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Activists respond to Amnesty International’s resolution to decriminalize sex work


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Delegates meeting in Dublin for Amnesty International’s (AI) International Council Meeting on Tuesday, August 11, voted to adopt a policy favoring the complete decriminalization of sex work.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Though AI cannot itself enforce decriminalization, the international human rights organization has previously conferred considerable influence, most notably in its efforts to abolish capital punishment worldwide. Heeding the call for “rights, not rescue” and condemning the “arbitrary arrest and detention” of sex workers, AI hopes that the organization’s support will motivate legislative efforts in decriminalization.

Though many sex workers and self-identified allies have welcomed the measure, several prominent Hollywood actresses — including Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway (who recently played a prostitute in the film adaptation of Les Miserables) — have spoken out against AI’s resolution, citing fears of exploitation and perpetuated gender inequality.

Following an announcement on Twitter, AI posted a statement about the Council’s vote on YouTube. In the video, AI’s Deputy Europe Director Gauri Van Gulik mentions a prominent petition protesting the measure, and says the organization was surprised by the criticism they received leading up to the resolution’s passing.

“We were quite surprised by [the petition],” she says, “On the one, it really mischaracterizes the policy that we’re looking at. We are focused on: How can we keep sex workers safe, how can we empower them to have access to their rights, and how can we make sure they have access to healthcare?”

Gulik also explains that, “gender inequality is not a result of the sex trade, but something that pushes women into sex work,” and “You cannot punish those who are therefore driven to sex work by criminalizing it and taking away choices.”

The resolution will likely be of particular interest to advocacy groups like Wings of Refuge, the Network Against Human Trafficking (NAHT) and other organizations combatting human trafficking in Iowa and along I-35 and I-80 — two of the largest highways in the U.S. that have developed a reputation as pipelines for often-underage trafficked sex workers.

Iowa 80 (“The World’s Largest Truckstop”), in particular, is often cited as a sex trafficking epicenter. Under most current laws regarding prostitution, victims of sex trafficking and abuse who try to come forward or contact law enforcement are frequently be charged for solicitation and sex crimes.

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“Unfortunately, there are people who continue to spread the stereotype that all truckers are bad and where there are truck drivers, there are prostitutes, there is no evidence that this occurs at Iowa 80 Truckstop,” reads a statement on human trafficking on the truckstop’s website. The statement goes on to quote Mike Walton, Scott County’s District Attorney, saying, “We have never had a case brought to the county attorney’s office of human trafficking out of the truck stop…We’ve never seen any evidence even to rise to probable cause.”

The Iowa 80 Truckstop became a partner of Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) in 2011.

To familiarize yourself with both sides of the issue, here is some recommended reading from around the Web:

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  • “Q&A on the Policy to Protect Human Rights of Sex Workers” from Amnesty International USA
  • “These 3 Graphs Could Change Your Mind About Legalizing Sex Work,” at ThinkProgress
  • “Amnesty International Is Finally on the Right Side of the Sex Work Struggle” at The Nation
  • “Prostitutes Tell Lena Dunham to Stop Grandstanding About Sex Work” at The Daily Beast
  • “In this prostitution debate, listen to sex workers not Hollywood stars” at The Guardian

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