Sex Work

Sex work

A study was undertaken for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled “Piloting sex worker led methodology for assessing legal environments affecting sex workers in Ethiopia, Fiji, Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodia”. The final report of that pilot study was presented to UNDP in December 2011. The report identified the laws, policies and enforcement practices that affect female sex workers in resource poor settings and examined their impact on the human rights of sex workers in three sites in each study country. The project had an expanded focus on sex workers’ lives beyond the usual focus on their role in the context of their work, as criminals, or as epidemiological subjects (vectors for transmission of infection). It considered the effects of law, policy and enforcement practices on sex workers’ capacity to access the facilities and create the conditions that enable the conduct of orderly, productive lives, and the ability to attain levels of personal social and economic development beyond mere subsistence.

It found that in all five countries there are significant gaps between the express purpose of laws that regulate or prohibit sex work and the outcomes they achieve in practice. Respondents described a constellation of consequences resulting from the lack of documentation such as national identity cards, voter registration, birth and marriage certificates, tax file numbers, passports and visas. Importantly, these preliminary findings indicate that sex workers’ use a variety of strategies to circumvent what is described here as a lack of legal status to obtain goods and services further limits their options and may expose them to exploitation or abuse.

It is possible that female sex workers in resource poor settings are less likely than others to be “recognised as persons before the law” and more likely to have other characteristics, such as being a migrant, drug user, homosexual, HIV positive or transgender, that leave them open to exploitation and abuse, and unable to engage in a range of transactions ordinarily thought necessary to maintain life. We posit that lack of recognition of sex workers as persons before the law in low resource settings may be a key driver of sex workers’ social and economic marginalisation and limit the potential efficacy of health and welfare programmes.

These matters have not been captured adequately in literature on sex work and consequently have not been addressed in guidance to policy makers and programme planners. There is little rigorous data on how these factors might affect sex workers or exacerbate the already difficult conditions in which sex workers live. We have submitted an application to the Australian Research Council (ARC) to undertake such research. What will be learnt will be of immediate use in the development of more effective policy development and programming, and to creating what UNAIDS describes as “enabling environments”. An enabling environment for sex workers is one in which: stigma and violence are reduced; sexual abuse and exploitation are absent; and sex workers’ welfare and liberty rights are respected.

Funded by UNAIDS, International Labour Organization  (ILO) and the Open Society Foundation (funded by George Soros) we are also assisting in the establishment (now established?), in Cambodia, of one of the world’s first legal services for female, male and transgender sex workers and individuals in the entertainment industry at risk of violence, discrimination, and abuse of human rights. We provide technical support in Phnom Penh, assisting staff to set up the technical components of the service, including administrative and record keeping systems; staff procedures and workplace arrangements for staff. We will monitor and evaluate the service to measure its impact and effectiveness.

Publications –

Cheryl Overs. Global Commission on HIV and the Law Recommends End to Laws Against Sex Workers. RH Reality Check. 11 Jul 2012. Available at:

Cheryl Overs. HIV drugs for prevention: a game changer for sex workers? The Conversation. 18 May 2012. Available at:

Cheryl Overs. Prosecutions of HIV-Positive Sex Workers: Bad Human Rights and Bad Public Health. RH Reality Check. 7 May 2012. Available at:

Institute of Development Studies (IDS) interview with Cheryl Overs, 'The impact of the law on sex workers in Ethiopia'. IDS UK. 2012 Available at:

Cheryl Overs and Bebe Loff (editors). Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers (Consultancy). 2012.

Cheryl Overs, Kate Hawkins. Can rights stop the wrongs? Exploring the connections between framings of sex workers’ rights and sexual and reproductive health. BMC International Health and Human Rights 2011; 11(Suppl 3):S6.

Cheryl Overs. Treatment as prevention: how might the game change for sex workers? Paulo Longo Research Initiative, 2011. Available at:

Cheryl Overs, Kate Hawkins, Wah Wah Myint, Kay Thi Win,Wei Wei Shein. Sex work in Myanmar: the impact of law, policy and enforcement practices. Paulo Longo Research Initiative. Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University, 2011.

Cheryl Overs, Jope Gavidi, Sheena Manikiwai, Andrew Hunter, Kate Hawkins and Michael Williams. Sex work in Fiji: Mapping the impact of law, policy and enforcement practices. Paulo Longo Research Initiative. Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University, 2011.

Cheryl Overs, Fatimah Abdullah, Kate Hawkins, Nicholas Moody, Khartini Slamah and the Kuala Lumpur Legal Aid Centre. Sex work in Malaysia: Mapping the impact of law, policy and enforcement practices, Paulo Longo Research Initiative. Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University, 2011.

Cheryl Overs, Beza Alemayehu, Kate Hawkins, Nicholas Moody. Sex work in Ethiopia: Mapping the impact of law, policy and enforcement practices. Paulo Longo Research Initiative. Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Monash University. 2011.

Cheryl Overs. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Constructions of Masculinity and Contemporary Understandings of Sex Work in: Politicising Masculinities Edited by Andrea Cornwall, Jerker Edström and Alan Greig. Zed Books, 2011.

Cheryl Overs and Andrew Hunter. Making sex work safe (revised edition). Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). 2010. Available at:

Bebe Loff. Pattaya Draft Declaration on Sex Work in Asia and the Pacific Declaration agreed by sex workers representing regional, national and local networks of sex workers present at Pattaya, Thailand 12-16 October, 2010. Available at:

Bebe Loff. "Prostitutes of God": Film Mocks, Belittles Sex Workers. RH Reality Check. 29 Sep 2010. Available at:

Cheryl Overs. Caught between the tiger and the crocodile: the campaign to suppress human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Cambodia. (Draft Monograph – in preparation for publication, 2012). Phnom Penh, Mar 2009. Available at:

Meena Seshu, Nandinee Bandhopadhyay, Cheryl Overs. How the development industry imagines sex work. Development 2009; 52:13-17.

Bebe Loff, Cheryl Overs. UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) 2009. Annex: Enabling Legal and Policy Environments. 2011.