Protecting the rights of sex workers during a pandemic

by Astha Madan Grover

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the the pre-existing inequalities in society. It has disproportionately affected already marginalized communities that live outside societal protection mechanisms, often in financially precarious situations.  Sex workers are one such community whose rights need to be protected and respected.  Sex workers are entitled to human rights which include labour rights under the aegis of international protection frameworks.

From an International Law Perspective, the United Nations Charter (1945) obligates all UN bodies and agencies to promote and respect the “dignity and worth of the human person”, and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) safeguards the right of female sex workers against discrimination.  It also grants them the right to social and economic security, right to privacy, the right to work, the right to freedom from stigma and prejudice and equal protection from the law and freedom from discrimination.  Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that the criminalisation of sex work increases the vulnerability of sex workers, because attackers perceive them as easy targets due to stigmatization by law enforcement agencies.  Criminalisation has also been found to restrict sex workers’ right to health.

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Issues faced by sex workers due to COVID-19

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers are facing increased harassment and discrimination due to a lack of access to emergency social protection programmes as well as financial difficulties.  In most countries, given the criminalization of some or all aspects of sex work, the informal sector is unable to grant them benefits, such as access to national social protection schemes.  Migrant sex workers also face the risk of deportation due to lack of work permits.

Workers can also get pushed into compromising situations, where they are taken to work with clients who may not have their safety or best interests in mind.  They lower the price to attract more clients so they can support themselves.  Workers may also stay on with abusive partners to avoid homelessness.  Sex workers, who still engage with clients may contract the virus despite taking precautions such as checking for fever and taking the client’s travel history.

Many workers live in shared accommodation,  which enables the rapid spread of the virus.  Sex workers, including those working in brothels, are usually self-employed.  They receive no remuneration for the period during which they do not get work.  Workers are unable to provide for their families due to the lack of clients and may have no other employment prospects as many of them have been forced into prostitution from a young age.

The HIV epidemic is an ever-present threat to sex workers and it has now been added to by COVID-19.  HIV, though does not spread through the air and can be prevented by using protection while engaging in sexual intercourse.  HIV can also be treated through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).  While it does not completely cure patients, it does enable them to live long and healthy lives.

 

Measures taken worldwide to protect sex workers

Germany legalised sex work in 2002 and has over 200,000 practising sex workers.  The government ordered the closure of all brothels and other ‘non-essential’ businesses such as clubs and bars on the 14th of March.  Susanne Wilp, the spokesperson for the Association of Erotic and Sexual Services Providers, states that business has gone down by 90% and due to their lack of income, they face homelessness.  A similar fate is being faced by sex workers in Amsterdam, where sex work is also legal.

Japan has allowed sex workers to apply for governmental aid in some cases.  However, the requirements for applications are rigid and will force workers to ‘out’ themselves to their communities.  Employers are eligible for subsidies, if their employees have to stay home to care for children during school closures, and sex workers can also receive cash handouts.  (Though the requirements do not clearly state whether the handout is for those who have lost a portion of their income or those who have been dismissed entirely.)  The rigid rules require workers to show proof of income, which is difficult to show as they are usually paid under the table.  Many sex workers do not report their occupation or entire income on their tax returns due to a fear of repercussions and a sense of stigma.  Admitting non-disclosure of income could lead to its own set of consequences.

Thailand has made sex workers eligible for grants in the government’s pandemic relief package and the Malaysian government is providing housing and monthly remuneration for the homeless; most of whom are sex workers.  These workers have to hide their occupation to receive the benefits as sex work is illegal in Malaysia despite being practised widely.

Sex-worker-3

The Way Forward

Taking sex work online is one way for workers to protect themselves during the pandemic.  This is done through photos, videos, video conferencing, and phone sex.  However, this kind of work has its limitations as well.  Workers may not have the required equipment or technical know-how to facilitate work this way.  Workers with an existing base of online followers find it easier to monetize their online services.  In addition, posting online may compromise the privacy of workers who may not want to reveal the nature of their work to family and friends.  Performing online may also not be a viable solution for workers with children and families at home.  A lack of consistent internet access may also hinder the ability to perform online.  Moreover, workers earn less working online and laws are not designed to protect these workers from privacy breaches and dangerous clients they could encounter as a result of working online.

UNAIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects have called on countries to take action to protect the health and human rights of sex workers.  These measures should include access to national social security schemes, unemployment benefits and financial aid, providing healthcare services to migrant sex workers, appropriating emergency housing for homeless sex workers, halting prosecution and arrests for all sex work-related activities, ending the use of criminal law, promoting COVID-19 testing and providing visa extensions to migrant sex workers.

