My Take on AIDS 2012. Cheryl Overs Part One


Silence = Death

As everyone knows AIDS 2012 was THE different International Aids Conference for sex workers because of US immigration law and the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata it created. The publicity that the Kolkata hub generated worldwide and the support within the HIV community were historic. A clear measure of this was Hilary Clinton’s speech at the opening in which she had to assure the crowd that the US supports HIV programming for sex workers.  It was followed by an article in which Melissa Ditmore * explained the limitations of Clinton’s words in the context of the anti-prostitution Pepfar legislation.  This is perfect activism.  And it wasn’t the only example.  All the work and the frustrations were worthwhile.

And work and frustrations there were. The US sex workers worked much harder than we have in previous years when everyone was there and without the reward of being with dozens of sex workers from all over the world. Carol Leigh and Mariko Passion did wonderful performances that said as much about sex workers rights as all the spoken words. I hope the US sex workers would agree that those who were there, from twelve countries I counted, gave all the support possible. I wish we could have done more.  

As always the conference was about highs and lows. My conference was very limited because I chaired and presented at many sessions so I will mainly talk about those.  This raises a low to start off with –    the final day rapporteur sessions were seriously lacklustre.  I rely on them to hear about the conference that I always feel I’ve missed and I am sure many other do too.  Last time, in Vienna, they were really interesting and useful.  So I will leave summing up the overall conference to others.   Even my coverage of sex work issues is limited.  Anna Forbes, who is a great ally, wrote a blog about sex worker issues in DC and I am sure she will produce a very useful report. Tracy Quan also wrote about a great piece about sex workers at conferences in general.

*Melissa presented research on problems posed by countries accepting PEPFAR funds, which indicated that PEPFAR’s “anti-prostitution pledge” has forced the gradual phase-out of services once available to sex workers, thereby increasing their isolation and making it harder to access preventative or treatment services

Labour Rights: the way


 Perhaps the highest point for me was the ILO session in the Global Village A labour rights approach to HIV and sex work.’ This was ILO’s rationale for the session :

‘Sex workers are calling for a new way of HIV programming in which they determine their priorities and needs related to HIV programs.  A fundamental goal of sex workers’ organizations is the protection of human rights in the workplace including promotion of safe and healthy workplaces, elimination of sexual harassment and violence and access to social protection schemes’.

Steve Kraus of UNAIDS spoke about the partnerships formed around sex work and set the session up with a distinct sense of expectation and optimism. Noi Apusik spoke about the Can Do Bar in Thailand and we heard what sex workers rights  really means in the workplace and in real lives in Thailand and Cambodia.  Alice Ouedraogo, ILO director then spoke powerfully affirming that ILO has the same commitment to sex workers as to all other workers. ILO will not discriminate.

The session crossed to Kolkata which was very exciting. As Liz Hilton said, “a wonderful moment occurred when streaming video questions from Kolkata were received during this session. A Thai sex worker (Wi of Empower) in Kolkata asked if she had heard the presentation correctly.  She said, “Did you say the ILO accepts sex work is work? We’re not clear if we heard you correctly. We are proud of the work we do. Alice Ouedraogo of the ILO, replied, ‘I did say sex work is an economic  activity — sex work is work. There’s no doubt about this. ILO is there to support efforts of sex workers and their organizations.’” This is truly huge news for the sex workers rights movement and the ILO and other UN staff who did the internal work to get us to this point are truly to be congratulated.

There was much more about labour rights in all the other sessions too. I noticed a networking zone session of sex workers involved in labour struggles was one of the longest and most well attended. 

