Amnesty International has called for the formal decriminalisation of adult sex work after research showed criminalisation interferes with prostitutes' human rights.
The human rights organisation released the results of a study of sex workers in Argentina, Hong Kong, Norway and Papua New Guinea, showing that sex workers received little or no protection from police.
The announcement comes nine months after delegates voted to pass a resolution calling for decriminalisation at their International Council Meeting (ICM) in Dublin.
The vote prompted outrage from some feminist campaigners at the time who said it “violated the basic human rights and dignities of prostituted individuals”.
Confirming the policy decision, the charity’s senior director for law and policy Tawanda Mutasah said sex workers were "at heightened risk of a whole host of human rights abuses including rape, violence, extortion and discrimination".
"Far too often they receive no, or very little, protection from the law or means for redress," she said - while calling for laws to be "refocused" on making sex workers' lives safer, and improving the relationship they have with police.
“We want governments to make sure no one is coerced to sell sex, or is unable to leave sex work if they choose to," she added.
Amnesty has stressed the decision does not mean it recognises that buying sex or benefiting from the sale of sex by another person - known as "pimping" - are human rights.
But it believes those selling sex need to be better protected from violence and discrimination - and said the criminalisation of adult consensual sex work "interferes with the realisation of the human rights of sex workers".
The organisation found that sex workers face fear and persectution even in countries which practiced the Nordic model favoured by some campaigners, where buying sex is illegal but selling it is not.
Researchers also found Oslo sex workers had a smaller pool of clients to draw on since buying sex became illegal in 2009, giving them less negotiating power and forcing them to turn to “bad” clients - who can be violent or refuse to pay.
One Norwegian sex worker told researchers: “If a customer is bad you need to manage it yourself to the end. You only call the police if you think you are going to die. If you call the police, you lose everything."
The report also found that while statistical data is scarce, the majority of people who engage in sex work appear to be living "on the margins of society" and are "most at risk of discrimination and oppression”.
It found some women sell sex because they have limited opportunities to work elsewhere - and criminalising these people “only perpetuates their marginalisation”.
Another woman interviewed by Amnesty, a street-walker in Buenos Aires named “Laura”, said she had been grabbed by the neck by a client in the street and held at knife-point until she gave him money and her mobile phone.
But she said she did not report it to the police because it would be a “waste of time”. “They won’t listen to me because I’m a street worker," she added.
Selling sex in Buenos Aires is not explicitly illegal but it is illegal for street walkers to make “ostentatious” offers of sex in public places to prevent “public nuisance”. Anti-trafficking laws in the country do not distinguish between those trafficked into the industry and those who enter willingly.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), an organisation which campaigns on behalf of sex workers, hailed the announcement and said it was the first time an international organisation of such status had recognised sex workers "not as victims or happy hookers, but as workers with rights that are being violated".
ECP spokeswoman Cari Mitchell said: “We are your mothers, daughters and friends and we are sick of living under the prostitution laws which mean we suffer arrest, imprisonment, exploitation, extortion, and discrimination.
“We appreciate Amnesty’s commitment to oppose human rights abuses and call on governments to follow their lead.”
The ECP also said the often repeated statistic that 80 per cent of sex workers enter the industry through trafficking is not true - and cited research by Dr Nick Mai at London Metropolitan University in 2011 which said the figure was closer to six per cent.
Fiona MacTaggart MP, who is the secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade, told the Independent she thought it was the policy advocating decriminalisation was "a fantasy" and "inevitably creates more exploitation in human rights clothes".
She said: "The problem is that governments are unable to protect women exploited through prostitution except in those countries like Sweden where they decriminalise the women and criminalise the sex buyer.
"Selling your body is not a profession that any one aspires to, it is not a free choice, but most usually a consequence of exploitation (most prostituted women start while they are still children) poverty, addiction etc.
"I was a supporter of Amnesty, but this decision made me give that up, there is no human right to be a prostitute, but there is a human right not to be exploited.
"There is equally no right to purchase another person’s body for your own sexual pleasure, and it’s time we regarded that as the exploitation and violence which in real life it is.
"The buyer has choice, the bought do not, and that is why the Swedish model is much more effective at preventing human trafficking and violence towards women than any other".
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