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I’m in an Abusive Relationship with my Country

Dear Ireland,

I’m sorry to have to say this but we need to break up.

You see I just finished reading this book called “Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men” and I now realise that I am in an abusive relationship.

With you.

See abusers have a sense of entitlement, and you have that Ireland, you really do. You think it’s ok to treat women like second class citizens, to lock up asylum seekers, to allow the elderly, disabled and children in care to be abused when you’re supposed to be looking after them, you think it’s ok to expect Irish people to pay twice for wateryou make racist jokes and you think it’s ok to discriminate against children who aren’t Catholics.

I know now all of these things are indicative of your deeply held sense of entitlement.

Abusers also have a core belief in inequality and again Ireland, you have that in spades. Women are  woefully underrepresented in politics (and other positions of power), paid less than men and have their right to bodily autonomy taken away from them when pregnant. Not much equality there Ireland. Can you see how unfair you are?

Plus you really aren’t respectful of my body, like when I’m pregnant you have more say in what happens in and to my body than I do. You can even force me to stay pregnant against my will, force feed me, touch my body and even cut me open – all against my will.

Other countries recognise that legally as assault, torture even.

I have less rights than a corpse around you Ireland and that really sucks. I mean who in their right mind would actually want to stay in a relationship with someone that would hold all that over you? Someone WHO WOULD ACTUALLY DO THOSE THINGS TO YOU. And if I try and reclaim my body you threaten to lock me up and take away my freedom. That’s pretty dark Ireland. You’re in a dark place.

Abusers have no respect for their partners and you clearly have no respect for me. I’ve seen the way you treat other women too, you just don’t give a shit about us do you? I’m worried about my daughters, growing up with you. Will you treat them as harshly as you’ve treated me? Will they have to go through what I and the women in your past have gone through?

I’m pretty angry Ireland. I’m bloody wild about how you’ve been treating me and I’m not going to let you get away with it. I’m going to keep telling everyone what a shit you are until you change your abusive ways.

All I want is some basic respect and access to my human rights. I can’t believe you continue to deny me them.

Sincerely,

A Woman of Ireland.

Bring Down The Final Curtain: The Citizens Assembly and the Macabre Theatre of the Abortion Question

I stood outside the Dáil on Tuesday evening during the Repeal demo organised by AAA-PBP and it began to rain. An activist I know from another organisation happened to be standing beside me asked how I was. Tired says I, as I had just come from work and I was up before 6 that morning to walk the dogs. It’s a long day when you’re standing at a demo regardless of precipitation levels. That’s not to try and garner sympathies or kudos – the point is that you’d want more hours in the day for all the protests. You’d be sick protesting. I’m especially sick protesting to repeal the Eighth Amendment. There are literally hundreds of things I could think of that I’d prefer to do. These demonstrations are kind of samey after a while and there are only so many different ways you can point out the sheer horror of having no say in what happens your body before you start to feel like you’re going to lose your mind with frustration.

As I thought about what I would rather be doing (no disrespect to the speakers because the ones I heard were really, really great but let’s be honest, we all want to be somewhere else), the cabinet came to a last minute voting arrangement on the Bill. Minister Katherine Zappone, poster deputy of Liberal Ireland, and a number of other TDs had a dilemma; having previously committed to Repeal but gone into government with Fine Gael they couldn’t vote in favour of the AAA repeal Bill, but they couldn’t vote against it either. Thus a magical typically Irish formula was arranged; the Dáil would vote on a counter motion to the Bill to state that no legislation on abortion would be dealt with while the Citizens Assembly was still sitting. This has the handy effect of getting Zappone et al out of a tight spot in this particular vote, but also buys time for the Cabinet and Independent Alliance. The Citizens Assembly is due to report in a year. Any other attempt to remove the Eighth Amendment between now and then will be ruled out of order using a convoluted mechanism of parliamentary censorship. Meanwhile Zappone and others who have built a political career on “liberal” issues will never have to make an actual decision on it. Sweatshirts and badges notwithstanding, responsibility for the matter is conveniently devolved to the Citizens Assembly.