But not to stay upbeat for too long ….this session was the worst as well as the best for me.  It was in a curtained area of the Global Village and was on at the same time as the GV opening.  There was 40 minutes of non-stop deafening drumming,   like the opening of the Olympics, just metres way.  It was like torture.  It was so unfair for a session that was so important to us.   (I did a pretty terrible job on my presentation, so I am extra peeved)  It should have been in a proper conference room. More – much more – about the Global Bloody Village later  

New PreventionTechnologies 

 In a way Aids 2012 was all about new prevention technologies. There is little doubt about the epidemic ending potential of treatment as prevention, microbicides and PREP. Of the two messages I wanted to see come out of the sex worker actions at  AIDS2012, the first was that better thinking is needed around sex work and new prevention technologies. That was said far more eloquently than me ( eg by Sue Kippax Tuesday)  but I hope it was useful to say it in public about sex workers, so far as I know, for the first time.

 ‘The risks to sex workers of all genders will be enormous if condoms are replaced by partially effective HIV prevention methods that don’t protect against unwanted pregnancies and STIs – including, drug resistant gonorrhoea. It’s good to talk about an extra tool in the prevention toolkit but it doesn’t fall easily on sex worker’s ears that they will still have to get clients to use condoms. Sex workers know their clients and they know there will be increased demand for sex without a barrier.   Clients are already talking on the internet about the “HIV Pill’ that they think is about to liberate them from rubber.   Sex workers also understand that they work in an industry and like all businesses, market forces and workplace practices play a greater role in determining what happens than negotiations between individuals. They also know that just as it was for the ‘old’ methods, the cost and responsibility for using the new methods will be on them, not on their clients.

 Sex workers’ expertise and sex industries in general has been bypassed so far. The research is mainly about proving that sex workers will use the products that are presumed to be beneficial. The methodology is usually surveys that ask sex workers if they would like a new HIV prevention product.  The answer surprises no-one. Of course they would. This is not good enough.  I made this point to a dear friend who works for the Gates Foundation when he was unfortunate enough to be spotted in the registration queue and couldn’t escape me. There WILL be follow up.

Law and Policy

The second crucial message for AIDS2012 as I saw it was that we don’t need a legal framework that gets pills or condoms or services to sex workers who work in dreadful conditions.  We need a legal framework that enables commercial sex to take place in safe conditions and gives sex workers, including migrant sex workers, the full recognition and protection of the law. I think that as a result of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law ( and the efforts of the NSWP and ILO,  this conference marked the turning point where workplace health and safety began to overtake public health and criminal law as the driving forces behind sex work health policy.

This involves the the HIV industry and governments thinking less about the ‘behaviour’ of sex workers as individuals and recognising them as workers and their activities as work.  I just caught (despite the noise in the Global Bloody Village ) a fascinating story told by a  woman who had worked in a legal brothel in Nevada that exemplified this for me. She said that workers there had to pay some huge fee ( $160 ? ) for a weekly  health check.  But get this – if you leave the brothel, even to go to the shop, your check is redundant and must be done again. What an illustration of how ugly it can get when public health meets the whore stigma – the workers freedom of movement we know so well from the Universal Declaration is violated; her body is invaded by a forced medical procedure that violate the convention on torture * and she is unfairly confined and fined which of course contravenes Labour conventions and ILO standards.  Where are the human rights wallahs when you need them? 

Well at least one was praising Nevada because according to her sex work isn’t criminalised there.  It is essential that well intentioned and well-heeled NGOs who advocate on sex work issues involve sex workers and that they do the work necessary in their own organisations to understand and institutionally support sex workers full set of demandsasOSI did by producing a clear document in support of decriminalisation. ( ) And to put it friend-losingly bluntly – organisations that have signed the anti-prostitution pledge should shut up altogether about sex workers ‘right to access services.’  It’s a bit much to see people spouting off about sex workers without disclosing that they are employed by organisations that have signed the anti-prostitution pledge.

*Seriously. It’s because medical ethics were codified into the treaty that was created in the aftermath of the Nuremburg trials and the Nazi medical experiments.


