A controversial decision by human rights organisation Amnesty International to vote in favour of decriminalising sex work has attracted criticism from across Egyptian society.
As well as endorsing decriminalisation, the vote calls for states to “ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.”
Egypt’s National Council For Women, which considers itself “experts in women’s affairs and social work,” has declared the decision to be an affront to “public morality and human dignity.”
The head of the National Council for Women, Mervat el-Tallawi said in a statement that “the vote violates women’s rights and turns women into a sex commodity.”
The decision was also condemned by the foremost Islamic authority in Egypt al-Azhar, who described the decision as a “frantic satanic attempt to demolish morals and values,” calling prostitution a practice that is “inconsistent with human nature, and that it enslaves human beings and trades their bodies.”
According to Amnesty International, the group’s support for the “full decriminalisation of all aspects of consensual sex work,” is the best way to defend the rights of sex workers, and to protect them from often harsh treatment by governments who criminalise the sex trade. The group has been adamant to clarify that support of the decriminalisation of sex work is not tantamount to supporting or softening their stance on pimps and human traffickers.
The group has also argued that its research implied that decriminalising the trade was the most effective way of safeguarding labour and human rights of sex workers.
“We recognise that this critical human rights issue is hugely complex and that is why we have addressed this issue from the perspective of international human rights standards,” commented Salil Shetty, the general secretary of Amnesty International.
Acknowledging the divisiveness of the issue, he added: “We also consulted with our global movement to take on board different views from around the world.”
Whilst many sex workers have welcomed the move, some self-defined feminists have criticised the decision. A number of Hollywood actresses, known for their interest in women’s rights such as Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, signed a petition earlier this month urging Amnesty to vote against the proposal to endorse decriminalisation.
The petition argued that endorsement would “in effect advocate the legalisation of pimping, brothel owning and sex buying – the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry.”
However, many other feminists such as Gloria Steinem believe that criminalising sex work is against the interest of women, and does not help to solve the core issue. “The millions who are prostituted experience trauma and shortened lives,” says Steinem. “Legalisation keeps pimps, brothel keepers and sex slavers in freedom and riches. Criminalisation puts the prostituted in prison.”
Feminists such as Steinem advocate what is known as the “third way,” which fines buyers of sex, but protects sex workers and offers them services and alternatives to sex work.