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Protesters rally against sex-work discussion

Illinois Attorney General LisMadigan joins group protesters rally against Amnesty International's stance decriminalizing prostitutiFriday April 4 2014. | Chandler West/For

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan joins a group of protesters to rally against Amnesty International's stance on decriminalizing prostitution, on Friday, April 4, 2014. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 6, 2014 6:19AM



On one side, such heavy hitters as Attorney General Lisa Madigan stood with former prostitutes and others protesting an Amnesty International USA discussion on decriminalizing sex work.

On the other side, a handful of current prostitutes, sex workers as they call themselves, stood in demonstration of support for the possible policy shift by the human rights group.

Amnesty’s debate over the issue at its annual Human Rights Conference on Friday night drew both groups to the downtown JW Marriott.

“It is an ironic situation when we find ourselves protesting an organization that for many years has been at the global forefront of the human rights movement,” Madigan, whose office works to combat child pornography and sexual trafficking, said to cheers.

“You can change the language, but you cannot change the facts. There are not children who grow up thinking that one day they want to be a prostitute, because there is no dignity in that work. There is exploitation. There is violence. There is poverty. We will stand against it.”

Amnesty says its organization’s internal debate over decriminalization centers on sex workers involved in consensual sex, not sex trafficking and child sex abuse. Amnesty groups in 60 countries held similar discussions at annual meetings this month and last, with a consensus policy to come out of the discussions later this fall, Amnesty officials said.

“We have always been very clear that children involved in the sex trade is a human rights violation and that any form of forced labor, including sex work, is clearly a human rights violation. This does not change,” Donald Bierer, chairman of Amnesty USA’s Priority Subcommittee said Friday night.

“We think it’s great that people are having that conversation publicly in Chicago. This is what democracy looks like. What we’re hearing from both of these groups will inform whatever Amnesty ultimately does and says about the human rights of those who are engaged in sex work,” he said.

Joining Madigan at the protest was Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer and representatives of such various advocacy groups as the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation and the St. Paul, Minn.-based Breaking Free, which brought former prostitute, Jennifer Gaines, to speak.

“At 14 years old, I got mad at my mom and ran away from home. Within 48 hours, I was recruited by a trafficker,” said Gaines, 45, of St. Paul. “He groomed me, told me he loved me, then took me to New York and tricked me into prostitution. He spent the next few years brainwashing me and I believed that I was born to be a prostitute, that it was all that I was good for.” She was eventually helped to leave prostitution after 28 years, the woman said.

“At the end of the day, I had a lot of self-hatred. It does something to your mind when you’re with so many men over and over. No amount of money is enough to pretend that you enjoy that.”

In metropolitan Chicago, 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls annually are involved in the illegal sex trade, according to the University of Illinois; a third of those snared by age 15, and 62 percent by age 18. Madigan and other Illinois politicians, including Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart have fought vigorously against the burgeoning issue.

mihejirika@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Maudlynei



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