Conference Sessions

It seemed to me that the sessions on sex work in what is increasingly being called ‘the main conference’ were better than previous conferences.  It is worth looking at the online abstracts and videos. The session Is Sex Work, Work ? (  aimed to ‘provide the basis for the legal, policy, labour and public health rationale for creating an enabling environment in which sex work is integrated into communities as simply another occupation’  It included speakers from sex workers groups, the International Labour Organisation and Deanna Kerrigan of Johns Hopkins University who spoke about the large scale study ‘The Nature and Scale of the Burden of HIV on Sex Workers’. That is the study that has established that female sex workers are at 14 times more risk than other women. That headline masks the complexity of the study which is the largest analysis ever done of research on HIV and sex work.  Meta-analysis like this is by definition only as good as the studies it reviews.  I remember many of the studies that went into this analysis from when they were published, mainly because sex workers protested against many of them.  I am sure the authors of this study would agree that much of the research on sex work has been very poor. Nevertheless I think the  size and rigour of this analysis means its conclusions are pretty right, with the exception of data about the 100% Condom Use Programmes in Asia which were an academic beat-up ,  or ‘bullshit’ in the language of Robert Carr’s legacy.  Anyway sex workers should read it – those who subscribe to medical journals that it is. Others can read a summary at

There were some excellent posters too.  Several posters recorded successful anti-violence campaigns and police liaison work. One of the poster discussion sessions was particularly interesting. A study in India looked at whether sex workers were being pushed to engage in sex without condoms for more money but found that sex workers received more for engaging in safe sex with regular clients. The session also looked at how services  are provided.  There was a definite theme of the public health professionals wanting to take testing closer to sex workers, including to their workplaces. Sex workers in the audience were very sceptical about how that can be done without causing harm.

I didn’t find as much as I had hoped for about migrant sex workers, perhaps because they have been invisibilised by the trafficking paradigm that classifies them as trafficked women.  We all know that huge amounts of money are being made by anti-trafficking organisations, celebrities,  journalists and academics  ( sex workers track this on a Facebook Group called My Favorite Abolitionist)  Less discussed is the invisibilisation of male and transgender sex workers and their re-classification as MSM.  This is a key part of the anti-trafficking agenda because the gender analysis that sustains the paradigm depends on casting men as abusers and rapists and women as victims that lack agency. This gender codswallop can only apply if the term sex worker means biological females.  There is a profit element too.  Categorising sex workers as MSM opens up new HIV funding streams. I am amused to see MSM reports these days illustrated with pictures of ‘most at risk MSM’ who are people that have gone to a lot of trouble to not be Men at all.  More than one senior gay rights activist bemoaned the cultural changes the inclusion of transgender women who work as sex workers bought to the MSM pre-meeting. Others loved it.  Watch that space.  

This speaks to a broader issue. I noticed during my plenary presentation that there was a lot of applause when I said ‘Communities exist in real life not as epidemiological categories configured around HIV funding.’  What I should have said is communities should exist in real life… The fact is they don’t and it’s not only the HIV funders fault. I wonder how many new ‘networks’ were formed in the last month that will be demanding a ‘seat at the table’ – which means at least a few airtickets and perdeims, if not an office and a salary or two. I imagine the mention of the Robert Carr fund for ‘networks’ will have created a significant spike in the network birthrate.  I  hope those administering Robert’s fund don’t fall for that ‘bullshit’. In part two I will talk about the Robert Carr memorial session, other sessions and posters, the Global Bloody Village and more, including why AIDS 2012 was my last contribution to HIV/sex workers rights activism.

03/08/2012 at 11:58 Leave a comment

Sex Workers Rights : a glass half full or half empty ?

Cheryl Overs

Advocacy for sex workers’ rights is a mountain of challenges.  Not only is constructive dialogue impeded because the language is contested, but sex workers rights are problematised by confusion with various forms of sexual abuse. Sex workers have very limited opportunities to input, and those outside the US and Europe have little access to the technology and education needed to form an effective voice.

Despite this, over the last 20 years the Global Network Sex Workers Projects has successfully pushed the idea that sex work is work and have pressured governments the UN and the media  to replace the term ‘prostitute’ with ’sex worker’. More than mere political correctness, this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex worker rights towards a labour rights framework that could potentially resolve many of the problems faced by sex workers. This language also questions the stigma of sex work because it represents greater recognition of sex workers as rights bearers with the capacity to make their own choices.

