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Finally, sex comes to AIDS 2008

Sex workers can help inform HIV prevention strategies / G.M.B. Akash - Panos Pictures

Sex workers took the platform in Mexico demanding better working conditions, respect and the right to participate in their own HIV prevention programmes.

“We don’t want to sew, we don’t want to knit, we don’t want to cook,” Elena Reynaga, founder of RedTrax, an organisation working with sex workers in Argentina shrilled. “We want better working conditions!”

Wearing a pink T-shirt emblazoned with the words “we are a part of the solution,” Reynaga issued a clear, unequivocal and feisty call for funding agencies and policy makers to honour sex worker organisations’ ability to develop HIV and AIDS programmes themselves, and for the full recognition of sex worker rights.

Reynaga linked the criminalisation of sex work by many countries with violence and an increased risk of HIV transmission.

Over the past ten months, she said, there have been 34 murders of female sex workers in Latin America. All remain unsolved. In Bolivia, raids and public lynching of sex workers resulted in some sewing their lips together in protest.

Stigma against sex workers, she noted led to police repression in many countries. For instance in Zambia, sex workers are publicly whipped and beaten by police and called “bitches who are killing the nation” and “rat poison”.

Since March, female sex workers have been rounded up in raids, arrested and, in some cases, raped in Cambodia.  All this following anti-prostitution policies enacted under pressure from the United States, according to Reynaga.

“State violence is a direct consequence of the lack of recognition of sex work as work,” Reynaga said. She called for the abolition of all legislation that criminalises sex work in order to pave the way for the investigation of violence against sex workers and providing free and universal access to HIV prevention, testing and treatment.

Limited access to HIV prevention and treatment

The need is dire. Reynaga said that only 22.5 per cent of female sex workers in Africa and 35 per cent of those in Latin America have access to prevention programmes. She says peer outreach programmes can fill the gap. Last year, sex worker organisations reached 2,000 workers in El Salvador, 8,000 in Ecuador and 9,000 in Argentina.

“Evidence shows that the most effective responses to HIV are sex worker-led,” she proclaimed. “It’s time we began to be trusted.”

Some of the more popular and successful programmes include the Sonagachi Project, where the sex workers who run it have been credited with reducing the prevalence of HIV to 5.17 per cent compared to the average 54 per cent in Mumbai.

Reynaga noted that sex workers are no longer satisfied to be used as guinea pigs in research carried out by donors and called on UNAIDS and other donors to allocate resources to them to carry out their own interventions.

From the buzzing Global Village at the IAC 2008, members of the Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition echoed Reynaga’s rousing call to recognise sex work as work. Formed last December, the seven-member alliance includes five English-speaking Caribbean countries for which sex worker organisation is new. Their members face restrictive laws, police harassment and the world’s second highest HIV prevalence rate.

“They need to recognise sex workers and not just say what they want us to do,” said Passion, a Guyanese sex worker for more than twenty years.

Precious, a Jamaican go-go dancer says the community is fired up.

“We feel our work should be decriminalised and that funding for all the groups is necessary,” she said. “We are people like everyone else and our work is work.”

Sex workers’ manifesto

  • Abolish all legislation that criminalises sex work
  • Investigate and condemn violence against sex workers
  • Oppose Red Light districts that force them into ghettos and promote violence and discrimination
  • Abolish mandatory HIV testing
  • Promote voluntary, free and confidential testing including per and post test counselling

This article originally appeared in Panoscope – the AIDS 2008 conference newspaper produced by the Panos Global Aids Programme.

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