Sri Lanka Sex Workers and Allies call for Decriminalisation to End Violence Against Sex Workers


January 2024

Submitted by: The Grassrooted Trust / Standup Movement Lanka/ Community Encouragement Foundation / SWASA North/ Trans Equality Trust 

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This submission can be published on the UN website for public information purposes.


Country: Sri Lanka 

Why this submission:

We are Sex Workers and Allies from Sri Lanka. 

We prefer the word SEX WORK instead of PROSTITUTION because it allows us to recognize our livelihood as a form of labor. We hope that as the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls to the Human Rights Council, you would adapt and promote a respectful and inclusive language in relation of women in sex work. 

In this call for input advertisement, we notice a conflation of women and girls which is largely problematic when answering the questions. According to our domestic law those who are under 18 are considered children and we only represent adult women who are in sex work. We believe that using children for sex is exploitation and child sexual abuse[1].  We do not intend to conflate adults with minors therefore, in this submission we provide information focusing on women[2] in sex work. 

Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Tomoya Obokata in his report on Sri Lanka at the Fifty-first session of the Human Rights Council stated, ‘The Special Rapporteur is of the view that sex workers should be protected from exploitation, empowered and seen as rights holders instead of being discriminated against and stigmatized.’[3]

In this report the Special Rapporteur has used the word ‘sex work’ while understanding that sex workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation and should be protected from discrimination.  Furthermore, para 27 (g) of the Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of

Sri Lanka [CEDAW/C/LKA/8] the committee recommended the following: 

‘Repeal the Vagrants Ordinance Act and, in the interim, impose penalties on police officers who misuse the Act to harass women in prostitution and sexual minority women and ensure that victims are provided with gender sensitive protection and support, including exit programmes for women wishing to leave prostitution.’ 

In addition to the support from the international instruments, in 2020, Fort Magistrate in Sri Lanka Ranga Dissanayake passed a judgement that sex work “is not an offence per se under our law”. He cited two superior court judgements (Saibo vs Chellam and Coore vs James Appu) and pointed out that the only laws which govern sex work in Sri Lanka are the Vagrants Ordinance and the Brothel Ordinance. The Vagrants Ordinance only makes it illegal for sex workers to behave in a riotous or disorderly manner on any public street/highway, therefore, court ruled that the sex workers that were arrested had not committed a crime by engaging in sex work to earn a living. 

With the hope that you too will follow a human rights-based approach to sex work, we present our inputs in this submission. 

Question 02: Describe the profile of women and girls affected by prostitution in your country, and provide disaggregated data, where possible.

National HIV prevention programme estimates that there are 30,000 – 35,000 female sex workers in the country.[4] In 2022, national HIV prevention programme has tested 9793 sex workers for HIV. Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka report in 2022[5] indicates that sex workers come from various cultural and religious backgrounds, education levels and social economic backgrounds. 

Question 04 : What forms of violence are prostituted women and girls subjected to (physical, psychological, sexual, economic, administrative, or other)?

‘The law affords little to no protection to women sex workers. Although sex work is not an offence in Sri Lanka, it is criminalized through the (ab)use of other laws, such as the Vagrants Ordinance, which is weaponized to arrest and detain sex workers.’ – Ambika Sathkunanadan, Former commissioner of Human Rights Commission Sri Lanka[6]

Sex workers face targeted physical violence that fueled by our laws and policies which prevent them from reporting and seeking justice. The perpetrators including law enforcement know that sex workers will not report due to the fear of being revictimized. Sex workers fear that they will get arrested the vagrancy ordinance if they report violence perpetrated by their clients. During the data collection of the Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka sex workers 40% of the sex workers interviewed said that their workplace is never safe. 115 sex workers out of 286 said that their scared of getting beaten up by the police during work. 