Despite the turning tides, there is progress that is yet to be achieved. There is mounting evidence of an insidious trend to conflate the labour rights of sex workers with the issue of sexual exploitation. Although one UN conventions, the Palermo Protocol defines trafficking as including force, abuse, deceit or coercion it, and several other protocols promote criminalisation of   ‘sexual exploitation’ which means any profiting from sex work and effectively mean outlawing the whole sex industry. This means that people who consent to sell sex are in the same category –  victims – as those who do not consent. This supports the ideological agenda that sex work should be eliminated because, among other things, it is inherently abusive and/or it drives trafficking.

Statistics on human trafficking and/or sexual exploitation are inconsistent and self evidently   flawed.   Ronald Weitzer contends that “anti-trafficking campaigners erase women’s agency in sex work arguing instead that it is violence against women”.[i] Weitzer  also exposes methodological flaws in sampling and response bias which have “[victimized] prostitutes” in the zeal to promote an anti-prostitution agenda. Yet several key institutions including the US government, UNICEF, United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime (UNODC) UNIFEM and several other UN agencies promote the idea that human trafficking is caused by the sex trade despite the lack of evidence.

As sexual exploitation and trafficking continues to elude a well-accepted definition we are witnessing the introduction of more anti-sexual exploitation and anti-trafficking laws that are driving crackdowns on sex work and closure of brothels that have resulted in abuse of sex workers and shifts from safe to very unsafe workplaces.[1] This is happening at the behest of the  US government’s Trafficking in Persons reporting process and in the absence of any proven causal link between sex trafficking and HIV.

The link between anti-trafficking measures and reduced access to HIV prevention and treatment has not been empirically established but there is ample anecdotal evidence from countries including Korea, Cambodia and Guatemala that such laws have reduced attendance by female sex workers at STI clinics and caused condoms to be banned from sex venues for fear they will be used as evidence of ‘trafficking and sexual exploitation’

Treating people who sell sex with  respect and enabling them to access safe workplaces and health services is clearly a  much more effective framework for the prevention of HIV/AIDS than attempting to close the sex industry down in a misguided attempt to prevent  trafficking and sexual exploitation.

When there is HIV programming for sex workers, it is often fraught with human rights violations. Female sex workers continue to be forced into unnecessary, costly and intrusive HIV and STI tests in all global regions and results are often not confidential. Some are shared with brothel owners, outreach workers and NGOs and the quality of pre- and post-test counselling frequently fails to inform sex workers of their right to refuse tests. In some places female and transgender sex workers are forcibly tested and pictures of HIV positive sex workers are even posted on the internet by police and penalties for prostitution are much higher for those who are living with HIV.

On a positive note, there are calls for a rights based approach. UNFPA has convened an standing Advisory Group on sex work with several UN agencies and some sex worker involvement. The Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health has also strongly supported calls for decriminalisation of sex work. [2] In Asia and the Pacific a meeting of government officials and NGOs concerned with sex work as held in Thailand last year. (Regional Consultation in Asia Pacific on Sex Work and HIV)  recommendations for decriminalization of sex work, including laws against sex businesses, were endorsed. So to was UN commitment to the  involvement of sex workers at all levels. There was a sympathetic response for calls to end violence faced by sex workers which are largely perpetrated by law enforcement agencies. It remains to be seen whether any of the government delegations have taken steps since to reign in the violent excesses of their police forces.

In March 2011, the US released a report to the UN Human Rights Council affirming that “no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” However, the policy that requires all organizations that receive global HIV/AIDS President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding to explicitly oppose prostitution remains in place and continues to  impede sex workers’ access to services.

These developments reflect the view that human rights should not be viewed as separate from HIV prevention and treatment programmes. While programmes need to look at the legal and human rights issues for marginalised populations, it must be ensured that these programmes do not breach the human rights of any marginalised group. To overcome this, sex workers must be meaningfully engaged as partners in the development and implementation of HIV programmes and be given the capacity to strengthen their advocacy, networks and external relationships.

