Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association (ABIA), Global AIDS Policy Watch (GAPW) and Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW) strongly support the All in for #Decrim campaign as part of the global activism surrounding the International Day Against Violence Against Sex Workers on December 17th. In 2013, we published a report with Davida (sex worker rights organization founded by Gabriela Leite in 1992) about sex work, human rights and public policy in Brazil.
At that time, we interviewed dozens of government officials and found that there was a profound silence surrounding the topic of prostitution at the federal government level and a lack of public policies that promoted sex worker rights. Today, in 2016, it is hard to believe that we have found ourselves in a worse scenario. Several of the government offices included in our study – such as the Secretariat for Women’s Policy (SPM) and the Secretariat for Human Rights – no longer even exist in the same capacity, having been reduced to pastas (“folders”) in Brazil’s recently installed government. Rather than silence surrounding sex worker rights – there are outright threats to taking away rights. Here, we share some reflections about the national and international landscape, our concerns and possible paths of resistance.
The year 2016 was particularly devastating. Amidst successive coups and conservative backlashes around the world, Brazil and the United States have formed part of a storyline that likely will only get worse. The ouster of Dilma Rousseff from the presidency in Brazil – a process that started in May and ended in August – was the result of a widespread conservative movement that was supported, among other bases, by dogmatic religious discourses.
After installing a cabinet of all white men, many involved in deep corruption scandals, the new government immediately removed human rights actions and plans, and sexual and reproductive rights were particularly hard hit. SPW analyzed what we called a “conservative restoration”, brought about by the strong winds of morality mixed with neoliberalism that have continued to attack innumerous social rights (like health, education and culture), most recently culminating in the passage of a constitutional amendment that freezes public spending on health and education for 20 years, declared by the United Nations Rapporteur of human rights as “condemning a generation” and as an “affront to human rights.”
ABIA, through the Global AIDS Policy Watch, recently published a report on the drastic and worrisome setbacks in Brazil’s once celebrated HIV/AIDS Program, exemplified by the Evangelical lobby’s successfully pressuring Dilma’s government to censor a 2012 HIV prevention campaign for young gay men and then again a campaign for sex worker rights in 2013 – both promoted by the Ministry of Health.
The same Evangelical lobby recently set up a commission to confront and question a Supreme Court decision to revoke a prison sentence for people accused of providing illegal abortions declaring the criminalization of the practice unconstitutional. The decision to set up the commission questioning the Court’s decision was lead by Federal Deputy João Campos (PRB-GO), the leader of the Evangelical lobby and also author of the law proposed to criminalize sex workers’ clients.
João Campos’s law is one of two bills before Congress that threaten sex workers’ rights. The other bill is authored by Federal Deputy Flavinho (PSB-SP) and seeks to take out “sex work” from the Ministry of Labor and Employment’s Code of Brazilian Occupations (CBO) – a right earned by the Brazilian sex worker movement in 2002. Both João Campos and Flavinho’s bills go against the recommendations of a series of reports and studies from sex worker activists, international agencies and research institutions such as the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects and the Lancet – all of which refute the criminalization of sex work. On the contrary, all of these studies and reports recommend the decriminalization of sex work as the best way to promote and protect sex worker’s rights, including to prevention HIV. As Shannon and her colleagues argue in their article in The Lancet: “The decriminalization of sex work would have the largest effect on the course of the HIV epidemic…avoiding 33-46% of new HIV infections in the next decade.”
The Brazilian context is far from isolated, and is connected to a wave of global shifts to the right. Donald Trump’s election in the United States is part of this phenomenon and represents a damaging attack on human rights. Up to the present time, everyone he has indicated to occupy important posts are terrifying choices from the point of view of sexual rights and social justice.
During the election, he had affirmed that he would support Supreme Court candidates that would oppose abortion and his vice-president, Mike Pence is a well-known fervent opponent of sexual and reproductive rights, having taken strong stances against abortion, HIV/AIDS prevention and LGBT rights during his time as a Congressman and governor of Indiana. In terms of sex work, the environment is also not promising. The profession is a crime in the United States and the “anti-prostitution pledge”, a contractual clause implemented during the Bush administration that requires all organizations receiving US funds for HIV prevention to have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution continues to be a major barrier to HIV prevention around the world, despite being struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional for U.S. based organizations. Although the clause has continued to be a point of debate and sex worker rights advocacy, it is likely that the anti-prostitution pledge will gain more momentum internationally under the Trump administration, particularly in the abolitionist camps of the anti-trafficking debates.
In a tumultuous world, in which discourses of hate, misogyny, dogmatism, and criminalization flourish and occupy increasing institutional and decision-making spaces, the moment is ripe for articulating diverse fronts of resistance. And alás, amidst many setbacks, there is some light – the Gabriela Leite Bill, proposed by Federal Deputy Jean Wyllys (PSOL-RJ) in 2012, precisely seeks to decriminalize many aspects of prostitution in Brazil and regulate it as a profession. Although it is currently stalled, it remains on the agenda of the sex worker movement in Brazil with hopes that it will move forward through a special commission in 2017.
The Brazilian Prostitute Network along with the Prostitution Policy Watch at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and sex worker rights organizations Davida, GEMPAC, Warrior Women Association, Transrevolução and the Casa Nem submitted a report on human rights violations of sex workers to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for Brazil’s upcoming review in the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in 2017.
The hope is that pressure from countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia that have laws more favorable to sex worker rights will force the Brazilian government to reconsider its increasingly repressive position towards sex work. Such alliances are critical, especially among all of the groups and social movements whose rights are being directly attacked all over the world. In this sense, it is critical that the women’s movement broadly support decriminalization and make sex workers rights a priority. The current campaign by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) #Arewenotwomen aims to draw attention to sex workers’ rights as women’s rights, and create alliances across movements to fight for rights at a time of profound retraction.