Sex Workers at Risk: A Research Summary of Human Rights Abuses Against Sex Workers

Sex workers wait for customers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images
May 25, 2016

Sex Workers at Risk: A Research Summary of Human Rights Abuses Against Sex Workers

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Amnesty International today published its policy on protecting sex workers from human rights violations and abuses, along with four research reports on these issues in Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Norway and Argentina.

The policy calls on governments to take several critical steps to protect the human rights of sex workers, including: decriminalize consensual sex work, ensure that sex workers are protected from harm, exploitation and coercion; include sex workers in the development of laws that affect their lives and safety; and end discrimination and provide access to education and employment options for all.

“Sex workers are among the most vulnerable people in society and are routinely subjected to violence, discrimination, and harassment,” said Margaret Huang, interim executive director of Amnesty International USA. “They cannot turn to the police and have very few options for protection.”

“Our goal is to protect the human rights of all people, particularly those who are most vulnerable, and decriminalizing sex work is one crucial step toward protecting the human rights of sex workers. This policy is based on years of research and consultation, including with current and former sex workers on both sides of the question of decriminalization. In the end, we’re outlining how governments can best protect people engaged in sex work from violence and discrimination.”

Amnesty International joins a large group of organizations from across a range of disciplines and areas of expertise who are calling for decriminalization of consensual sex work in order to protect human rights and public health. These include the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women; Global Commission on HIV and the Law; Human Rights Watch; UNAIDS; the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; and World Health Organization. 


Amnesty International’s policy is the culmination of extensive worldwide consultations, a considered review of substantive evidence and international human rights standards and first-hand research, carried out over more than two years.

Its formal adoption and publication follows a democratic decision made by Amnesty International’s global movement in August 2015, available here, which was reported widely at the time.

It recommends the decriminalization of consensual sex work, including those laws that prohibit associated activities—such as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work. This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers, with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.

The policy reinforces Amnesty International’s position that forced labor, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are abhorrent human rights abuses requiring concerted action and which, under international law, must be criminalized in every country.

“In too many places around the world sex workers are without protection of the law, and suffering awful human rights abuses. This situation can never be justified. Governments must act to protect the human rights of all people, sex workers included. Decriminalization is just one of several necessary steps governments can take to ensure protection from harm, exploitation and coercion,” said Tawanda Mutasah, Amnesty International’s senior director for law and policy.


Extensive research, including four geographically specific reports, shows that sex workers are often subject to horrific human rights abuses. This is in part due to criminalization, which further endangers and marginalizes them and impedes their ability to seek legal and social services as well as protection from violence.