge, but leaving it to political winds in a time of desperate need and economic crisis is dangerous. We need to get beyond empty words that further alienate vulnerable groups like sex workers, and include all workers, including those in the informal economy, in human rights protections. This means supporting the human rights of sex workers, addressing their needs, and improving their access to legal, health, and social services. These are the kinds of necessary efforts that will empower sex workers to overcome stigma and discrimination so they can fight for safer working conditions, as well as targeted and effective policy solutions.