Campaign Spotlight: APNSW

Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers

The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) was formed in 1994 to facilitate participation and leadership of sex workers in policies and decisions that affect them. It was started by organisations working on health and human rights in Asia such as Empower Foundation, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Pink Triangle Foundation, Scarlet Alliance Australia and Sweetly Japan. APNSW has been a major space to advocate for the rights of sex workers and generate debate and dialogue. 

The aims of the network are towards sharing information among organisations which provide services to people who work in the sex industry, raise awareness on health and welfare needs of sex workers, advocate at regional and global levels for policies and action to further the human rights of sex workers including the right to health and a safe working environment free from abuse, violence and discrimination. They also attempt to make the voices of sex workers heard in the global arena. The coalition helps to network and maintain relationships with service providers, sex work organisations and relevant international institutions and agencies and sex workers. 

One of the main issues that the network raises is that of stigma and discrimination that sex workers face in all walks of life. They contend ‘sex work as work’. Although they have had to deal with a considerable amount of backlash when they are misrepresented as a network which excuses or maybe even promotes abuse, this kind of misrepresentation has reduced over the years. They aim to represent issues of sex workers rights in international and regional forums and conferences such as the World Social Forum, the International Network of Sex Work Projects, Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV (APN+), the International Lesbian and Gay Association and the Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health.

Through advocacy and campaigns they aim to challenge the assumptions of sex workers as only women and attempt to represent issues of men and transgender people in sex work as well. The network endeavors to encourage leadership among male, female and transgender sex workers. Recently, APNSW has formed a network of transgender activists that will monitor and activate on transgender health and human rights issues and one of the main contentions they are working on is the right to self determination of transgender people and not be labeled as men within the ‘MSM’ framework. 

The conflation of trafficking with sex work has also been a grey area with the automatic assumption that all sex workers have entered the profession through trafficking. Through their work APNSW questions, challenges and creates awareness on how the collusion between sex work and trafficking is detrimental to the rights of sex workers. Recently, member organizations of APNSW have actively started forming self regulatory boards to look at issues of trafficking within sex work. A large majority of sex workers are vulnerable to HIV and yet the thrust of many State programs on HIV concentrates on treating sex workers as vectors to the infection ratherthan making treatment and health services accessible and affordable to sex workers. APNSW is now working as part of the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) Expert Working Group to develop a new model policy to show what sex workers really need in HIV prevention, treatment and policy reform. 

UNFPA and UNAIDS have been developing a new policy or ‘guidance note’ on sex work for the last year also known as ‘the three pillars’. Although sex worker networks have given their views on what good HIV policy for sex workers should include in a number of consultations, this has not been included in the policy. The guidance note is led by notions of either getting women out of sex work or preventing women from joining sex work or men from being clients of sex workers. APNSW organised sex worker networks to respond to this by working with other NGOs to oppose the new policy at the UNAIDS Programme Coordination Board meeting in Geneva in May 2007.

The NSWP has opposed the guidance note on three counts which are: that the note does not address adequately the human rights of the sex workers, the guidance recommends an inadequate and unbalanced response to HIV care and prevention and thirdly, the overall tone of the document implies that a majority of sex work is an abuse and therefore worthy of abolition. This they have found is contrary to the dignity of sex work and sex workers. The coalition of sex workers has therefore demanded that this note not be published at all and even if it were to be published, the dissent of the sex workers must be clearly noted.

APNSW aims to create awareness among people about sex work as a means of livelihood and therefore demands decriminalisation. It stresses upon the discriminatory laws in many countries in Asia and the Pacific and how that is restrictive to the health and well-being of many sex workers. Decriminalisation of sex work has been suggested as one of the best ways to ensure safety and promote the rights of sex workers. Among the other things they demand for are that the rights of sex workers are respected and there should be access to easily affordable health services for sex workers with a focus on choice and confidentiality. APNSW has also been vocal against unethical drug trials with sex worker subjects.

The APNSW is governed by a core group and an advisory board that is elected every two years. Khartini Slamah based in Malaysia is the co-ordinator of APNSW. She moderates a listserve, provides input to relevant policy forums, coordinates participation in events and mentors emerging projects and leaders. She also chairs the International Network of Sex Work Projects.

The network strives to bring issues of discrimination and oppression on sex workers out in the open. It protests against and compels people to rethink State programmes such as the 100% condom use campaigns which do not take into consideration the reality of the lives of sex workers. More information about APNSW is available at