An exciting decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) today: more than three years after receiving an application from 261 sex workers (SWs) challenging the 2016 Prostitution Act, the Court has once again ruled that the application is admissible and emphasised the harmful consequences of the Act for SWs. This is a landmark victory that validates the litigation strategy of the sex workers and our associations.
Since the 2016 law, the balance of power has shifted between sex workers and their clients. Largely underprivileged, they are now much more exposed to the risks of HIV/AIDS and other STIs, as well as to sexist and sexual violence. Noting the extreme deterioration in the living and working conditions of sex workers, our associations supported their application to the ECtHR.
In December 2019, 261 sex workers - including a majority of migrants and/or gender minorities - took their case to the European Court. Their objective was to challenge the compliance of the criminalisation of clients with their fundamental rights: the freedom to pursue a professional activity, the right to personal autonomy and sexual freedom, and the rights to physical integrity and life.
In April 2021, the ECtHR ruled that the application was admissible, a very rare occurrence since only a tiny proportion of cases are admissible (around 5%). But in the proceedings, the French government once again raised the issue of admissibility, denying that the applicants were victims and that domestic remedies had been exhausted.
While today's welcome decision by the ECtHR does not prejudge the merits of the case, it is nonetheless a landmark victory for sex workers and the associations that support them. In its decision, the Court acknowledges that the mere existence of the law has a negative impact on sex workers: "the applicants have produced evidence broadly indicating that the clandestinity and isolation induced by this criminalisation increase the risks to which they are exposed". The ECtHR also considered that the applications were "not manifestly ill-founded", and therefore recognised the necessity of the debate.
Aurélie Godet, Médecins du Monde press officer, 06 69 76 31 18 / [email protected]
Sabrina Sanchez, ESWA Director, [email protected]