News / Africa

Sex Workers Demand Rights at AIDS 2012

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Joe DeCapua
Sex workers say stigma, discrimination and antiquated laws make them more vulnerable to HIV infection, exploitation and violence. They spoke out at 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington.



Sex workers, along with men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users are three groups where HIV infection is rising rapidly. At AIDS 2012, a symposium featured members of the international sex workers rights movement.

Sienna Baskin, of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, said, “In 2011, the U.N. Global Commission on HIV and the Law held regional dialogues around the world. Sex workers participated in every dialogue sharing how laws affect their access to HIV prevention and treatment, testimony about human rights abuses and practical recommendations for change. We thought that the International AIDS Conference needed to hear these same messages.”

Baskin said they had wanted more sex workers to attend the session, but they couldn’t get into the U.S. That’s despite the elimination of the travel ban for HIV infected people.

“Unfortunately, even as we celebrate the lifting of the HIV ban, U.S. immigration laws exclude most sex workers from even attending this conference,” she said.

Kholi Buthelezi is South Africa’s country coordinator for the African Sexworkers Alliance and trains sex workers in achieving better health, human rights and better working conditions. Buthelezi said criminalization of sex work violates human rights. She said sex workers in South Africa have been raped and gang raped, even by members of the police force. She adds harassment takes many forms.

“One of the examples, in Mpumulanga, police go to sex workers where they stay because they know where they live. And then when they get there they destroy condoms. They also force sexworkers to eat condoms that had been used. They also force sex workers to jump over the bridge so that it would look like they committed suicide. In Limpopo, police also ask for bribes from sex workers,” she said.

Joining Buthelezi at the AIDS conference was Sian Maseko, director of Zimbabwe’s Sexual Rights Center.

“Criminal laws are often used as a justification for stigma and discrimination against sex workers from various service providers, institutions and in general the wider community,” she said.

Maseko said the criminalization of sex work makes it impossible to challenge abuses in conventional ways. She describes what she calls “multiple discriminations.”

“Female sexworkers are discriminated against on the basis of being women as well as being sex workers. But it’s also important to note the issues around the sodomy laws, for example, that often violate the rights of male sexworkers. Trans-sex workers often experience humiliation and ridicule at the hands of healthcare service providers. So there are additional factors that violate and infringe the rights of sexworkers,” she said.

She said good health is more than physical. It’s also a sense of well-being, along with personal safety and security.

The panel also criticized a provision in PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath. It’s more commonly known as the anti-prostitution pledge and is contained in the 2003 United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act. It requires groups receiving U.S. funds to fight HIV/AIDS globally to agree to a policy of opposing prostitution and human trafficking.

In 2001, a federal appeals court ruled that the government cannot require U.S. organizations to take such a pledge against prostitution. But international organizations face either taking the pledge or losing funding.

Melissa Ditmore, an independent consultant on sex work and HIV, praised PEPFAR for helping to get millions of HIV positive people on antiretroviral treatment. But she said the pledge or oath creates many problems.

“Despite the fact that sex workers face disproportionate risk for HIV and despite the current U.S. administration’s efforts to base policy upon evidence, we found in our research that the pledge is not grounded in evidence, or is grounded in a very partisan interpretation of evidence. By inadvertently promoting stigma against sex workers in health programs the pledge in all its forms increases sex workers vulnerability to HIV infection.” She said.

The international sex workers rights movement and others have launched a campaign to repeal the pledge, as well as provisions that block immigration based on sex work. They also called for an end to criminalization of sex work. They said it drives commercial sex underground while increasing the risk for violence and isolation from health services.

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