The Citizens Assembly is a bizarre concept. It teaches us that women’s bodies are so politically destructive and terrifying that the people who are theoretically *elected* to represent the population cannot legislate for the matters that affect those bodies. The “problem” has been discussed at length by numerous Oireachtas committees and Dáil debates, all in an effort to not actually resolve the matter, but demonstrate “Look! Women! We’re TALKING about it!” They need to be seen to be doing something, but the women who need or want, or indeed have had, abortions are irrelevant to their political thinking, The comfort of their Dáil seats and knowledge of extremely healthy pensions, and the leather under their arses in Ministerial cars are worth more to them than women’s lives. Their Mercs with State funded drivers are fueled by the tears of twelve women travelling for abortions to the UK every day and god knows how many more getting medication online and off dealers.  What the criteria is by which a cabinet decides an issue is so socially toxic that they could not possibly attempt to legislate for a referendum on the matter is not clear.

The Citizens Assembly is a performance. It is political theatre. It will be fleeting plot line in the inevitable boring memoir by Leo Varadkar or Shane Ross when they have a fleeting reference to how they allegedly attempted to fight against it. It is a mechanism for kicking the can down the road.

Realistically it will be a year from now by the time the Citizens Assembly reports back. That brings us to the end of 2017. There is talk that a referendum could potentially be held in 2018. This seems unrealistic. After the Assembly reports it will, as is the practice with such reports, sit with an Oireachtas Committee for a few months. It will need to be debated to death. At the same time the ordinary business of bills and farcical Leader’s Questions will continue. They will need to pass a budget. There will also be preparations for the local and European Elections in 2019. They will need to address the looming Brexit situation. Political parties view time in election cycles. After the locals, there will be preparation for the next general election of 2021 – if the government manages to last that long. Fine Gael may have quietened any umbrage taken over abortion, but they still have the matter of annual budgets, judicial appointments, teachers striking, cops striking and whatever else is around the corner.

The Citizens Assembly gives them a get out of legislating card. Do not pass go. Do not collect your pension just yet.  The idea that 99 random punters are qualified to represent the population in this manner is farcical. It is the outsourcing of democracy. There was a small glimmer of hope among some activists recently when the 2018 repeal referendum was mooted. Hypothetically, if those great 99 return with a verdict that indeed, the women of Ireland need access to free, safe and legal abortion, will we get it? Will we fuck; Our expectations will be managed appropriately. Zappone has been co-opted and regardless of Labour’s current protestations, they were co-opted when they were in Government. Calls for people to be reasonable will abound and those who wish for something as basic as wanting to control reproductive health will be lumped in with the “looney left” who are seeking something better in life that the government tells us is unrealistic. The fiscal space will not allow the eradication of poverty or the realisation of bodily autonomy.

During the Tuesday night debate, Bríd Smith whipped out a packet of abortion pills in the Dáil chamber and rightly asked to be prosecuted. It will never happen though, in the same way the women of the Contraception Train weren’t touched. State authorities will save their efforts for the most vulnerable. Not the woman who has the platform of the Dáil chamber, but the woman who has an abortion at home in Belfast, alone, for want of access to legal healthcare. Or the women who are consistently reminded that you may go to jail for fourteen years if you are caught trying to do what is legal in almost every other jurisdiction in Europe. The criminalisation of those who have abortions at home and the prospective jail sentence must remain for the State; if women take things into their own hands (as they so often do) how else will they control women’s bodies without the threat of violence and imprisonment? Little do they care that there is already a significant level of subversion of these inhumane laws. There are networks of women who help each other and no threats of jail will prevent that.

There is a back and forth where reasonable TDs plead for a reasonable response. Climate change deniers and old men respond that they care about the babies. The gombeen men TDs play to their local audiences. Government members talk a lot without saying much. It is theatre of the absurd. Enda Kenny likes to think he has the air of a gladiator about him, but transcripts of questions to the Taoiseach demonstrate that he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about and it seems more like a pantomime. Look at Micheal Martin, he’s behind you!

