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Sex workers demand a voice at international forums

At the recently concluded international AIDS conference in Mexico, and other forums, organisations of sex workers have demanded a greater say in AIDS policy formation. Ranjita Biswas reports

At the 17th International Conference on AIDS in Mexico City recently, different speakers from different organisations spoke about the success of targeted interventions, among them intervention programmes among commercial sex workers . While declaring that the AIDS programme is at last showing results in the country, India’s Minister for Health and Family Welfare Dr Ambumani Ramadoss, however, emphasised that there is no scope for complacency and that "the key to overcoming the HIV epidemic is to take HIV services to those on the margins of society and we can only do that in an enabling environment". The minister also added that "structural discrimination against those who are vulnerable to HIV such as sex workers and MSM must be removed if our prevention, care and treatment programmes are to succeed".

Earlier too at the UNGASS High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York (June 10-11, 2008) participants, experts and civil society members emphasised the importance of including those on the margins of society, such as sex workers, in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The UNGASS Country Report 2008, India, also says: “In general, brothel-based female sex workers seem to be better reached than their street-based counterparts and therefore having higher outcomes reported -- awareness, testing and condom use.”

Yet, during the same meet in New York, a demonstration was held in front of the Cambodian embassy by activists to protest their government’s recent clampdown on sex workers through the newly introduced Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. Members of non-governmental organisations like the Network of Sex Work Projects, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, Prostitutes of New York, etc bonded together to show their solidarity with sex workers in Cambodia working in brothels, karaoke bars, and regular bars, which have been closed down or gone underground. In a press release, the network alleged, “Hundreds of women have been arrested and imprisoned, or have had to move. Dozens have been raped and beaten by police and prison guards. HIV prevention and care programmes have collapsed.”

The action in Cambodia is in direct conflict with the UN stand on the issue. The network activists unfurled a banner reading ‘Sex Workers support Ban Ki Moon’ during his speech at the opening plenary of the UNGASS meet, thanking the secretary general’s support of the sex workers’ effort in combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

On March 26, 2008, the Report of the Commission on AIDS in Asia was released which contained a statement by Ban Ki Moon which called for decriminalisation of sex work and counselled governments and other agencies to “avoid programmes that accentuate AIDS-related stigma and can be counter-productive. Such programmes may include ‘crack-downs’ on red light areas and arrest of sex workers.” The report further promotes the needs of marginalised populations, including drug users, for efficacious and ethical solutions.

On this issue, Meena Seshu, director, SANGRAM, and a longtime activist for sex workers’ rights in India, said in a press conference during the High Level meet: “Unfortunately governments are now changing all laws related to sex work to accommodate the US government’s anti-prostitution pledge and policy through PEPFAR legislation that conflates sex work and trafficking. This leads to discrimination, exclusion and violence against people in sex work.” She protested that “Women and girls are not mere instruments in the fight against HIV/AIDS."

On the other hand, according to the website http://www.humantrafficking.org/, Cambodia is a destination country for women and children who are trafficked from Vietnam and China for sexual exploitation. Common destinations for trafficking victims are Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanouk Ville. A 2005 report estimated that 2,000 victims in Cambodia have been trafficked into sexual exploitation, approximately 80% of whom were Vietnamese women and girls. It quotes the US Department of State’s Human Rights Report, 2006, to corroborate this statement.

The government’s stand is that according to the Cambodian Millennium Development Goals, Cambodia is obliged to enact laws against all forms of violence against women, and this does not only include a law on domestic violence, but also a law on suppression of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Seshu counters that "Trafficking is not sex work and conflating a criminal offence, ie trafficking, to adult consensual exchange of sexual services for money is not acceptable.”

It has been seen that in realistic efforts to combat the disease, sex workers have given a lead, especially where transmission is through heterosexual sexual contact and high-risk behaviour by men. The achievements of projects like the Durbar Mahila Samanwya Committee’s work in Kolkata’s Sonagachi red-light area, or the Swagati Project of Action for Development working with sex workers in coastal Andhra Pradesh, illustrate this fact.

The action on Cambodia’s sex workers does not take cognisance of these reality checks, the protesters said. In Cambodia, on June 4, the Women's Network for Unity (WNU), composed of a group of sex workers who work to empower vulnerable women and who are involved in the reduction of the spread of HIV/AIDS, collaborated with the Cambodian Prostitutes Union (CPU) and Cambodian Men, Women Network for Development, to organise an Open Day of Action to stop raids on sex workers and called for the repeal of the law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. “Don’t be fooled by talk of rescuing ‘sex slaves’ until you have heard our testimonials and seen video evidence of the brutality and misery this new law is causing,” they said.

Many Dy, of the Cambodian Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, said in support of the protest on June 4: "As a result of the anti-human trafficking law adopted in January 2008 …many sex workers are no longer going to STD clinics or accessing HIV treatment and care services. So, while Cambodia is proud of its success story in the fight against AIDS, we as women living with HIV are concerned that this success is now being undone by this violation of the rights of sex workers.”

According to UNAIDS, “A 2007 study in Cambodia provides evidence that well-focused and sustained prevention efforts can help reverse the spread of HIV. Nationally, HIV prevalence has fallen to an estimated 0.9% among adults in 2006, down from the revised estimates of 1.2% in 2003 and the peak of 2% in 1998. One important factor over the past decade has been the significant increase of condom use during paid sex in brothels -- as well as reports of fewer men actually buying sex.”

At the recent Mexico conference, the sex workers’ forum made a strong demand for recognition of their work and to be included in any decision-making process in the continued campaign against HIV/AIDS.

Sex Workers´ Declaration at the 2008 International Aids Conference in Mexico

Participation in conferences:

Include sex workers in the plenary sessions at the International Aids Conference and at all international and national forums on related issues
Feature presentations by sex workers at all international and national forums on related issues
Grant enough scholarships for sex workers from all regions to be represented
Include sex workers at all levels of planning and implementation of the International Aids Conferences, including on technical committees, for example the scholarship committee.

General Demands:

Recognise the diversity of our community in documents, materials and programmes: we are female, male and trans sex workers
Guarantee the rights of sex workers in order to eliminate violence
An end to institutional violence. Justice and redress for crimes against sex workers
Acknowledge the right to migrate for sex workers
Distinguish clearly between trafficking in persons and sex work
Guarantee the meaningful participation of sex workers in the development of a response to HIV/AIDS
Develop programmes which strengthen sex worker organisations.

Access to health services free of stigma and discrimination:

An end to mandatory HIV/STI testing and vaccination of sex workers, in all contexts including in detention.

Guarantee integral quality health services for all genders, including gender-specific services.

Active and meaningful involvement in all decision-making spaces.

(Ranjita Biswas is a journalist based in Kolkata writing mainly on women and gender issues, HIV/AIDS and environment. She is also Editor of Trans World Features.)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2008