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This article is part of the supplement: Contextualising rights: the lived experience of sexual and reproductive health rights

Open Access Review

Can rights stop the wrongs? Exploring the connections between framings of sex workers’ rights and sexual and reproductive health

Cheryl Overs1 and Kate Hawkins2*

Author Affiliations

1 Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Monash University, Alfred Hospital Campus Melbourne, Victoria 3004, Australia

2 Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RE, UK

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BMC International Health and Human Rights 2011, 11(Suppl 3):S6  doi:10.1186/1472-698X-11-S3-S6

Published: 16 December 2011

Abstract

Background

There is growing interest in the ways in which legal and human rights issues related to sex work affect sex workers’ vulnerability to HIV and abuses including human trafficking and sexual exploitation. International agencies, such as UNAIDS, have called for decriminalisation of sex work because the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services is affected by criminalisation and social exclusion as experienced by sex workers. The paper reflects on the connections in various actors’ framings between sex workers sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and the ways that international law is interpreted in policing and regulatory practices.

Methods

The literature review that informs this paper was carried out by the authors in the course of their work within the Paulo Longo Research Initiative. The review covered academic and grey literature such as resources generated by sex worker rights activists, UN policy positions and print and online media. The argument in this paper has been developed reflectively through long term involvement with key actors in the field of sex workers’ rights.

Results

International legislation characterises sex work in various ways which do not always accord with moves toward decriminalisation. Law, policy and regulation at national level and law enforcement vary between settings. The demands of sex worker rights activists do relate to sexual and reproductive health but they place greater emphasis on efforts to remove the structural barriers that limit sex workers’ ability to participate in society on an equal footing with other citizens.

Discussion and conclusion

There is a tension between those who wish to uphold the rights of sex workers in order to reduce vulnerability to ill-health and those who insist that sex work is itself a violation of rights. This is reflected in contemporary narratives about sex workers’ rights and the ways in which different actors interpret human rights law. The creation of regulatory frameworks around sex work that support health, safety and freedom from abuse requires a better understanding of the broad scope of laws, policies and enforcement practices in different cultural contexts and economic settings, alongside reviews of UN policies and human rights conventions.