The standard rules of political decision making do not apply when it comes to abortion.  The Citizens Assembly was an invention to outsource the talking shop elements of modern politics, while retaining the control over whether or not to take on board what they recommend. Each meeting of the Assembly is a staged performance. We are witnessing the dramaturgy of abortion politics in Ireland. Each participant carefully selected to ensure that they have never made any public declarations on the matter one way or the other. The actors will play the role that has been written for them accordingly. The audience reads notes on the drama of each theatrical episode in which pro-choice groups and forced birthers are positioned as two sides of the same coin; an expression of good versus evil. Lazy journalists portray fully staffed organisations backed by the Church and funded by the American Christian right as political equals to organisations filled with students and working class people who work voluntarily to assist women and stand outside Leinster House with home-made placards. Those who would see women jailed portray themselves as the guardians of the nation’s unborn babies, while children sit in homeless hostels, direct provision, schools with leaky roofs, and in counselling services having been abused by others. The orchestrated debates and prepared parliamentary speeches are designed to show us that those in power are truth-tellers. There of course will be the occasional plot twist, as will any political tragicomedy. Fine Gael TD Tom Barry drunkenly pulling Aine Collins TD onto his lap during a debate on legislation that was taking place directly as a result of a woman’s death was laughed off as banter between friends.

Naming it the “Citizens Assembly” was an important narrative technique to make the audience feel like they had some sort of participatory role in the event. We are citizens; therefore we own this Assembly even if we are not directly involved with the show. Women who remain undocumented or without the ability to travel due to complex and ongoing asylum procedures are among the most affected by the Eighth Amendment, but they are not citizens, so they do not matter. However, we are continually reminded that the Citizens Assembly and the debates surrounding it are for a higher, more moral cause. Their decision will be collectivised and distilled into a representation of the will of the people and we will be told that the nation has at last transcended the difficult Irish question of abortion. They are “the Citizens” after all, and they will redeem the State and the thousands of women forced to leave to access abortions in England will preach forgiveness. That is the hope at least. The rhetoric of citizenship and deliberation and participation is a fitting next act in the midst of state pageantry and a million 1916 re-enactments commemorating those who wished to be heard. The State through its Assembly tells us it is listening and delegitimises more radical acts, such as ordering medication online because you made a decision you do not want to be pregnant.

The cabinet member playwrights will take their bows following its choreographed conclusion; the hope being that future generations will commend them for their brave move in “letting the people decide” conveniently forgetting that letting the people decide will require an actual referendum. In the absence of allowing a Bill to proceed that provides for a referendum, it is merely a spectacle of compliance functioning to hold the government together. If Citizens Assembly did not exist, there would be no excuse in delaying a referendum. It’s the tv series that should have ended three seasons back because it’s starting to feel repetitive but just as back to back episodes of Come Dine With Me replaces anything decent on tv, the sanitised Citizens Assembly will obscure the views of those who think women should be able to decide whether to be pregnant or not regardless of the circumstance of conception or their health.

There was graffiti in Paris in 1968 saying “When the national assembly becomes bourgeois theatre, the bourgeois theatres must become national assemblies.” The outworking of the Citizens Assembly decisions will be done by those who do the banal work of overseeing the work of governance and the State over golf courses and in the Dáil bar and in departmental offices. This is separate from the public performance. In the 1571 a book called “Order and Usage Howe to Keepe a Parliament” detailed how members of parliament should not discuss the internal goings on of the chamber; politics and how decisions are made are not for public consumption or discussion outside. Up to the 19th Century, visitors from parliament were not allowed take notes of parliamentary sessions. There is no live feed in the office of the Secretary General of the Department of Health where decisions are actually made and Dáil committees regularly sit in private session.

We haven’t come that far from the practice of 1571, the Dáil is still just ritual theatre, and the Citizens Assembly is the interval act.

#Repealthe8th

@stephie08

 

Ungovernable Wombs – The Abortion Pill and the Erosion of the Eighth Amendment

Between 2010 and 2015 the rates of women travelling from Ireland to access abortion services in the UK fell from 4,402 per annum to 3,451 per annum. A total of 27,800 women travelled during this timeframe. Anti-choice groups congratulated themselves because of the drop in numbers, choosing to interpret the British Department of Health statistics as evidence of a drop in the rate of abortions taking place as a result of their work. Pro-choice groups were at pains to point out that this was incorrect; the British DOH stats simply show the decline in the numbers of women travelling from Ireland who access abortions in England in Wales, but they do not represent the total numbers of women from Ireland who are accessing abortions. The 27,800 figure was *never* accurate; it doesn’t include women who travelled from Ireland but gave UK addresses or in some cases used UK NHS numbers. It doesn’t include migrant women who travel to Eastern European states to access services there. It doesn’t include women who travel to other EU states that aren’t the UK to access abortion services there instead.

