On January 26, Belgium’s Justice Minister Paul Van Tigchelt met with the Ministers of Justice from the 27 EU member states as part of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Among the topics discussed, the Belgian Minister of Justice Van Tigchelt put the issue of sex work on the agenda with the hope that this issue, in which not only policymakers but also feminists disagree, will be discussed for the first time at such a high-level meeting. Minister Van Tigchelt firmly believes that efforts must be made within the European Union to improve the rights and working conditions of sex workers.
Belgium has been pioneering the full decriminalisation of sex work since 2022 as the only country in the European Region. There is a growing consensus by international human rights bodies as well as the leading human rights civil society organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or International Commission of Jurists on full decriminalisation of adult voluntary sex work. According to UN agencies such as UNAIDS, UNDP, UNFPA or WHO, decriminalisation of sex work is the only approach that centres on the human rights of people concerned with sex workers and is also the most effective approach how to safeguard their health, safety and well-being.
In 2023, the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls concluded that there is now sufficient evidence of the harms of any form of criminalisation of sex work, including criminalisation of clients and ‘third parties’ related activities.
ESWA Policy Officer Irena Fercik Konecna was invited to open the ministers’ discussion. She emphasised that policymakers should start meaningfully including sex workers and their organisations in the debate about policies that affect this population. There are barriers rooted in stigma, morality and biases that exclude sex workers from these debates, as documented by the research of Front Line Defenders or the last report of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency on Civic Spaces.
ESWA would like to congratulate Belgium for the courage to pioneer the full decriminalisation of sex work in the European region and for opening the debate to centre the human rights of sex workers. Although it was clearly articulated by the minister Van Tigchelt that “today we will agree to disagree”, the debate was held with the hope that one day ‘we all will agree’. This is just the beginning of the debate on decriminalisation here in Europe.