Sex workers need more allies. Global bodies such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation support their demands for legalization and decriminalisation.  Sex worker rights should matter to everyone who cares about gender inequality, migration, public health or poverty.  The need to protect sex workers during this pandemic is incredibly important as they are one of the most marginalised groups in society. Sex workers must be included in the decision-making process when it comes to legislation and programmes that can impact them.  They should have the right to work safely and on their terms and this includes protection during a world-wide pandemic.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Astha Madan Grover - Photo (1)Astha is a second-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.  She has a keen interest in public policy, gender law, and public health.

Freedom of expression and sexual orientation: Textualist Singapore vs expansionist India

by Kartikeya Jaiswal and Pranay Modi 

This article was originally posted on Rightsblog.net

Introduction

‘Freedom of expression’ is a fundamental right guaranteed  by the constitutions of several democratic countries. It is an internationally recognised ‘human right’ and finds mention in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) . But while the right exists on paper, its actual extent, in different countries, depends entirely on the interpretation accorded to the words by those jurisdictions.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are pertinent examples here – whether the freedom of expression covers them or not depends entirely on the legal interpretation of ‘expression’.  In certain countries, the constitutional interpretation of this right has enabled the legal recognition of sexual orientation and gender identity as human rights. In others, it has led to the continued criminalisation of sexuality and gender identity

Issue

Recently, the Singapore High Court, while deciding the constitutionality of Section 377A of the Penal Code – having implications on the legalisation of homosexuality – was faced with the question; does freedom of expression include sexual orientation? The court, vide Ong Min Johnson v. Attorney-Generalanswered  in the negative; and its analysis was in stark contrast to the analysis of the Supreme Court of India in Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, where the question was answered in the affirmative.

 

Singapore

Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises ‘acts of gross indecency’ between men in public or private. In Johnson, the question arose:  does Article 14(1)(a) of the Singapore Constitution– which protects the freedom of expression – encompass sexual orientation as well? To answer the question, the Court applied the Tan Cheng Bock framework – a three-pronged method deployed for the interpretation of statutes.

First, the court considered the context in which ‘expression’ was used within the legal code as a whole (para 245). It determined context by noting the marginal note accompanying Article 14, which reads “Freedom of speech, assembly and association:. The absence of the term ‘expression’ from the marginal note, was interpreted as a clear indication that the expression was not a stand-alone right. ‘Expression’ must be read with ‘speech’ and must “necessarily point towards some form of verbal communication”. Thus, ‘expression’ under Article 14(1)(a) protects “freedom of speech encompassing matters of verbal communication of an idea, opinion or belief and not male homosexual acts”(para 255).

Second, the court considered the legislative purpose of enacting the term ‘expression’. It noted that when the constitution was adopted, there was no reference to a free-standing right of expression and ‘expression’ was only used in furtherance of the right to free speech (para 257).

The third prong of the test – comparing purpose with ordinary meaning – only reinforced the court’s interpretation, that ‘expression’ only includes expression in the form of speech. Thus, the court concluded that Article 14(1)(a) does not confer the “right to engage in male homosexual acts as a form of ‘expression’”.

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India

The approach adopted by Justice See Kee Oon of the Singapore High Court, towards the interpretation of Article 14(1)(a), is in stark contrast to the approach adopted by the Supreme Court of India, while interpreting Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution – which is in pari materia to Article 14(1)(a) of the Singaporean Constitution.

In 2014, the Indian Supreme Court – in a judgement which conferred legal validity to the identity of transgender individuals – had held that Article 19(1)(a) guarantees not just speech, but also thenatural rights inherent in the status of the citizens of a free country”.

This expansion of Article 19(1)(a) allowed the Supreme Court to adopt a natural rights approach in Navtej as well. The court observed that “sexual orientation is one of the many biological phenomena which is natural and inherent” and any law which discriminates on the basis of such an inherent property of identity, would violate Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

 

Analysis

Despite being common law courts, there is a fundamental difference in the way both jurisdictions conferred meaning to the term ‘expression’. These diametrically opposite conclusions are a function of the method of interpretation adopted, rather than any normative opinion on homosexuality.

In Singapore, the court adopted a textualist approach and stuck to the core meaning of ‘expression’, refusing to consider the penumbra of meanings. At the heart of the judgement is the belief that the judicial process simply does not allow for the kind of social progress sought by the petition.

The Indian Court, on the other hand, disregards the fetters of textual limitations and expands the scope of the text. It confers meanings on ‘expression’ found beyond the core and within the penumbra. This expansionist approach – dubbed ‘transformative constitutionalism’ – enables the progression of rights. It displays the willingness of the Indian court to push the envelope and take up the mantle of social progress for itself.

 

Conclusion

Although to decide whether one of these approaches is better than the other is a matter for posterity. But for now, what is clear is that the Singapore High Court is not regressive in its normative morality, but simply that it is strict in its judicial process.

