Sex Work and Institutional Violence. 28/2/2017


A report on sex work and institutional violence conducted by the network of women sex workers in Latin America and the Caribbean (RedTraSex) shows that 70% of women sex workers have suffered violence or abuse in their workplaces. In the vast majority of these cases (87%) the perpetrators were members of the police or other armed forces, migration authorities or judicial personnel.

This form of abuse can be characterised as institutional violence, which is defined by international human rights bodies as "structural practices in which rights are violated, through action or omission, by law enforcement, armed forces, penitentiary forces, health professionals and judicial personnel working for a State, in contexts in which personal autonomy and/or freedom are restricted.”

Women sex workers belong to one of the populations most affected by HIV, with an estimated prevalence in Latin America of 6.1%, over 15 times the prevalence of the general adult population in the region. Despite this, women sex workers represent one of the most neglected populations when it comes to public policies on prevention and treatment, due to the stigma and discrimination that arise from the clandestine conditions under which sex work must be carried out.

Isobel Molina, President of The Association for the Defence of Women, outside their office in the historic centre of Quito, Ecuador. ©Gideon Mendel for the Alliance

The legal and political context has a significant impact on how and under what conditions sex work is performed.

Even though autonomous (self-employed) sex work is not explicitly prohibited in any of the countries of the study, there are no clear regulations recognising it as work, with subsequent rights and obligations. Sex work has become an underground activity in most countries across the region, even when it is not directly criminalised. Unregulated working conditions are unsafe for women sex workers, potentially exposing them to violence, with little course for redress.

Furthermore, all these countries have dispositions and laws criminalising different actions related to sex work (e.g. criminalising pimping, allowing brothels but forbidding street prostitution, and regulations linked to morals and social norms, such as public scandal, obscenity, sex in public spaces, truancy and loitering, etc.), creating fertile conditions for police repression and institutional violence against women sex workers, as well as difficulties in accessing basic health and justice services.

It is important to note that institutional violence denotes a structural practice, that is, systemic actions that cannot be addressed as individual or isolated transgressions (that happen occasionally) but are recognised as recurrent and sustained over time. It is not just 'any' public official who engages in them, but only those who have the power or prerogative to legally use force or coercion.

In the RedTraSex study Situations of Institutional Violence Towards and Rights Violations of Women Sex Workers, women sex workers in 14 countries gave testimony to their daily experiences of stigma and discrimination by authorities. They describe the multiple situations in which they experience rights abuses and violence, including demands for bribes and illegal arrests, often combined with physical violence (including beatings) and rape or sexual abuse at the hands of people in authority.

They dragged me arrested to the police station half naked and there were five policemen. Often you had to give them oral sex in order to be released.

- Woman sex worker, Chile

Around the bus terminal they ask you for money for their dinner, or sex, to leave us alone. You see women coming and going in the police vans all the time.

- Woman sex worker, Paraguay

Yet this violence often goes unreported for a variety of reasons, including fear of reprisal, mistrust of the justice system, and being discriminated against or further abused when reporting violence (secondary victimisation).

Women sex workers describe their experiences with different officials in the judicial system who, instead of enabling them to access justice when their rights are violated, reinforce discrimination by protecting law enforcement personnel and discouraging and hindering the advancement of legal procedures, subjecting women sex workers to further violence.

People discriminate against us: in the police station if you are a sex worker they don't take down your complaint.

- Woman sex worker,  Paraguay

Also, if a client beats you and you report him to the police, they pay no attention. They say 'he should have just killed you'. Instead of supporting us, they bring us down, bully us.

- Woman sex worker,  Honduras

Among the many recommendations the report makes, priority actions include:

  • that governments repeal all laws criminalising the offer and demand of sexual services and other legal norms punishing the free exercise of sex work, which enable abuse by people in authority
  • recognition of sex work as work
  • establishment or strengthening of monitoring mechanisms for cases of discrimination against women sex workers, within the framework of eradication of violence against women
  • sensitisation and training for police and judicial personnel on human rights regulations with regard to sex work is also recommended
  • that any attempt to legislate on and regulate sex work should involve the active and meaningful participation of women sex workers’ organisations