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Stand united against HIV and AIDS

A call for the decriminalisation of sex work

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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Sex workers in Jamaica are two times more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than an individual in any other profession. According to statistics produced by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition (CVCC), the sale of sex is similar to gender-based violence and is an increasing health issue. Decriminalising sex work may well decrease the prevalence of these issues in Jamaica.

What the law says

At present, the Towns and Communities Act 1997, the Sexual Offences Act 2009, and the Offences Against the Person Act 2010 form the fabric of the existing legislative framework that criminalises sex work. Specifically, Section 3(r) of the Towns and Communities Act states that you can be fined on the grounds of engaging in sexual solicitation. Section 4 of the same Act makes provisions for the police to take anyone into custody, without a warrant, who is found to be engaging in sex work in the view of the officer, or any other credible person.

Further, Section 18 (b) of the Sexual Offences Act renders it illegal to “procure or attempt to procure any other person…to become, either within or outside Jamaica, a male or female prostitute”.

And Section 23 (2) grants authorities permission to search places suspected to be brothels and arrest people suspected of sex work.

How it affects sex workers

Failure to decriminalise and regulate the sex work industry has led to the creation of a culture where sex workers constantly fear prosecution from the authorities. At the same time, their biggest threat is posed from the gatekeepers within the industry itself.

Gatekeepers, according to the World Health Organization, refer to the consumers of sex work services, the intimate partners of sex workers and the owners and operators of brothels and entertainment establishments. These gatekeepers hold the balance of the power in the sex work industry, leaving the sex worker in the precarious position of being unable to dictate the terms of their own services. They are oftentimes unable to refuse to provide sexual services to a potential client who seems violent or suspicious, and/or are unable to dictate other terms such as mandatory use of condoms and lubricants and other details that could ensure their health and safety.

According to the CVCC, there is a distinct link between the gender-based violence inflicted on sex workers and the contraction of HIV/AIDS. They report that “direct transmission of HIV can occur through sexual violence, in which forced or coercive sexual intercourse heightens the biological risk factors for transmission, in accordance with degrees of trauma, vaginal tearing, and abrasions”.

Despite being frequently violently victimised, and being at elevated levels of risk for contracting HIV/AIDS, sex workers tend not to report instances of violence encountered or get treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. They are not protected by law. As such, the cycle continues, leaving men and women stigmatised, broken, abused, infected, and untreated.

Moving forward

The clear answer to eliminating the high levels of violence associated with sex work and achieving reduced incidence of HIV/AIDS rate amongst sex workers lies in the decriminalisation and regulation of sex work. Decriminalisation will enable sex workers to create safer work environments, thereby reducing their risk factors.

Sex workers are entitled to a reasonable quality of living just like anyone else. Decriminalisation of their profession will lessen stigmatisation and their fear of authority figures, allowing them to report instances of violence against them and open the capabilities for them to receive quality health care, including HIV/AIDS testing and treatment.

In the upcoming weeks you will hear from the sex workers themselves, who will take you deeper than you have ever gone before into the illicit world of sex work. Bit by bit we will uncover the many layers of secrecy, fear and danger with the ultimate aim of standing united in the journey to creating a healthier, safer Jamaica for all its people.

Contributed by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life.

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