An open letter to Amnesty International from an Indigenous woman

Image: Susanne Ure/Amnesty International
Image: Susanne Ure/Amnesty International

Dear Amnesty International,

As I read the words of your 2004 titled “Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous women in Canada”, I cannot help but find myself in a contradiction. You see, I admire the commitment Amnesty International once had to fighting against oppression towards my Indigenous sisters. You fought hard for a national inquiry into the missing and murdered Aboriginal women of Canada. You brought this issue to the attention of people around the world. Though your efforts have been largely ignored by the Canadian federal government, they have not gone unnoticed by Indigenous women, such as myself, in Canada.

However, I am shocked at your recent decision to adopt a policy calling for the decriminalization of johns and pimps. I feel dismayed at your willingness to promote men’s right to buy, sell, and profit from women’s exploitation.

Prostitution in Canada largely affects Indigenous women — a reality you readily acknowledged in your report, Stolen Sisters. Poverty, addiction, homelessness, inter-generational violence, and mental illness leave women exceptionally vulnerable to pimps and johns but you knew this already, didn’t you?  Why, I ask, promote an industry that exists off the backs of the most impoverished women? Why choose to stand behind those who profit from the human rights violations that occur in prostitution?

In 2004, you acknowledged that Aboriginal women are exceedingly vulnerable to violence by men, regardless of race. In fact, you explained this violence was partially motivated by racism. It baffles me that you have failed to recognize the inherent racism present within prostitution. You know that it is our women who are over-represented in prostitution. You know it is our girls who are the most vulnerable to entering prostitution. Undoubtedly, this will continue to happen when men are permitted to purchase women with impunity.

In Stolen Sisters, you pointed out that previous physical or sexual trauma pushes young Indigenous people into prostitution. As a front-line anti-violence worker, I am well aware of the profound harm incest and childhood sexual abuse can have on women in prostitution. When the statistics tell us that 84 per cent of prostituted women in Canada have experienced incest or childhood sexual abuse, the connection between the two is crystal clear. Why are you so blind to this reality?

Prostitution is classist, racist, and sexist. You’re familiar with those concepts, right? When an institution such as prostitution disproportionately targets poor women of colour, the intersectionality between these oppressions is obvious. With your new policy, however, you’ve opted to side with the rich, mostly white, men of the world who buy and sell women.

Our missing and murdered women were once top priority for you, Amnesty. Yet it would seem that now your organization has fallen victim to the liberal masses who insist prostitution is a choice; that trafficking and prostitution are two separate forms of sex work; that pimps and johns ability to sell or purchase sexual services from women and girls is a HUMAN RIGHT.

I feel slightly foolish arguing with a organization that has spent years fighting against various human rights violations, but perhaps it is time for a little Human Rights 101:

Lesson #1: For Aboriginal women, it is our human right to live happy lives free from violence, exploitation, prostitution, and poverty.

Lesson #2: For Aboriginal women, it is our human right to live without fear that men will abuse us, rape us, steal us from our lands, and sell our bodies.

Lesson #3: For Aboriginal women, it is our human right to have unfettered access to our lands, cultures, languages, and traditions. Prostitution is not a tradition of our people.

Final Lesson: Native women deserve better than prostitution.

All my relations,

An indigenous woman

S.B is a young indigenous woman living in Vancouver. You can follow her on Tumblr.

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  • Tangelo

    Powerful and true.

  • Sarah Slamen

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Buzz kill


  • Raquel Rosario Sánchez

    “When an institution such as prostitution disproportionately targets poor women of colour, the intersectionality between these oppressions is obvious.” The myopic vision that it takes to ignore this reality among sex industry advocates is baffling indeed.

    Thank you for writing this, S.B.

  • Prostitution was decriminalised in my country 12 years ago. This from our “Prostitution Reform Act (PRA):

    The purpose of this Act is to decriminalise prostitution (while not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use) and to create a framework that –
    (a) safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation.
    (b) promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers.
    (c) is conducive to public health.
    (d) prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age.
    (e) implements certain other related reforms…

    Here I am safe and protected in a way I could never be were my profession illegal. It gives us POWER.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Prostitution doesn’t give women, as a collective, power. It may offer a temporary semblance of ‘power,’ which is solely economic, but it’s not lasting or real. Finding (faux) power in capitalism will not disrupt systems of oppression as capitalism IS a system of oppression. Likewise, finding a temporary sense of ‘power’ within a misogynist, patriarchal system like prostitution doesn’t empower women as a whole or as individuals, really.

    • Raquel Rosario Sánchez

      Hey MsMunro Nz,

      That sounds very interesting. I am very glad that you feel protected, safe and empowered. I don’t think anyone whould doubt that some women DO find empowerment and protection in the sex industry. That being said, would you mind please sharing any research or evidence that indicate that this policy was effective in attaining those results in a particular community, or nationwide or statewide or just with a broader population?

      Many policies that seek to fully decriminalize the industry, are written with the purported goal or intention of reaching those conditions but what the evidence from countries that have in fact gone that route shows is that they do not have the desired effects overall. In fact, many countries are seeing that the policies end up having the complete oppositve effect.

      Aside from that, this post was written by S.B. to broadcast her concerns as an indigenous woman and the connections she sees between oppression within patriarchy and imperialism. The anti-violence framework on this piece means that these concerns should be front and center. I would recommend reading the title of the post again… and again.

    • marv

      It is a paradox to say decriminalization is ‘not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use’. Legal permission has the intended or unintended effect of social legitimacy. If prostitution is taxed by the state, the sanctioning is more so apparent.

      Along similar lines, capitalism by its very nature exploits labour. By reforming but not outlawing the system the state condones it. In reality politics, law and ethics are not compartmentalized.

    • will

      “(d) prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age.”

      Am I the only one who finds the wording here particularly revelatory? How many other labour legislation clauses speak to “the USE” of particular persons?

      Even with the most sophisticated disguises (state and national law; academic theory; faux revolutionary rhetoric) prostitution cannot quite conceal what it actually is: the reduction of human beings (in many cases humans who have not yet reached adulthood) to objects and tools for the use of men.

      Further, the fact of what this clause specifies also reveals the trajectory of the sexual exploitation industry: to sexually use adolescents and children. If the industry was founded on contractual parameters where both parties are adults, neither of whom have psychological or economic vulnerabilities that are significant factors in the transaction (as industry shills want us to believe it is) these terms would not appear in the legal wording.

    • JingFei

      Apparently not all prostitutes in New Zealand agree with you.

      That’s what I don’t get you get a few “sex workers” who are doing ok, and they don’t open their eyes to reality, or think that perhaps it’s not working out for other women at all.
      It seems like this self-centered mentality of “Im ok, So who cares about the others” is very popular. You rarely hear from sex work survivors.

    • Marion Wallace

      “Here I am safe and protected in a way I could never be were my profession illegal.”

      Who wants to make it illegal to be a prostitute?

      And what does the rhetoric of the PRA have to do with its actual effects?

  • Misanthropia

    The statement and the idea that there must always exist a class of women to be set aside and used for sex is misogynist and directly contradicts the tenets and the principles of feminism. Sorry not sorry.