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8th June 2016, 10:18:26 UTC

By Kate Schuetze, Policy Advisor, Amnesty International

In 2012, in a public park in Papua New Guinea’s capital city Port Moresby, a mother in her late 30s was gang raped by six assailants, armed with guns. The woman – Mona – has never reported the alleged crime, and her attackers may never face justice. “It was so painful to me, but then I let it go. If I go to the law, they cannot help me,” she says.

It was so painful to me, but then I let it go. If I go to the law, they cannot help me

Mona’s lack of faith in the Papua New Guinea legal system is due to the fact that she is a sex worker – and because those alleged to have carried out the brutal attack were police officers.

An isolated case? Far from it. As Amnesty International details in a new report published today, sex workers are amongst some of the most marginalized and vulnerable citizens in this Pacific island nation experiencing high levels of sexual and gender-based violence, and gender inequality.

Sex workers that we spoke to, and sex worker organizations, told us that women, transgender people and men often enter sex work as a means of survival or to support their families. Once they do, they are likely to face extraordinarily high levels of violence, stigma and discrimination – including from their own families, the police, clients and others. In some cases they are raped and even killed.

Our research highlights that a key factor fueling this situation is the criminalization of sex work. Laws that make it illegal to live off the earnings of sex work and to organize commercial sex mean that police, amongst others, can abuse sex workers with impunity.

Laws criminalizing sex work are rarely enforced through prosecutions before a court of law. However, according to sex workers and sex worker advocates that we spoke with, police officers use these criminal laws to abuse their authority by arbitrarily detaining people or using the threat of prosecution to extort money and sexual services from sex workers.

The police also use the criminalization of sex workers to justify subjecting them to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in some cases amounting to torture. This includes rape and sexual abuse while in custody. We heard reports of sex workers being forced to chew and swallow condoms.

One sex worker, Elizabeth, told us that police officers tried to force her and a client to have sex while the officers watched. When she refused, she was kicked hard in the back, leaving her needing medical care. Another sex worker, Tuki, said six policemen raped a woman who had been taken to a police station with her. Yet another, Sakuri, described how a police officer beat her and others with a stick, with some sexually abused in detention.

But although human rights violations by police against sex workers are common in Papua New Guinea, police officers are rarely dismissed or prosecuted for criminal acts.

The law turns a blind eye to these police abuses – but at the same time fails to ensure justice or protection for sex workers. The illegal nature of sex work makes it difficult for sex workers to report crimes committed against them and to seek equal protection under the law. One woman said that she reported abuse by a client to the police, only to be told that they did not want to “waste time” on her.

Such failures in justice, combined with a toxic mix of widespread stigma and discrimination against sex workers, is creating an environment in which others in society feel able to commit crimes against them with impunity. We received several consistent reports of two sex workers who had recently been killed by clients. One was murdered outside Mt Hagen police station in 2013. Another was raped and killed in Port Moresby in January 2015, just days before Amnesty International visited the city.

Ongoing criminalization of sex work also impacts on an individual’s health rights. Sex workers are widely stigmatized – including by the media – as allegedly being “spreaders” of HIV. This discourages sex workers from seeking sexual and reproductive health services and information, and leaves some too afraid to go to HIV clinics. A bad situation is made worse by the police using condoms as evidence against sex workers – leaving many reluctant to carry and use condoms.

These abuses demonstrate why recognizing and promoting sex workers’ human rights is a basic building block of sound HIV prevention.

Alongside our new research, Amnesty International is also today publishing a global policy focused on protecting sex workers around the world from human rights violations.

Internationally, we want laws that make sex workers’ lives safer. This includes tighter criminal laws to tackle violence, human trafficking, and gender inequality as well as to prevent the involvement of children in commercial sex.

Our policy includes a range of calls on governments to ensure better protection of sex workers from violence and injustice. Much more can be done, and – as the appalling situation in Papua New Guinea powerfully illustrates – decriminalization of consensual adult sex work is one crucial step.

While such decriminalization alone will not end all human rights abuses against sex workers, it can make a strong contribution to reducing the vulnerability and prejudice they face. It will help remove current legal and moral justifications of abuses and grant sex workers equal recognition under the law.

Violence against women is never acceptable, and it is never inevitable. This applies equally to sex workers in Papua New Guinea, who are mostly women. Instead of condemning those who sell sex, the country’s authorities must protect them from violence and address the underlying factors that lead people to take up sex work –including gender inequality, poverty and lack of employment. A fundamental shift in government policy towards protecting sex workers’ human rights is urgently needed.