LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A former sex worker turned women’s rights activist who successfully campaigned to decriminalize prostitution in New Zealand was honored by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on Monday.
Catherine Healy, 62, who founded the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective and helped to draft a law passed in 2003 that legitimized brothels and gave employment rights to sex workers, was awarded the title of dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Countries have been divided over how to address prostitution with some such as Canada, Sweden and Norway introducing laws to punish the client without criminalising those in sex work.
Almost 30 countries including the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand have legalized or decriminalized prostitution.
Women’s rights campaigners who support decriminalization or legalization of sex work hope Healy’s honour will help tackle stigma and encourage sex workers who are victims of violence to report crimes to the police without fear of retribution.
“Stigma and criminalization create an environment of impunity in which violence and exploitation thrive,” Luca Stevenson of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“It is crucial that the needs of the most marginalized such as undocumented migrant sex workers, trans women sex workers or sex workers who use drugs are listened to and prioritized. Sex workers, even the most stigmatized, can speak for themselves.”
Yet other activists call for the abolition of prostitution and say most women are victims of human trafficking and have been lured, duped or forced into sexual slavery by pimps and traffickers, largely due to their poor socio-economic status.
The royal endorsement given to Healy is a “slap in the face to women everywhere”, said Rachel Moran, an activist who opposes decriminalization as she argues it will increase violence against women and make exploitation easier for sex traffickers.
New Zealand awards such honours twice a year - at New Year and to mark the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth in June.
Reporting by Meka Beresford @mekaberesford, Editing by Kieran Guilbert Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org