Around the AIDS 2010 Sessions
The opening of AIDS 2010 was a gloomy liturgy of the declining funding base but I found it difficult to sympathise. Although I fully understand the importance of taking prevention and care to scale there is too much waste and too many poor programmes. I couldn’t help but wonder if more effective programming could come from less money. I think as what I am – a sex worker activist. “We never got much of it anyway”, “It could mean more resources to targetted programmes and less money squandered on people who don’t use drugs and have few sex partners”, “I hope it means fewer overpaid project managers and experts.’ Points about the need for the Global Fund for Aids TB and Malaria to change in ways that enable money to flow to sexual minority and IDU communities were well made.
A session offered an opportunity to explore efforts by and on behalf of sex workers to promote human rights in the context of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in diverse contexts. Speakers from Peru, India, Ukraine, and Canada offered their perspectives on the global effort to protect the rights of sex workers, followed by a lively exchange with audience participants. Key topics of discussion included community mobilisation around sex workers’ rights, opportunities for policy reform, and the prospects for the decriminalisation of sex work where it is considered to be illegal. One issue that has emerged in several discussions is the fact that while sex workers have strongly supported the efforts of other vulnerable groups, such as men who have sex with men or people who inject drugs, in their effort to secure legal protections and to promote anti-discrimination legislation, some groups advocating for sex workers’ rights feel they have not enjoyed reciprocal support.
Carmen Murguía, of the Universidad Católica in Peru, described the efforts of a multi-sectoral group including representatives of academic institutions, the government of Peru, and international organisations, to identify the barriers to addressing the needs of female and transgender commercial sex workers regarding HIV/AIDS and human rights and to develop solutions to the challenges facing commercial sex workers in Peru. Murguía noted that sex work is neither legal nor illegal in Peru; as a consequence, most of the population views sex work as illegal, resulting in considerable discrimination and prejudice against women and transgender people who exercise sexual commerce. She stated that in Peru the security forces – the police and the military – receive no training with respect to sexual diversity or homophobia and frequently engage in abusive practices that violate sex workers’ rights. Consulting and collaborating with sex workers themselves, the multi-sectoral group developed in a strategy for improving the prospects for ensuring respect for women and transgender people engaged in commercial sex in. According to Murguía, they mapped zones of sex work in four Peruvian cities, trained over 100 sex workers as leaders in advocacy issues, created a model for educating security agents regarding human rights, HIV/AIDS and sex work, and proposed national level legislation to protect sex workers’ rights.
In her discussion of legal efforts to decriminalise sex work in India, Amritananda Chakravorty of the Lawyers’ Collective on HIV/AIDS in New Delhi signalled reason for “renewed optimism” in the South Asian context. Referring to India’s 1956 Immoral Traffic Prevention Act (ITPA), which followed British colonial law in criminalising brothels, living off the earning of sexual commerce, procuring, and the exercise of sexual commerce in public places,
Chakravorty described efforts by commercial sex workers in India to organise over the last two decades around the principle that “sex work is work.” When the government of India sought to reform the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) in 2006, planning to criminalise the presence of men in brothels as well as sex trafficking, Chakravorty said sex worker organisations resisted and challenged the bill on legal, public health and community rights grounds. She stated that the 2009 ruling in the Naz Foundation case in India, which decriminalised adult consensual same sex behaviours, has served as an inspiration for sex workers, who hope to continue to raise questions of sexual rights in the Indian judicial context. Regardless of the outcome of pending challenges by sex workers to government efforts to criminalise clients, as well as other issues, Chakravorty noted that the process of engaging in collective action has empowered Indian sex workers, many of whom have entered formal spaces and engaged with the legal system for the very first time.
Irina Mishyna of Ukraine offered a presentation regarding the efforts of commercial sex workers in Ukraine to organise in defence of their rights. Supported by the International Alliance on HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, women working in sexual commerce in twenty-eight cities across the country have mobilised collectively to protest government actions closing drop-in centres and treatment clinics for sex workers. (Bobby Ramakant of Citizen News Service (CNS) summarises some of the sex work content of Aids 2010)
The International Drug Policy Consortium and Transform Drug Policy Foundation – in association with the Open Society Insitute – presented evidence in Vienna that the global “war on drugs” is failing. According to harm reduction advocates billions of dollars spent on “crackdown” tactics were wasted due to poor performance at reducing the prevalence of drug use. Furthermore, such tactics are reported to create a difficult environment for effective prevention and treatment of HIV, especially for injecting drug users. The call for a complete overhaul of drug policiesn the Vienna declaration has so far received the support from over 13,000 signatories, including former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, however the Canadian government, and
other countries, have snubbed the declaration.
Ly Pisay of WNU Cambodia spoke about the development of a legal service for sex workers in Phnom Penh Cambodia. She said that sex workers are poorly serviced by existing services and as a result sex workers are unable to defend themselves against injustice. The service will be established next year and it will involve legal education and advocacy as well as taking individual sex workers cases forward.
I presented on ways to improve the legal framework around sex work in different settings at a session I argued that removal of punitive laws is not enough on its own to make a significant difference to most sex workers vulnerability to HIV. Other presenters addressed drug use, homosexuality and HIV transmission which was a great opportunity to learn about those issues.
Transgender sex workers were very vocal about their objections to being categorised as MSM. They demand that the HIV statistics be pulled apart to show how many of the so called MSM are in fact transgenders and that measures should follow to ensure that a proportionate amount of the resources get to transgender programmes rather than generic “MSM’ programmes.
Andrew Hunter at IPPF’s session presented on the evidence for allocating resources that can take HIV programmes for sex workers to scale.
Kaythi Win and Dale Kongmont presented a powerful film about HIV stigma and discrimination in Myanmar and what the sex worker group there is doing to reduce it www.bliptv.org.
Will Rockwell’s presentation on young people and sex work (www.spread.com) was thoughtful and convincing. If anyone doubts the ability of adult sex workers to understand the complex moral and social issues around sex work and come up with sound strategies Will’s presentation should put that to rest.
meYukiko Kana, founder of the Sex Workers and Sexual Health (SWASH), and Pon- Pon, sex worker/activist from Tokyo and Yuki, a professor/researcher from Tokyo. The women went on to the Desiree Alliance Working Sex conference in Las Vegas, as well as stopping in Los Angeles to connect with the local chapter of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Yukiko talked about working for months in a low-end brothel staffed with Philippine and Chinese immigrants to better understand their needs. Her goal is to improve her English in order to better represent Japanese sex workers in the International community. They shared results of their studies of “Soapland” brothel workers’ and clients’ condom usage, explained the legalities in their country, and their strategy for improving working conditions and achieving decriminalization.
There were many, many more important contributions by sex workers in both the scientific and cultural programs much important information presented that affects sex workers that I haven’t covered for reasons of space and time. Several NSWP people worked on communications throughout the conference so these can be accessed on the NSWP and regional networks website, through Spread and DaVida Brazil. But it’s certainly true that a picture is worth a thousand words – browse the photos of the Red Umbrellas at the conference for clear evidence that the sex workers rights movement was a strong, articulate, well informed, unified force at this conference.
Tomorrow – a report on the Global Village and why I think AIDS 2012 should be cancelled.