So the paper published today shows that during the period which *official* numbers travelling to the UK declined by 951, there were 5,680 women who requested the abortion pill to take at home within the island of Ireland from an organisation called Women on Web. The numbers willing to risk a criminal penalty to have an abortion at home are increasing year on year. That said, given that customs seize some of these packages, we don’t know how many made it through to the women who requested them or how many women actually took the medication once they managed to get them. But even if only 50% of women managed to get the abortion and actually take them, it pretty much cancels out the reduction of numbers women travelling to the UK for terminations. Fifty percent is actually a remarkably conservative estimate considering that Customs only managed to seize 68 of these tablets last year, and given that there are more websites than Women on Web who will provide the drug (including Women Help Women) and migrant communities who have their own word of mouth suppliers as well as less reputable black market suppliers online, it’s quite likely that there are a few thousand more who have requested and taken the abortion pill since 2010.

It’s good to see coverage of this issue, and specifically of Rebecca Gomperts’ research paper but it doesn’t tell the whole story about women who are willing to risk a prison sentence (such as the woman in the north who took pills and was subsequently reported to the police by her tout housemates). The pill was supplied by Women on Web to 1,642 women between 2010 and 2012 and they managed to conduct follow-up research on 1,181 of those women (72%).

What report does tell us is that the law that criminalises abortion north and south in Ireland, and allows the state to jail women if they breach it, is completely irrelevant to women who need to access terminations and can’t travel. They are going to take the risk and order the medication anyway. The women who accessed the abortion pill from Women on Web were generally between 20 and 30 years old and the majority of them were already mothers, and 97% of them reported that accessing and using the medication at home was the right thing for them with 98% saying that they’d recommend the experience to other women. The only negative thing for the women accessing abortions at home is doing it outside of the law.

While the Citizens Assembly pontificates on the rights of women in Ireland to bodily autonomy and control over their reproductive systems, women can and will break the law in order to end their pregnancies. The abortion pill is a safe drug, in fact, it’s safer than viagra, and while well-meaning obstetricians like to point out the risks of taking medicines without the supervision of a medical practitioner, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that in an Irish context, those concerns are as much about women in Ireland challenging the State’s control over their bodies as they are about taking a safe dose of misoprostol following an online consultation with a medical professional overseas. Continuing the prohibition against abortion and forcing women to go to term with pregnancies they do not want to carry is a form of structural violence against women.

The fact that women ordering this medication clearly believe it is safe should tell the State and the Citizens Assembly something. More and more women are now taking the pill and recommending it to their friends who can’t or simply don’t want to travel. Furthermore, even if women don’t believe it’s safe, they are willing to take that risk as well as the risk of arrest and prosecution in order to end their pregnancies at home here in Ireland. At this stage, for women in Ireland whether they travel or order medication online, abortion is a pretty normal event. It isn’t certainly isn’t a rarity. No one is put off ordering drugs whether they are risking a 14 year prison sentence or life in penal servitude, or their own health or life when it comes to disreputable black market sellers. Women on Web and Women Help Women alongside the activists who are supplying them with information, contact details, assisting them in getting the medication and providing them with safe spaces in which to take their medication are changing women’s health care in Ireland. Of course, this medication is only available for early terminations, but the power of it becoming more normalised and giving women control over their own bodies should not be underestimated.

Recognising that taking abortion out of the constitution and criminal law and treating it as a public health issue, is absolutely essential. This is about women’s rights and self-determination There are clearly public health consequences as a result of this domestic criminalisation – not every seller is as ethical as WoW or WHW. Forcing women to a point where they order medication online, though potentially empowering from a bodily autonomy standpoint, is pretty demeaning and dangerous in the context of a potential jail sentence if they are caught; if you thought your home abortion wasn’t going quite according to plan and you were unsure whether you were bleeding a bit too much, would you ask a doctor knowing they might feel obliged to call the Gardaí?

