Sex workers in Europe Celebrate Victory at the European Court of Human Rights

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NSWP welcomes the European Court of Human Rights decision to hear an appeal by sex workers against a French anti-sex work law. The ruling came on Thursday 31st August, more than three years after receiving an application from 261 sex workers challenging the 2016 ‘Prostitution Act’. NSWP join the European Sex Workers' Rights Alliance (ESWA) in applauding the 261 sex workers who stood up to pursue their fundamental rights.

ESWA released a joint statement on the victory with Médecins du Monde. 

“An exciting decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) today: more than three years after receiving an application from 261 sex workers (SWs) challenging the 2016 Prostitution Act, the Court has once again ruled that the application is admissible and emphasised the harmful consequences of the Act for SWs. This is a landmark victory that validates the litigation strategy of the sex workers and our associations.

Since the 2016 law, the balance of power has shifted between sex workers and their clients. Largely underprivileged, they are now much more exposed to the risks of HIV/AIDS and other STIs, as well as to sexist and sexual violence. Noting the extreme deterioration in the living and working conditions of sex workers, our associations supported their application to the ECtHR.

In December 2019, 261 sex workers - including a majority of migrants and/or gender minorities - took their case to the European Court. Their objective was to challenge the compliance of the criminalisation of clients with their fundamental rights: the freedom to pursue a professional activity, the right to personal autonomy and sexual freedom, and the rights to physical integrity and life.

In April 2021, the ECtHR ruled that the application was admissible, a very rare occurrence since only a tiny proportion of cases are admissible (around 5%). But in the proceedings, the French government once again raised the issue of admissibility, denying that the applicants were victims and that domestic remedies had been exhausted.

While today's welcome decision by the ECtHR does not prejudge the merits of the case, it is nonetheless a landmark victory for sex workers and the associations that support them. In its decision, the Court acknowledges that the mere existence of the law has a negative impact on sex workers: "the applicants have produced evidence broadly indicating that the clandestinity and isolation induced by this criminalisation increase the risks to which they are exposed". The ECtHR also considered that the applications were "not manifestly ill-founded", and therefore recognised the necessity of the debate.”

Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, also released a statement celebrating the decision. An exerpt of the statement can be read below or read in full on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' website.

“Sex work is real work… My hope is that the future ruling on this law by the European Court of Human Rights will be based on international human rights and standards… The criminalisation of sex workers and the criminalisation of their clients has a negative impact on sex workers’ health and their access to services to the detriment of their enjoyment of physical and mental health, including sexual and reproductive health.” Furthermore, she notes that “Sex work should not be conflated with trafficking in persons for the purpose of sexual exploitation… Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex.”.