Leaders of several sex–worker lead organizations in Africa are attending this year’s UN session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
The leaders are part of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) delegation whose main objective is to lobby for inclusion and engagement of sex workers in high-level sessions globally and regionally.
Some of them include; Kholi Buthelezi of Sisonke, South Africa, Lala Maty of Association And Soppeku, Senegal, Tosh Beka of Sisonke, Botswana, Phelister Abdalla of Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) and Amaka Anemo of Nigeria Sex Workers Association.
The Commission is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of women’s rights, gender equality and the empowerment of women. This year, it is holding its 63rd Session, which has one of the largest delegations from civil society organisations including sex worker led groups.
According to, NSWP Global Coordinator, Ruth Morgan, the CSW and other high level UN meetings should include sex workers to realise the commitment that ‘no one should be left behind.’
She says that sex workers are frequently marginalised by fundamental feminist and abolitionist groups and excluded from women’s spaces including within the UN.
“NSWP and many of our members have increasingly sought to engage with women’s rights organisations to ensure the inclusion of sex worker’s voices and perspectives. Engaging with Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an important aspect of that ongoing work. CSW draws thousands of NGO, UN, and member state delegates, but US travel bans exclude women who are criminalised, such as sex workers and women who use drugs. However, the CSW remains a critical space to promote the respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of all women within the United Nations,” she says.
The Commission covers themes that are important to sex workers. Themes that have been covered in the past include elimination and prevention of violence, women’s empowerment in the world of work and creating an enabling environment.
This year’s theme is: Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, a theme sex workers say is equally important to them.
There have been running concerns that globally sex workers are excluded from financial systems, housing, and public services worsening social exclusion and fostering economic marginalisation.
Sex workers are discriminated against by health and social service providers, perpetuating their vulnerability to HIV. Like other workers in the informal sector, they are excluded from labor protections, work-related entitlements such as paid sick or maternity leave, and often the right to associate and organize. Criminalization, discrimination and stigma, and the failure to recognize sex work as work, not only fail to prevent or reduce sex workers’ economic insecurity and social marginalization but contribute to it,” she told NSWP members at a strategizing meeting for CSW held on March 11.
Sex workers are frequently seen as needing protection. However, activists say most programmes to ‘protect’ sex workers involve ‘raid and rescue’ and forced rehabilitation. Rather than addressing sex workers’ needs, these programmes perpetuate economic and social marginalisation.
NSWP says it welcomes the Commission’s focus on meaningful involvement, inclusivity of women facing multiple forms of intersecting discrimination, and on promoting access to pubic services and extending social protections to informal sector workers.
“Sex workers must be included in the CSW and other high level UN meetings if we are serious in the commitment to leave no-one behind,” says the statement.
This is the UN’s largest gathering on gender equality and women’s rights, and the single largest forum for UN Member States, civil society organisations and other international actors to build consensus, renew commitment and agree on better policy solutions.
In most countries in Africa, sex work is decriminalised and governments have ignored calls recognise sex work as work.