The Eighth Amendment might still be in the Constitution looming over everyone with a womb in Ireland, but like the women of generations past who handed down details of Queen Anne’s Lace seeds and Pennyroyal tea; email addresses and website details and safe houses to have packages delivered to are handed down by the current generation. If there is no safe house for delivery there might be a drone delivery.  In all jurisdictions where abortion is illegal women will find a way around it regardless of criminal penalties. The existence of the internet makes a mockery of the 1995 Regulation of Information Act that tightly controls the circumstances under which you be given information about abortion; literally anyone with a smartphone could potentially tell you when, where and how much an abortion will cost. Whether you have the funds to access it is a different thing altogether. Even if you do have the funds, the ability to access it in a post-Brexit Britain is in question.

When the Eighth Amendment is repealed, it must not be replaced with a semi-liberalised system that allows for abortion in certain highly restricted circumstances that requires women to jump through bureaucratic hoops designed to degrade them by requiring the narration of their experiences for panels of doctors who decide whether their reason for wanting to end their pregnancy is good enough, or whether the risk to their health or life is risky enough. The treatment of Ms. Y during her engagement with the panel (that ordered the termination of her pregnancy by a c-section at 24 weeks rather than the abortion she requested at 9 weeks) has taught us that the State will not make owning your own body straightforward for women. The Eighth Amendment must be replaced by a system that allows for free, safe, and legal abortion where a woman decides it is best for her, in a venue that is convenient and accessible for her – whether that is in a clinic or in her home. Continued refusal to allow this to women will simply mean thousands more travelling every year and thousands more ordering abortion pills online.

The 1,642 women who received illegal abortion pills in Ireland between 2010 and 2012 are the tip of a very large iceberg that is not going away no matter what the Citizen’s Assembly decides.

 

Anti-Deportation Ireland launch

Posted on

(Note: In this post, I’ll be sharing things raised and spoken about at the ADI launch. Because of the risk this could pose to the people in question, however, I’m not going to give their names or any details about them unless I get explicit permission to do so.)

Anti-Deportation Ireland was officially launched on Wednesday morning. ADI is “a national, multi-ethnic grassroots network/alliance of activists, asylum seekers, refugees, community workers, trade unionists, and academics who have come together to campaign against forced deportation in Ireland, and for the abolition of the direct provision system.”. They have three demands:

  1. An immediate end to all deportations
  2. The immediate abolition of the direct provision system.
  3. The right to work for people seeking asylum.

So why these demands? How do direct provision and deportation work in Ireland, and why is it so important to end them?

Direct Provision

Direct provision is how asylum seekers’ basic needs- for food and shelter- are provided in Ireland. Asylum seekers are placed in hostels. Food is provided by these hostels. Because food and shelter are directly provided, the only money people are given is an allowance of €19.50 per week. Until people’s claims have been decided, they do not have the right to work or education in Ireland. The amount of time it can take for a claim to be decided varies hugely- people can spend years waiting for a decision.

Despite the name, direct provision isn’t, well, directly provided by the State. It’s outsourced privately, and because of this becomes a for-profit enterprise. Despite being outsourced, it’s unregulated. Can you see where this is going? People are accommodated three, four, five to a room, with different families sharing a room. The standard of food can be atrocious. Not only is it extremely bad, but in many cases utterly unlike what people are used to in their home countries. And because of direct provision, asylum seekers don’t have the facilities or the rights to even cook their own food.

Complaining about conditions is rarely an option. People who complain about overcrowding are told that they should be grateful that they are not homeless. That they’re taking up room that Irish homeless people don’t have- pitting two extremely vulnerable minorities in this country against each other.

Several people talked about raising their families in direct provision. One woman spoke of how one of her children is too young to remember anything else. How she doesn’t know the difference between a bedroom and a living room and a kitchen. How happy her child is whenever they leave the hostel, and how she hates having to go back ‘home’. Another speaker talked about the particularly Irish way in which cases of child abuse within hostels are dealt with. Perpetrators can be, in a cruel echo of so many other institutions in this country, simply moved from hostel to hostel. This is happening now. And those who complain are often moved themselves, without any right to protest, to other hostels around the country, disrupting any fragile sense of community they might have created where they are. People are denied the right to privacy, to cook their own food, to have a home where they feel safe and where they know how long they can stay.