Sex workers have long advocated for changes to the laws, rules and policies that affect female, male and transgender sex workers. While some demands are country specific – according to local legal systems and cultural context – across the world there is an urgent need for the legal recognition of sex work as an occupation and the recognition of sex workers as full legal persons. This would not only improve the lives of sex workers but also achieve public health, social and economic goals and advance gender and sexuality rights. Moreover, the agenda to decriminalize sex work has the potential to create an environment in which child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and other exploitation and crimes associated with criminalised commercial sex can be effectively addressed.

So far those calls have gone unheeded except for some supportive statements by individuals in the UN. There is a Commission on Law and HIV whose report may change that but only if it can succeed where others have failed. To do this it must take the politically unpopular step of rejecting the notion that there is value in a law against profiting from sex work and acknowledge sex workers right to trade as employees or sole traders. This is what is meant by accepting that sex work is work.

It is important that people who work for HIV prevention, treatment and care, see female sex workers’ concerns as interconnected – which incidentally involves the category ‘sex worker’ being  understood to include men.  It is to be hoped that the positive developments we have mentioned are expanded, that agreements made at the Bangkok meeting last year are acted upon and that such ideas continue to gain interest and support internationally. Hopefully, over time, we will also see sex workers take over positions as advocates within the Global Fund, the UN and the women’s and labour movements.

Until then the question remains – is the sex workers rights glass half full or half empty ?

Thanks to Rathi Ramanathon for her contribution to this post.

[1] Noy Thrupkaew and Overs C Caught Between the Tiger and the Crocodile

[2] Grover A 20101

27/04/2011 at 10:25 Leave a comment

Penina Mwangi on New Law in Kenya.

Interview with Penina Mwangi the Executive Director of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme, Kenya  
 What’s Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP)? The mission of Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme (BHESP) is to influence policy and facilitate provision of quality health services, human rights awareness, legal services and economic empowerment for bar hostess and sex workers.   

What are your objectives?

Our main objectives are to serve as a focal organisation and voice for bar hostesses and sex workers through providing the bar hostesses and sex workers with information and linkages to services on key issues affecting them. We also promote self and behaviour change among bar hostesses and sex workers and strive for justice and welfare of bar hostesses and sex workers in Kenya and support them to claim their rights.


Penina says all stakeholders were not consulted. [PHOTOS:EVANS HABIL]  
What’s your organisation stand on the Alcohol Act?  

We are opposed to the new Alcohol control Act because of the adverse effect it has had within our members. This Act was also not comprehensively thought over and its implementation mode is far more costly to our members too. Even though the Act has a positive moral standing, the social and financial implications are far fetched and its effects have been disastrous for our members.


How has it affected the members of your organisation? 

With regulated hours of drinking, there has been massive loss of jobs with our current statistics standing at around 5,000. One thing the law didn’t address was that most of the bar hostesses are casually employed and thus remunerated on the hours worked and with reduced hours means reduced wages. Secondly, most bar owners are cost-cutting on the number of employees and this directly affects our members who have lost jobs and most of them are resorting to be commercial sex workers to eke out a living.


On the implementation stage, we are helpless since we cannot raise the required fine because they are hefty. For example, if a reveller is already drunk and he or she orders more bottles or tots and is served, the seller will be liable to a Sh100,000 fine while the buyer risks parting with Sh5, 000. As casuals, we have targets in terms of sales and when we flout these rules, not even the employers will fork out this amount to bail their employees yet we have to put food on the table.

At what level was the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme involved in the drafting of this Act?   

We were never consulted and we feel short-changed since this bill did not have in mind the massive job cuts that it would come with. The drafters of this bill did not consider all the stakeholders and as much as the bill was in good faith with its moral high standards, it has terrible failed as a result of its economic implications to the industry as a whole.


What measure has your organisation taken to address these effects amongst your members? 

