Forced prostitution
Experts call for prostitution to be decriminalised across the globe Getty

Prostitution should be decriminalised across the globe to protect sex workers from HIV and give them equal access to healthcare, like other professionals, experts have urged.

Speaking at the 20th International Aids Conference in Melbourne, editors of The Lancet, the world's leading medical journal, called on governments worldwide to remove barriers to health services to protect sex workers, who are currently facing "stigma, discrimination and criminalisation in the societies in which they live".

The journal's research underlined these "social and legal injustices" were putting sex workers more at risk of contracting HIV as they resort to unsafe sex practices, which in turn was hampering global efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030.

"Why should we condemn and criminalise the exchange of money for sex, especially if the severely adverse conditions we create for such exchange hurt women and men and often fatally so?" wrote editor-in-chief, Richard Horton, and editor Pamela Das.

"Accepting and embracing sex work – supporting those engaged in sex work to protect their health and bodily integrity and autonomy – should be our humane, as well as our pragmatic, approach to the reality of our human lives. And to our common efforts to defeat Aids."

The Lancet editors praised the example of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal, arguing that the law has allowed police to concentrate on "reducing violence, protecting sex workers and supporting effective HIV programming".

They wrote: "Such an enlightening response reduces sex workers' vulnerability and risk to HIV, and should be followed elsewhere."

Janelle Fawkes, chief executive of the Scarlet Alliance, Australia's national advocacy group for sex workers, said criminalisation meant some workers never carried condoms in fear of the police using them as evidence to arrest them.

"On one hand, you have governments putting money into public health responses and organisations promoting safe sex by providing condoms et cetera. But on the other hand, you have police pulling people up and using condoms as evidence to arrest them,'' she told the Sydney Morning Herald.

In the UK earlier this year, MPs and peers called for change in Britain's prostitution laws, which victimise sex workers and allow powerful pimps to avoid prosecution in the abuse of underage girls.

The Royal College of Nursing has previously voted in favour of decriminalising prostitution in the UK to protect the health of vulnerable women and men who feel unable to access NHS and social services.

Maura Buchanan, the RCN deputy president, once told delegates at a previous annual congress meeting: "Stop making criminals out of prostitutes and instead target the men who abuse them."

New Zealand was the first country to decriminalise prostitution in 2003. New South Wales in Australia has also changed its jurisdiction to make sex work fully legal so neither workers or clients can be prosecuted.