Right to Work

As well as being forced to live in specific hostels, asylum seekers in Ireland are denied the right to work and education while their claims are being processed- which can take years. On the one hand, this is immensely wasteful. Ireland is in a recession! How many skilled, educated, qualified people are languishing in hostels unable to work, when they could be contributing to society? This also shows the lie of the idea that asylum seekers and migrants are ‘draining’ the system. These people are not permitted to work, even when they want to. On the other hand, years of enforced, stultifying idleness can be devastating for asylum seekers. Not being able to work means that people’s skills get rusty. Work and education are also two of the major ways that people integrate and find a place in communities. Direct provision and the denial of the right to work and study keep asylum seekers separate from Irish society. They mean that people can be here for years with no ability to put down roots and make a home. That Irish people don’t get to work and study beside asylum seekers. That we see asylum seekers as other.

Deportation

Asylum seekers, however, don’t just have to live with direct provision. They also face the constant threat of deportation. On World Refugee Day this year, the 20th of June, 18 people were deported from this country. Twelve of them were children. People are not deported during the day. They are taken from their beds in the middle of the night. When neighbours don’t notice. When people who could help them to appeal are out of work, are asleep. Without notice.

Several people spoke of the constant threat of deportation. About staying awake through the night, sacred this would be the night they’d be forced out. One speaker remarked that even criminals in prison in this country know what they have been sentenced to. They know how long they’ll be there. Asylum seekers don’t have even this security. Another speaker remarked that for asylum seekers, the normal rights accorded people by the legal system are turned upside-down. Asylum seekers are assumed guilty and lying until proven otherwise. The burden of proof is on them, and it is made incredibly difficult to prove themselves innocent. But, as several people asked, why would someone put themselves through this system without good reason? Why would they live like this, for years on end, if they didn’t absolutely need to?

Not okay.

Direct provision, night-time deportations, denial of basic human rights- these things are done by the state to asylum seekers. But as one speaker said, there is a thing line between a refugee and a citizen. Our government has shown that it is willing to trample basic human rights, to engage in a deliberate campaign to other and alienate a group of people. The ‘asylum seeker’ is constructed as scapegoat and a subject for deportation. As Irish people, we need to contest this construction. We need to reach out to people seeking asylum, to hear their stories, to share these stories every way we can. We need to bring the lives of asylum seekers into the light. As one speaker said, “No more secrets. No more lies. No more lying awake every night waiting to be taken away”.

More info on the launch at Cedar Lounge RevolutionPoliticoMillstreet.ie and Irish Left Review. Follow ADI on Facebook to find out more about what they are doing and how you can get involved.

Myself and Ariel Silvera also livetweeted this meeting. A summary of these is available here.

Originally posted on my personal blog, Consider The Tea Cosy.

UNAIDS Advisory Group condemns Swedish sex purchase ban

Last month saw the publication of the long-awaited Report of the UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Sex Work. The Advisory Group was established in 2009 by the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to provide clarification and advice around certain matters addressed in the most recent (2009) UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work.

I finally had a chance to read the document this week, and there’s a lot of really good stuff in it. One of its most significant aspects is that it pulls no punches on the question of criminalising clients – not merely subsuming this issue, as many previous UN-associated statements have done, under a general opposition to laws against consensual commercial sex, but addressing it head-on and in some detail. On pages 5-6, it includes the Swedish sex-purchase ban in a section called “Laws, enforcement and policies that impede effective HIV responses for sex workers: Criminal prohibitions against sex work or aspects of it” and says:

The approach of criminalising the client has been shown to backfire on sex workers. In Sweden, sex workers who were unable to work indoors were left on the street with the most dangerous clients and little choice but to accept them.

In its “Conclusion and recommendations” on legal regimes, on page 8, it says:

States can take many actions to establish legal and policy environments that are conducive to universal access to HIV services for sex workers. Among these are the following: States should move away from criminalising sex work or activities associated with it. Decriminalisation of sex work should include removing criminal penalties for purchase and sale of sex…

Also significant is its criticism of the “end demand” strategy in general. In the introduction, on page 4, it says:

Policies and programmes to reduce the demand for sex work, designed ignoring the voices of sex workers, often result in unintended harms including increased HIV risk and vulnerability
for sex workers and their clients

On page 6, it points out:

There is very little evidence to suggest that any criminal laws related to sex work reduce demand for sex or the number of sex workers. Rather, all of them create an environment of fear and marginalisation for sex workers, who often have to work in remote and unsafe locations to avoid arrest of themselves or their clients. These laws can undermine sex workers’ ability to work together to identify potentially violent clients and their capacity to demand condom use of clients.

