Catherine Healy and Anna Reed are together the PHA’s 2016 Public Health Champion, in recognition of their decades of work in advocacy for the rights of sex workers, sexual health and HIV prevention.
Each has been nominated from a different PHA branch, but they have worked so closely together – although each with a very different style – for such a long time, it seemed to be a good idea to acknowledge their work together.
Anna and Catherine receive their PHA Champion Awards
Catherine is the national coordinator and a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC). The NZPC is an influential boutique NGO set up by sex workers in 1987 to promote better working conditions for themselves and their peers. Since 1988 it has had a contract to promote sexual health as part of the Ministry-funded response to HIV/AIDS. Catherine has led and built NZPC from an informal peer group to a credible public health service provider, providing confidential sexual health and testing services and health promotion for sex workers and their clients.
Anna has been the co-ordinator of the Christchurch branch of NZPC since soon after the collective was set up. In this way, their leadership has been pivotal in preventing the spread of HIV, advocating for healthy public policy and re-orientating the health services.
Catherine and Anna were central figures in the long campaign for decriminalisation of sex work that was won with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 on a conscience vote and a majority of one. The legislation included a requirement for a review after five years, to determine whether the fears of its opponents that the streets would be swarming with prostitutes, and a committee was established to conduct the review. In 2007 the review, conducted by Otago University’s Gillian Abel, Lisa Fitzgerald and Cheryl Brunton, concluded as Catherine and the NZPC had predicted, that violence against sex workers had been reduced, conditions of employment in brothels improved, trafficking was minimal and STIs reduced, and there has been no HIV diagnoses attributable to sex workers.
Gillian Abel, Lisa Fitzgerald and Catherine Healy subsequently co-edited the book Taking the Crime Out of Sex Work: New Zealand Sex Workers' Fight for Decriminalisation. The book argues that decriminalisation has resulted in better working condition for prostitutes as well as a successful response to the HIV/AIDS and STI epidemics. Because New Zealand was the first country in the world to decriminalise all sectors of sex work, the NZ Prostitution Reform Act has become central to debates, not only in NZ, but also around the world about the legal status of sex workers, gender politics, public health and sexual morality.
The NZPC model that Catherine and Anna worked to develop is held in high regard by sex workers globally and by a range of governments and health agencies. Catherine continues to act as a consultant for the World Health Organization in relation to HIV prevention throughout East Asia. This year she has recently returned from a return visit to Vietnam, following an initial consultancy in 1995, and a delegation of Vietnamese officials to NZ in January.
Both receive frequent invitations to share their experiences, including the recent series on Radio New Zealand’s Insight programme: The Oldest Profession. A normal job? The programme does its best to take a neutral stance, but it’s very hard not to be persuaded that the NZPC and the NZ Prostitution Reform Act are outstanding achievements in promoting and protecting the health of New Zealanders. As Anna noted at the end of her interview: “in other times we were regarded highly as wise women”.
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