We are in talks with the bar owners association with a view of striking a balance over the effects of the Alcohol Act. This is with a view to help curb more job losses amongst our members. We are also participating in relevant forums and convening meetings that bring together all stakeholders and working closely with beneficiaries in the search of practical and efficient solutions to their challenges. We are also involved in educating and empowering our members who have lost jobs with skills and confidence necessary to create a healthy lifestyle rather than resorting to the streets to supplement their earnings.


12/02/2011 at 01:30 1 comment

LA REDTRABSEX ECUADOR Denounces Abuses of Sex Workers in Quito

Michael Williams via Elena Reynaga

Wednesday, Feb 7.

LA REDTRABSEX ECUADOR  La Red de Trabajadoras Sexuales de Latinoamérica y El Caribe today publicly denounced the abuses of human rights persecution and violence against the organisation Redtrabsex de Ecuador that happened lastThursday, for the part played by the police force in Quito.

Due to the constant police operations that imprison sex workers for their work, the workers are seeking a meeting with the Mayor to ask for the regulation of sex work and a cessation of the violence against the workers. After receiving no response, they organised a peaceful protest outside the Quito Council building last Thursday. With placards ‘sex work is a reality, say no to repression, say yes to a solution’ they waited for the council session to finish for the council members to come out, when the workers had to run bruised and injured after being beaten by the metropolitan police. One of the workers, a militant defendant of human rights was gravely injured, and others received heavy blows. La Redtrabsex says ‘Ecuador has for a long time proposed a lot of legislation for workers in the district of Quito, but the Secretary of Security does not consider the claims of the workers and does not even meet with them to hear our claims. The sex workers of Ecuador have been subjected to illegal detention and multiple assaults by the state that have been denounced nationally and internationally. We express emphatic support for the initiative of REDTRABSEX Ecuador for sex worker to be recognised as equal work to any other form of work’.

Sex Workers in Ecuador demand:

1. Immediately cessation of the violence and repression by the Quito City Council against sex workers

2. That the Ecuadorian state engages in dialgoue and enacts  law to regulate sex work throughout the country

10/02/2011 at 23:52 Leave a comment

Don’t expect Barbados to be legalising prostitution.

Fair treatment for sex workers

Claudette Kay and Miriam Edwards want sex workers in the region to be treated fairly. (Kenmore Bynoe)

Sex workers in the Caribbean want to be treated fairly and given the same respect as other people involved in demanding professions.

Miriam Edwards, president of the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition, Kay Forte of Guyana and Claudette Johnson of Jamaica, as well as Ivan Cruickshank of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition made the call at the closing ceremony of the Sex Work And HIV TechnicalWorking Group meeting put on by UNAIDS.

Edwards says her organisation, which had members in 13 Caribbean countries, is battling for sex workers’ voices to be heard in order for the legal framework to be instituted for such them to obtain the medical and other necessary services.

“We need to accept sex workers as human beings and we want the same level of treatment and service when we come forward as anyone else,” Edwards says. she also warns that it is pointless setting up programmes for a few sex workers and prefacing the offer with the command that they must give up their profession in order to get funding for education or skills training.

The trio later met with Minister of Health Donville Inniss, who had earlier delivered the closing address at the session. “It is not for me to deliberate on the morality or illegality of sex work in the Caribbean, but rather it is for me to face reality. We will not, certainly at the policy level, move ahead if we start by operating with any stigma attached to the issue of sex workers or if we start to bring our own prejudices to the table and bury our heads in the sand and pretend that such a thing does not exist. In addition, the increased risk of HIV transmission which may be found in some informal and formal sex work contexts heightens the need to take definitive steps to reduce the risk of transmission in these settings,” Inniss adds.