On pages 10-11, it notes that

well-meaning but ill-informed service and healthcare providers and policy actors from community-based organisations, nongovernmental organisations, donors, international organisations and government agencies believe that they are helping sex workers by calling for criminalisation of clients. However, there is no evidence that these “end demand” initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life for sex workers…These laws do not reduce the scale of sex work, but they do make sex workers more vulnerable.

It calls instead for a shift of emphasis to ending demand for unprotected paid sex – and states on page 11:

Empowering sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions, rather than “end demand” approaches, should be the focus of HIV prevention efforts…When sex workers can successfully ensure that their customers use condoms, sex workers are less likely to become infected by HIV.

Of course, since it’s (usually) the clients who have to wear the condoms, convincing them that it’s in their interest to do so would go a long way toward reducing the demand for unprotected paid sex. The report describes working with clients in this way as the more effective strategy for HIV prevention, noting on page 14 that

demonising and marginalising clients are approaches that create major barriers to effective HIV programming with sex workers

On page 13 it gives a real-life example, from China, of how greater condom use has been achieved through a programme that treats clients not as irredeemable villains but rather as partners in the battle against HIV and other STIs:

Men working in industrial sectors that require them to work away from their families often engage in risky behaviours such as unprotected paid and casual sex…To address this, the International Labour Organization is working with large and medium-scale mining companies in southern China to promote responsible sexual behaviours among mine workers, including proper treatment of STIs, consistent condom use and elimination of violence against women, including sex workers. Preliminary results, assessed through qualitative and quantitative surveys, show significant increases in condom use and health-seeking behaviours, and increased reported condom use in paid and casual sex.

The report goes on to address the issue of trafficking. Here, I have a small difficulty with it, as it divides the sex industry into two distinct categories of voluntary/not trafficked and involuntary/trafficked:

A woman deciding to sell sexual services in order to support herself or her family is not a trafficked person. (page 17)

This is not strictly accurate as a matter of law, as the international definition of “trafficking” is broad enough to encompass some forms of “voluntary” sexual labour, such as debt bondage. It also ignores the fact that for most working people, not just sex workers, consent and coercion exist along a continuum, rather than being a binary.

Nonetheless, it’s absolutely true that sex work abolitionists tend to draw the line on that continuum in such a way as to strip the agency from most sex workers, especially migrants – and the Advisory Group is correct to highlight the problems this causes for HIV programmes. On page 18 it states:

Anti-trafficking measures often concentrate on getting people out of sex work, without considering whether they are trafficked, or whether the efforts will disrupt the access sex workers have to services that safeguard their health and well-being, and that create opportunities for them to share information and seek assistance for individuals they are concerned may have been trafficked. Many projects that focus on rescuing trafficked persons interrupt and undermine efforts to provide sex workers with access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

The next page continues:

Forced rescue and rehabilitation practices lower sex workers’ control over where and under what conditions they sell sexual services and to whom, exposing them to greater violence and exploitation.

It goes on to say that when sex workers’ livelihoods are disrupted in this way,

this leads to social disintegration and a loss of solidarity and cohesion (social capital) among sex workers, including reducing their ability to access health care, legal and social services. Low social capital is known to increase vulnerability to sexually transmitted infections among sex workers and therefore has a detrimental impact on HIV prevention efforts.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it states on page 7 that

From the perspective of universal access to HIV services, undermining sex worker organisations is one of the most important negative effects of law enforcement practices.

Furthermore – and this is incredibly important for the migrant sex workers whom abolitionists are always fretting about:

The conflation of sex work and trafficking directly limits the ability of migrant sex workers to protect themselves from HIV, since they are often assumed to be trafficked. Migrant sex workers often live with the constant threat of being reported, arrested and deported which creates a real barrier to accessing health and welfare services.(page 19)

Of course, this is an immigration issue which would exist even if there was no question of trafficking. But the moral panic around trafficking has unquestionably created a greater impetus for raids on sex industry venues, which frequently lead to deportations of the people alleged to have been “trafficked”. (I think perhaps the report could have made this clearer.)

