Dispatch from Cape Town: Day one of Lawyering on the Margins

I am feeling very fortunate right now as I write my first dispatch from the beautiful city of Cape Town, South Africa, where Doug and I are at a global meeting of lawyers who work to advance the human rights of people who use drugs, sex workers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people. Today was day one of the meeting, and I want to share a few reflections before I surrender to jetlag and collapse into bed.

Increasing police accountability

SWEAT_for_web.jpegToday was spent learning from the leaders of three incredible human rights organizations. Sisonke is a sex worker-led organization that works to unite sex workers, improve living and working conditions, and fight for equal access to rights. SWEAT is a sex worker rights organization that provides support, advocacy services and human rights advocacy for sex workers in the South Africa region. Gender Dynamix is a transgender rights organization that does incredible law and policy reform work to advance the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people. I spent the day in awe of their courage, insight, strategic approach, vision and, last but not least, their tenacity. There is so much I could say about the common struggles that these movements face in South Africa, Canada and all over the world, and how much I learned from their incredible advocacy, but I want to focus on one aspect of today’s conversation – the stories that were shared about the intense hypocrisy that surrounds the laws, policies and government actions towards sex workers and trans people.

Many activists spoke about how the government says, on the one hand, “we are here to protect/rescue you” while simultaneously criminalizing sex workers. For example, the South African government professes its commitment to HIV prevention, meanwhile the police follow mobile health units around the city and target the sex workers who are accessing HIV prevention and health care services. They described how condoms are given to outreach organizations for distribution to sex workers, and then those same condoms are seized by police and used as evidence of unlawful activity. They discussed how the law can be extremely clear regarding the basic requirements for trans people to have their identity documents changed to accurately reflect their gender identity, meanwhile government officials ignore the law and improperly turn trans people away.

These stories resonated with me because of the intense hypocrisy that plagues Canadian laws and policies regarding sex work. While sex work is a fundamentally legal activity, Canada chooses to criminalize the many safety measures that would increase sex workers' safety and well-being. Then, the federal government tries to justify these laws as “for sex workers' own good” or somehow “advancing women’s equality.” Indoor sex work is against the law, meanwhile municipalities provide licenses to sex industry businesses across the country. This hypocrisy is not only nonsensical, it is incredibly harmful to sex workers throughout the country and around the world.

TreeSA_for_web.jpegThere is so much about this global meeting that is energizing and inspiring. I am full of new ideas on how to carry on these important fights for human rights and look forward to sharing more as they days progress.

Signing off for now!

- Katrina