By Tracy Moore |

 Minister of Health Donville Inniss stated this on Wednesday at a top-level regional meeting on HIV/AIDS at Hilton Barbados. Inniss said that legalising prostitution in Barbados would not be one of those laws to be modernised on our statute books any time soon. “The issue of legalising prostitution would always be a heated one, filled with emotion and sometimes a lack of objectivity,” he said. “If the goal is for sex workers to have access to health care, systems are already in place that work and allow them access to health care. “When you go to a doctor’s office or a Barbados polyclinic or the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I do not know that you are discriminated against or that you are denied access to health care if you indicate that you are a sex worker,” he said. He added, “What we may want to debate is the issue of not discriminating against people based on their perceived sexual orientation or perceived sexual practice as a profession. I think we need to be a lot more all-embracing. “That does not mean that we have to drop our moral guards and say that all of these things are to be accepted. I am not promoting homosexuality or prostitution. I am simply saying that we have to have a more open mind and accept that not all of us are the same,” he said.

The two-day meeting was held by the United States-Caribbean Partnership Framework for HIV/AIDS as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). On the second day of discussions, United States Global AIDS co-ordinator and adviser to President Barack Obama, Ambassador Eric Goosby, told the SATURDAY SUN that accessibility and eliminating stigmatisation were better weapons against HIV/AIDS than legalising prostitution. He said judgement and stigmatisation caused more fear in those who needed access to medical care. Minister of Health Donville Inniss stated this on Wednesday at a top-level regional meeting on HIV/AIDS at Hilton Barbados. Inniss said that legalising prostitution in Barbados would not be one of those laws to be modernised on our statute books any time soon. “The issue of legalising prostitution would always be a heated one, filled with emotion and sometimes a lack of objectivity,” he said. “If the goal is for sex workers to have access to health care, systems are already in place that work and allow them access to health care. “When you go to a doctor’s office or a Barbados polyclinic or the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I do not know that you are discriminated against or that you are denied access to health care if you indicate that you are a sex worker,” he said. He added, “What we may want to debate is the issue of not discriminating against people based on their perceived sexual orientation or perceived sexual practice as a profession. I think we need to be a lot more all-embracing. “That does not mean that we have to drop our moral guards and say that all of these things are to be accepted. I am not promoting homosexuality or prostitution. I am simply saying that we have to have a more open mind and accept that not all of us are the same,” he said. The two-day meeting was held by the United States-Caribbean Partnership Framework for HIV/AIDS as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR). On the second day of discussions, United States Global AIDS co-ordinator and adviser to President Barack Obama, Ambassador Eric Goosby, told the SATURDAY SUN that accessibility and eliminating stigmatisation were better weapons against HIV/AIDS than legalising prostitution. He said judgement and stigmatisation caused more fear  in those who needed access to medical care.

20/01/2011 at 02:49 Leave a comment

Hungary’s Constitutional Court Bans Mandatory Health Checks

Hungary’s Constitutional Court has annulled a legal provision requiring sex workers to provide a doctor’s certificate on the ground that it conflicts with article 17 of the 1950 New York Convention. The ruling is to come into force on December 31 this year.

The reason given for its Monday ruling is that the certificate demanded by Hungarian law counts as a type of document which should be held by the sex worker, and this conflicts with UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

The legal provision annulled set the stage for the stigmatisation of sex workers and violated their right to human dignity, the court said

13/01/2011 at 02:39 Leave a comment

Who’s the Ugly Mug then ? – policing violence against sex workers in the UK

by Cheryl Overs

That December 17, the day against violence against sex workers is the big day in the sex workers rights calendar  speaks volumes.  Violence against sex workers and inadequate police responses are the single biggest issue I have encountered in all my time as a sex workers rights activist. Violence has been at the top of every sex workers list of priorities I have seen  and in every one of the sex workers’ meetings  I have attended in dozens of countries.  Only the extent and nature of violence and the degree of malpractice by police varies.

When the Australian Prostitutes Collective was formed in the mid eighties, and we began what later became known as ‘outreach’, violence emerged quickly as a key issue.  We came up with the idea of publishing and distributing a list of descriptions of bad clients, from timewasters and non-payers to bashers and rapists.  One day a timely street worker came in to the Sydney APC office cursing an ‘ugly mug’ and the brilliant name of the list was born.