As with the battle against HIV, the battle against trafficking also needs sex workers’ participation if it is to have any real effect. On page 18, the report notes that

anti-trafficking efforts typically ignore the possibility of engaging sex workers as partners in identifying, preventing and resolving situations that do involve trafficked people. Sex workers themselves are often best placed to know who is being trafficked into commercial sex and by whom, and are particularly motivated to work to stop such odious practices.

To this end, it promotes the establishment of sex worker organisations, saying on page 20:

Organised groups of sex workers are also best placed to establish safe working norms within the sex industry, and influence other actors in the industry to ensure that trafficked adults and children are not retained in sex work…self-regulatory mechanisms, which are established, implemented and overseen by sex workers’ organisations can limit trafficking into the sex industry as well as the sexual exploitation of children. They also form a platform for addressing labour exploitation of sex workers.

The last major issue addressed in the report is the need for sex workers to be economically empowered. The main point here is that such programmes shouldn’t seek only to remove people from sex work, or be made conditional on their willingness/ability to leave the industry, but should aim to also improve the economic circumstances of those who remain in it:

By increasing economic options, sex workers can achieve greater financial security, which makes it easier for them to make important decisions that affect their lives…Improving economic options also helps sex workers to reduce the likelihood of having to accept clients’ requests for unprotected sex or that they will be put in situations that inhibit their ability to negotiate with clients and reduce the risk of violence or abuse. (pages 22-23)

Some interesting examples are provided of successful programmes around the world, such as one in Andhra Pradesh, India, where

Among the 803 sex workers interviewed, involvement in economic independence programmes was positively associated with control over both the type and cost of sexual services provided and with consistent condom use. (page 24)

I can predict a couple criticisms of the report. The make-up of the Advisory Group will probably discredit it in some eyes, since it includes affiliates of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (along with “independent experts from academia and civil society organisations, representatives of UNAIDS Co-Sponsors and the [UNAIDS] Secretariat”). My response to that is to ask whether it would be reasonable for a UNAIDS Advisory Group on HIV and Men Who Have Sex With Men to not include any organisations comprising or working with MSMs. Of course it would not. They would rightly be seen as experts on the subject, and any “advisory group” without them would be seen as lacking in credibility.

It may also be argued that this is merely a report of the Advisory Group and not a UNAIDS policy document as such. This is true. However, its conclusions are entirely consistent with things UNAIDS has been saying all along, even if takes them a bit further. It justifies its positions by reference to earlier UNAIDS publications, such as on page 5 where it says:

The UNAIDS Strategy 2011-2015: Getting to Zero identifies as one of its 10 goals that the number of “countries with punitive laws and practices around HIV transmission, sex work, drug use or homosexuality will be reduced by half”

and on page 9 where it states that the 2006 International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights/UNAIDS note that

states have a responsibility to ensure that criminal law is reviewed with the aim of removing criminal sanctions on sex work and ensuring that any non-criminal regulations support safe sex in sex work and ready access of sex workers to comprehensive HIV services.

The fact of the matter is that UNAIDS, and many other global health and human rights organisations, have been saying for a long time that criminalisation of sex work is a barrier to effective HIV prevention and treatment. They have focused on criminalisation of the seller because that is how criminalisation manifests itself in most of the world; the Nordic model may look pretty significant from where I’m sitting in the north west corner of Europe but globally, it’s little more than a footnote. So the fact that it hasn’t specifically been addressed by UNAIDS (or the other international health and human rights groups who oppose criminalisation generally) should in no way be taken to indicate that they approve of it. Given all that we’re learning about how it actually works in practice, in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that they would.

Of course, abolitionists won’t care what UNAIDS thinks about it anyway, since their view is that sex work would be bad and wrong even if it cured HIV. But most people are not abolitionists, and I think they would appreciate the significance of UNAIDS publishing this document. It is a valuable addition to the growing catalogue of material showing the health and human rights failures of criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, anti-trafficking policy and the fixation on ending demand.