Women in sex work face intimate partner violence but may not report to the police, they fear of being marked as a sex worker. This can lead to repeated domestic violence and due to the (perceived) criminalization of sex work perpetrators threaten to disclose their identity as an sex workers and use that against her to continue to abuse her. 

Women in sex work face psychological violence due to the social view of sex work, terms such as ‘prostituted women’ encourage social stigma to continue and exclude women in sex work from society including social welfare, education, health, and justice. Furthermore, perceiving sex workers as ‘prostituted women’ reinforce that all sex workers are victims and are exploited which takes away their agency and encourage criminalizing their livelihood to save the women from sex work. 

Question 05: Who is responsible for the perpetration of violence against women and girls in prostitution?

State is ultimately responsible for the conditions that women in sex workers face, because due to the punitive laws and criminalization women in sex work are unable to seek justice for violence they face. Criminalization hinders their right to seek justice therefore, the perpetrators continue to exploit their vulnerability to abuse sex workers. 

When asked who is responsible for the violence they face, during the data collection of the Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka 22% said clients, 11% said hotel/ lodge owners, and 10% said police. 

Clients are inherently not violent however, due to criminalization of sex work and the stigma that stems from the criminalization encourage to view sex workers as non-human sex toys where clients can do anything to their bodies without their consent. And when the consent is violated due to the punitive laws sex workers are unable to report the incident. Furthermore, when sex work in criminalized sex workers are unable to properly vet their clients as everything happens in secret. Term such as ‘prostituted women’ reinforce the misunderstanding that all sex workers are exploited, and it becomes the norm in the client – service provider relationship. When there is no conversation about consent, agency, self-determination of women sex workers and they are labeled as exploited women, even when sex workers aim to practice their consent, agency, self-determination, it is neglected.

Assessment of knowledge, attitudes and practices among police officers on HIV, key populations at risk of HIV and laws affecting service provision for key population in Sri Lanka shows that 32% (participated law enforcement officers) either agreed or strongly agreed that arresting and detaining sex workers is a solution for reducing HIV and AIDS.[7] An approach like this can only make sex work unsafe for women in sex work and hinder their ability to seek health services due to fear of being arrested. Criminalization not only increase violence that sex workers affect but also negatively impact their health and wellbeing. 

Question 8 : How is the issue of consent dealt with? Is it possible to speak about meaningful consent for prostituted women?

Sex workers exercise their agency to consent. Myths such as sex work help reduce rape and child abuse, plant the idea that sex workers do not have the agency to consent, and rapists can do anything they want to sex workers because it is their job. This is a myth because sex work is consensual sex between adults. When there is no consent it is sexual violence.

We don’t understand the term meaningful consent as we believe that consent has no hierarchy. Generalizing exploitation of sex workers creates a norm that sex workers are there to be exploited. Terms such as ‘prostituted women’ strongly label sex workers as only victims with no agency to consent. 

Consent is the line between violence and sex. To maintain clear ongoing consent, a sex worker must be able to communicate and establish boundaries with their clients. The laws that criminalize sex work hinder their ability to communicate and negotiate their boundaries. Due to the criminalization of sex work, perpetrators who violate their consent never get reported, therefore criminalization of sex work creates impunity when perpetrators violate her consent. 

Question 15: What recommendations do you have to prevent and end violence associated with the prostitution for women and girls?

Decriminalization is the only way to prevent and end violence against sex workers. 

Therefore, we recommend the following.  

  1. Repeal laws that criminalize sex work to allow sex workers to seek justice and be free from violence.
  2. Stop raids and detention of sex workers including rehabilitation. 
  3. End exclusion of sex workers from social welfare, health, and education. 

All these recommendations are in line with CEDAW and other human rights instruments and decriminalization will also allow sex workers to enter and exist sex work of their free will.  


[1] Age of consent is 16, however as per the CRC act anyone under the age of 18 are children. 

[2]Those who are about the age of 18. 

[3] A/HRC/51/26/Add.1, paragraph 51 [12 September–7 October 2022]