Sex Work and Institutional Violence



When being pushed underground goes hand in hand withthe abuse of authority and rights violations.

Research conducted in 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries

Previous research on labour conditions and also on the expressions of institutional violence, have shown that national social, historical and legal contexts have a direct influence on the modes in and conditions under which sex work is practiced (RedTraSex, 2013, 2015, 2016a and 2016b). In spite of small differences, all Latin American and Caribbean countries have legal norms criminalizing actions related to sex work. This creates an enabling framework for institutional violence in general and particularly for that perpetrated by security forces, along with precarious labour conditions, work exploitation and difficulties in accessing basic health services. Sex work is then ‘trapped underground’ which results in increasing stigma and vulnerability for women sex workers (WSWs).

The vulnerability resulting from the unregulated exercise of this occupation places WSWs in a marginalized position. Even though most countries do not directly criminalize it, sex work is practiced underground in most of the region. Overall, laws share a criminalizing and punitive vision that far from protecting WSWs’ rights, create favourable conditions for rights violations to occur. In short, even if sex work is not considered a crime in current laws across the region, the vagueness and ambiguity of some dispositions in national and local laws result in arbitrary interpretations and their enforcement, with consequent human rights violations against WSWs.

It is important to take into account that systematic, comparable qualitative or quantitative information on the violence experienced by WSWs at the hands of police officers and security forces in general is not produced in any Latin American or Caribbean country. It is a challenge to put together the complex fabric of omissions and fragmented records that currently contribute to hiding and rendering invisible the repeated violations against WSWs rights. So, it is key to identify the types, commonalities and specificities in the violence practiced by security forces against WSWs and to pay particular attention to how laws and value judgements are put into action.

RedTraSex had conducted a qualitative study, the findings of which were published in 2016 (RedTraSex, 2016b), to analyse the situations of vulnerability that WSWs faced due to the legal framework and regulations of sex work that legitimises institutional violence on the part of security forces and judicial system officers. That study contains stories that describe how WSWs’ rights are being violated. In order to complement that qualitative study, fill an information gap and contribute to achieving the Zero Discrimination goal we decided to undertake a quantitative study of violence against WSWs perpetrated by security forces.

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