On Thursday 7th December, one year after Turning the Tide, sex workers returned to the European Parliament for an event: “Towards improved health outcomes for sex workers”.
The event saw an opening speech by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to Health Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, followed by two panels featuring MEPs Cyrus Engerer (S&D, Malta) and Marisa Matias (GUE/NGL, Portugal), Emily Christie from UNAIDS, Viatcheslav Grankov from the World Health Organisation, Sarah Marie Maffesoli from Medecins du Monde France and Rosario Costa from GAT Portugal. They were joined by ESWA Director Sabrina Sanchez, Director of Programmes Luca Stevenson and researcher Elizabeth McGuinness.
“Members of the European Parliament, and policy makers shouldn’t speak about sex workers, but with sex workers in order to roll out effective laws and policies that truly serve this community,” said host Sophie in ’t Veld (Volt, Netherlands) in her welcome speech.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng’s opening speech stressed that sex work is work, and that United Nations special procedures, treaty bodies and agencies have all expressed concerns about the negative impact of criminalisation and punitive legal frameworks and public policies that exist on sex work.
Dr Mofokeng also welcomed the update of the European Court of Human Rights MA and others vs. France case from August this year, to which she sent a third party intervention and expressed her hope that the Court will rule in favour of human rights.
The European Court of Human Rights case brought by 261 sex workers against France was raised by Sarah Marie Maffesoli from Medecins du Monde France, who presented their 2019 research to demonstrate how the French law against the prostitution system has worsened the health outcomes for sex workers. “Before this law, 95% of sex workers were able to impose condom use,” Maffesoli said. “It’s now just 62%. That’s a drop of 33%.”
Emily Christie from UNAIDS emphasised the global organisation’s longstanding position of supporting the full decriminalisation of sex work, as well as the importance of community-led organisations and interventions to improve sex workers’ health outcomes.
“For World Aids Day on 1 Dec, this year our theme was ‘Let Communities Lead’,” she said.
The World Health Organisation’s Viatcheslav Grankov echoed the importance of services led by key populations and gave an overview of the WHO’s 2022 policy brief, which highlighted removing punitive laws, policies and practices as an essential intervention that should be a priority to implement.
A powerful speech by Rosario Costa from GAT Portugal offered a glimpse of the devastating impact stigma had on her life as both a sex worker and drug user. Her experiences were underlined by Elizabeth McGuinness, who presented ESWA’s latest research: “‘Two pairs of Gloves’: Sex Workers’ Experiences of Stigma and Discrimination in Healthcare Settings in Europe”.
The final speech was given by ESWA Director of Programmes Luca Stevenson, who highlighted CORE, a community-led partnership of 24 organisations and the first ESWA programme to receive EU funding.
“We know the power of community-led organisations and interventions, but so many ESWA members either have little or no funding. We must address this issue in order to tackle health inequalities in our region.”
Stevenson highlighted the inclusion of sex workers as crucial to the goals of global health movements.
“When covid started, it was sex workers who were in the street handing out protection, providing masks, offering information about covid in very, very challenging circumstances. Without sex workers, we cannot end some of the biggest health inequalities that the world is facing at the moment.”
The event in the European Parliament followed the three day conference Part of the Solution: sex work, public health and (de)criminalisation, co-organised by ESWA alongside the European Sex Work Research Network (ESWORN).
The conference brought together approximately 100 academics, health professionals and sex worker rights activists to exchange, learn from one another and strategise on topics related to sex work and health. A full programme is available here.