Nevertheless, the implications of this judgment on Singapore’s LGBTQI community – and their human rights – cannot be ignored. While the Singapore High Court has maintained the propriety of the judicial process and the separation of powers by leaving it to the legislature to take the final decision, it has failed to give immediate relief to LGTBQI persons. The continued denial of their human rights is predicated upon the continued persistence of Singaporean peoples’ political right to a disciplined judiciary. In this deadlock, it is incumbent upon the Singaporean Parliament to step in and protect the human rights of Singapore’s LGBTQI community, in line with the international standards of the UDHR and the Yogyakarta Principles.

Even though the Singapore High Court has given adequate reasoning by deeming it fit for the legislature to scrap Section 377A; expanding the scope of ‘freedom of expression’ would have sent a strong message, both domestically and internationally, as the LGBTQI community keep on fighting for their basic human rights.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

KartikeyaKartikeya Jaiswal studied law at Jindal Global Law School in New Delhi, and graduated in August 2019.  He is now advocate practising law in new Delhi.

 

 

PranayPranay Modi studied law at Jindal Global Law School in New Delhi, and after graduating is now a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi

International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

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Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

International Human Rights News: Weekly Roundup

by Julia Kedziorek and Amita Dhiman

Each week students at the University of Essex Human Rights Centre prepare an overview of the past week’s human rights related news stories from around the world.  This summary contains news articles from 5th March to 11th March 2020.

This week’s stories in focus

International Women’s Day Protests around the world

Women took to the streets around the world on the 8th March to protest against inequality and gender violence…

Mexican women: “This is our feminist spring”

80,000 people took the streets of Mexico on 8th March, protesting against gender-based violence. Women went on strike for a day, across areas of both professional and domestic life, to highlight the impact of their absence. Mexico has the highest number of murders of women, averaging more than 10 a day,  320 in January 2020 alone.

The aim of the protests was to challenge the misogynistic view of women held in Mexico’s masculine culture. “Mexico is a country of rights, but only on paper” said  Ana Pe cova, Director of EQUIS Justice for Women.

Female protestors in Kyrgyzstan arrested

In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, dozens of women were arrested for ‘public order offences’ as they protested against gender violence and inequality, while masked men attacked them, injuring some and tearing up their placards

 

Stop the executions of tortured detainees!

Death_penaltyBahrain
Human Rights Watch is calling for the Bahraini authorities to overturn the death sentences of two men who allege they were tortured during detention.  Their original convictions were reversed in Oct 2018 when evidence emerged to support their torture allegations but was reinstated by the High Court of Appeal in 2020.

Egypt
UN human rights experts have called for the release of 4 minors, among those facing death sentences in a mass trial in Egypt.   British MPs are urging the Foreign Secretary to intervene on human rights grounds, and Amnesty International’s MENA Research and Advocacy Director, Philip Luther said “The death penalty can never deliver justice” particularly when the defendants have alleged that they were subject to torture.

‘LGBT+ free zones’ in Poland 

LGBTFreezonesOver 100 municipalities in the south-east of Poland have declared themselves as “LGBT ideology free” zones.  There has been a rise of right-wing rhetoric from the ‘Law and Justice’ ruling party, declaring the LGBT community a threat to traditional Catholic based Polish morality.  The anti-LGBT movement’s aim is to stop the “rainbow plague” (a term coined by the Archbishop of Krakow), destroying the morality of Poland’s youth.  Although the zones have no basis in law, they are a clear example of encouraging discrimination.

Bart Staszewski (pictured), an LGBT activist and film-maker, has created “Military zone-do not enter”-style road signs as part of a project to highlight the discrimination.  Adam Bodnar, Poland’s independent Commissioner for Human Rights, stated the Government is increasingly homophobic in its sentiments and questioned the allocation of EU funds in areas that allow discrimination to flourish. The European Parliament adopted a convention condemning the so called  “LGBTI-free zones” in December 2019.

The abduction of the daughter of Dubai ruler from a UK street

Shamza_AlMaktoumThe lapsed investigation into the disappearance of Sheikha Shamsa, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, from the streets of Cambridge 20 years ago is to be reviewed by police.   Human Rights Watch is pressing for the release of the ruler’s 2 daughters, who are said to be held captive in the UAE.  Shamsa was abducted in 2000 and her sister, Latifa, was kidnapped and forced back to Dubai, after fleeing on a boat to India in 2018.  Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the Emir of Dubai and the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.  Sheikh Mohammed has strong ties with the UK, creating the largest horse racing team in the world and is a regular at Ascot, often photographed with the Queen.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Europe

Latin America and the Caribbean

Middle East

North America

South and South-East Asia

West and Central Asia