Over the past few weeks, sex workers have poured onto the streets of Europe to create awareness about their plight. The public protests are part of an on-going three-month-long campaign (March to June) that allows a very diverse group of sex workers to share their experiences and to respond to changing trends within the sex industry, in Europe.
The campaign is in partnership with the Amsterdam-based TAMPEP, an international networking and intervention project that operates in 24 countries across Europe. According to the campaigning sex workers, the undeniable presence of migrant sex workers across Europe requires old laws to be reviewed. Their demand is that laws relating to women's migration and the female migrant sex worker - transgender sex workers included - be viewed within the framework of female labor migration.
Incidentally, according to a declaration signed by 120 sex workers and 80 allies from 30 countries, at the Brussels Conference in 2005, not a single country in Europe can claim that it does not discriminate, or violate the human rights of sex workers. The Brussels Conference focused on sex work, human rights, labor and migration and its declaration was the work of Sexwork Initiative Group Netherlands (SIGN), a group of Dutch sex workers and their allies.
Prostitutes across Europe are either tolerated or their work is regulated. In most countries, the profession is seen as little more than a criminal activity, highlight the campaigners. "Sex workers in Austria are subjected to weekly sexual health controls, making them feel as if prostitutes are 'unclean' - but other sexually active citizens of the country are not," says Faika Anna El-Nagashi, 30, a cultural mediator at Lefoe, a counseling, education and support organization for migrant workers in Vienna.
As part of the pan-Europe campaign, Vienna sees sex workers come together to onduct workshops and discussions even as street work is intensified with colorful flyers being distributed amongst citizens. The flyers inform the public that the denial of the rights of migrant sex workers, and the illegal status of many migrants forces them into exploitative and dangerous situations. The concurrent campaign in Vienna - called the 'Lust for Rights' - commenced on March 8, the International Women's Day and will conclude on June 2, which is observed as the International Whore's Day.
Apart from the discussions, films, theatre performances and workshops, experts will fan out into different parts of the country to visit both prostitutes and clients, distributing literature and talking about personal security, and health issues.
The European campaign has also brought to the fore the discriminatory legislations in various European countries. Take the case of Austria, where it is mandatory for prostitutes to register at a police station, an exercise that makes them feel like criminals; or for that matter Sweden, where the clients of a prostitute are prosecuted. In France, adult children of prostitutes can be prosecuted for living off a sex worker's earnings.
While Greece may have legalized prostitution, it does not allow registered sex workers to marry. If they do, their license is confiscated. In Italy, sex workers cannot own property. Holland, too, may have legalized prostitution, but it refrains from granting migrant sex workers a work permit - otherwise provided to other migrant professionals. Portugal allows social services and family courts to take away children of sex workers.
In Romania, it is illegal to engage in sex work. Russia has no safeguards against forced sex or against sex without payment. In Slovakia, pregnant sex workers are humiliated and Spain expects sex workers to pay exorbitant fees for confidentiality about the status of their health. In the United Kingdom, sex workers are criminalized, their freedom of movement restricted, their photographs printed on posters and distributed in the community. Finland's new legislation is a compromise between abolishing prostitution and regulating it.
Faika feels that the only way to challenge existing abuses faced by sex workers is to provide them the same rights and privileges as granted to workers in other professions. She would like to see the rights of sex workers included in the legislation for migrant labor and making the rights of a sex worker an integral part of women's rights, internationally recognized as human rights. She disagrees with feminists who look upon prostitution as violence against women and want the trade to be abolished.
Incidentally, Bosnia and Turkey are the only two European countries to have ratified the United Nations International Convention that came into force in 2003 to protect the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families.
"Sex workers are neither freaks nor victims. They know what they are doing and are able to daily negotiate the terms of their trade - like when, where, how long and for how much - with their clients," Faika feels after having worked with Lefoe for over seven years.