The list was an immediate hit in Melbourne and it’s still going.  Then it was  an A4 sheet with descriptions of men, cars and addresses to be avoided, updated daily and handed around the street working area, brothels and escort agencies. It was the early days of computers and only one person in the office could use it, Brett, a local sex worker that the women adored and trusted.  The street sex workers were keen to open, update and print the list around the clock so Brett taught some of them how to do it. Fabulous.

For me the Ugly Mugs stands out as a beacon of success of the sex workers rights movement – it empowers sex workers to prevent violence and it is an excellent tool for lobbying for better law enforcement.  I know it works. When politicians and senior police saw the lists of unreported violent crime we were publishing they were embarrassed into coming to see us to discuss ways to ensure that crimes were properly reports and dealt with. Over the years the Ugly Mugs became an institution and I am delighted and proud to see it taken up by our counterparts in the UK, the US, Canada

So yesterday I was surprised to see the network of services for sex workers in the UK call on “government to implement a UK wide scheme of ‘Ugly Mugs’ so that intelligence about violent offenders can be shared between police forces.” ( . I can see ‘where they are coming from’ but I wonder how many sex workers have contributed to the idea that government/police should run the Ugly Mugs list.  But then I saw this which goes even further  :

A database of men suspected of attacking sex workers should be introduced say police chiefs ( my italics)  Sex workers in some parts of the country are already distributed (sic) with pictures of so-called “ugly mugs” – men who have in the past been violent or threatening towards prostitutes – but it is not co-ordinated across the country. A national roll-out is being examined by the Home Office.

This is a significant shift away from Ugly Mugs idea. A data base held by police of names of people accused by someone of committing unspecified crimes for which they have not been charged or convicted is a very different creature from descriptions of troublesome people compiled by sex workers and distributed within their own communities.

Police already have intelligence data bases that they should be using properly to track all kinds of suspected criminals.  I guess a special one for offenders against sex workers is a good idea but they should get their own name for it and not take ours!!!

Because data bases are only as good as the information put into them the UK government should be making sure police create an atmosphere where sex workers are confident to report every problem they have and that they are all properly recorded.  To create that atmosphere police have to actually turn up, behave respectfully, gain trust, take complaints seriously and record them faithfully – which, not co-incidentally, are all things Brett did so well all those years ago.

Sex workers should also be worried about registers of people who are ‘violent’ given the total confusion over what violence and rape means in the context of sex generally (as Julian Assange has found out)  and commercial sex specifically.

Whether any or all aspects of sex work are illegal does not affect the obligation of the state to deal with a crime against that person. Everybody that commits a crime against a sex worker must be subject to police attention and possibly the justice system without regard to the occupation; sexual orientation, HIV status or sexual history of the victim.

Clearly the law is at the heart of this. Street soliciting and doing clients in cars and bushes can never be safe. We know what a safe workplace looks like. The illegality that keeps British sex workers in these conditions and vulnerable to violence is not located in the laws that that address selling sex. Women alone in flats can sell sex legally in the UK.  Rather it is the so-called pimping laws such as brothel keeping and living off immoral earnings that prevent commercial sex taking place in normal workplaces governed by labour laws and contracts.

The UK government currently puts its resources for sex work into clinics and local governments projects tasked with distributing condoms and provide health checks to criminalised female sex workers who work in horrific conditions in British streets. It is hardly surprising that despite the best intentions of the many wonderful staff of those projects they haven’t maintained a strong mechanism for empowering sex workers to share information and demand improved responses to violence and other unlawful behaviour. Rather than putting police in charge of the Ugly Mugs, to reduce violence against British sex workers two things need to happen:

  • The law must be reformed to enable all sex workers to access safe workplaces and labour rights.
  • Resources must be provided to build up sex worker groups so they can develop and use tools like the Ugly Mugs list that reflect their perceptions and demands rather than those of police or government.

Cheryl Overs was a founder of the Australian Prostitutes Collective, the Scarlet Alliance Australia and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.  She has worked in sex work projects since the 1980s,  including in the UK where she lives.

29/12/2010 at 01:43 Leave a comment

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