Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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Sex workers defend human rights in Latin America


Outreach work with sex workers in Ecuador (c) Gideon Mendel for the Alliance

Social and institutional violence against female sex workers in Latin America and the Caribbean has increased over recent decades.

Alliance partner organisation, RedTraSex, the Latin American network of sex workers, is applying for Round 10 support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria to address these human rights violations and increase organisations’ ability to protect themselves and tackle stigma and discrimination.

In almost all countries in the region, sex work is still criminalised and sex workers are arbitrarily arrested by police, and subjected to abuse and extortion.


In 2009, Guatemala passed a new Law Against Human Trafficking, which is being used to target female sex workers. Foreign women, particularly those from other Central American countries, working in private venues are being systematically arrested and deported, regardless of how long they have been in the country. Venue owners, afraid of being charged with trafficking and closed down, no longer allow them to work there. This means that women have gone back to working on the streets, where they face a heightened risk of violence at the hands of both police and gangs. Consequently, violence and murder rates are rising and it is impossible for women to complain, or demand protection and security from the authorities.

Across the region female sex workers are being murdered with impunity. These crimes are not properly investigated, either by the police or the judiciary, and perpetrators are not being punished.


In Argentina 575 sex workers were arrested between 2004 and 2007 and a number of murders have been committed without follow up.  AMMAR, the Argentinean trade union for female sex workers, has set up a national petition to campaign for the repeal of all laws which persecute sex workers. The campaign has seen some success, with laws repealed in Buenos Aires and the provinces of Entre Rios and Santa Fe. The campaign continues in the rest of the country.


RedTraSex representatives in Ecuador recently reported that during an anti-drug operation, 15 female sex workers were inspected vaginally and anally in their workplace by a police officer who used the same latex glove throughout.


Unlike most of the population, female sex workers do not have access to education, housing, social security and pensions. They are easily exploited by venue owners and often work in deplorable conditions.  

Their rights to integrated health care are also not respected. Health professionals frequently discriminate against female sex workers and see them as vectors of HIV and STIs. They perform compulsory testing and disclose the results, violating their rights to confidentiality. 


There is an urgent need for an implemented strategy to safeguard the lives of female sex workers and their physical and mental integrity. It is also apparent that female sex workers are no longer afraid to form groups and organise themselves to denounce and fight a state of affairs that prevents them from fully exercising their human rights.

It has been proved that empowerment and autonomy of female sex workers is vital for effective prevention of disease and violence. However, when sex workers do organise to change this situation, it is difficult to obtain legal registration for their organisations, or to raise funds from donors.

Sex workers’ organisations have managed to grow and gain increasing recognition but, public officials in many countries remain resistant to dialogue with sex worker organisations.


When sex workers’ organisations do achieve visibility and legitimacy, and are able to report violations of human rights, this also makes them conspicuous to perpetrators of violence. Consequently, persecution and violence against leaders of sex worker organisations is increasing.

Global Fund support would help sex worker organisations to defend their human rights, by implementing a strategy to train up organisations to investigate, monitor and document cases of human rights violations, while providing physical protection for the leaders of RedTraSex.

A coordinated response would raise awareness of the situation among bodies which monitor and protect human rights at national, region and international levels and advocate to change public policies that allow this abuse to continue. When it comes to the safety of human rights defenders, governments and civil society need to take appropriate action against those who threaten, harass and kill human rights defenders on a daily basis.

The amount of Global Fund’s third replenishment will be announced on 5 October 2010.

    across the region female sex workers are being murdered with impunity