Sex Workers at IAC: “Listen to Us!”

Becky Johnson

The message of sex workers at the International AIDS Conference was loud and clear -- sex workers demand to be recognized as a legitimate profession and see themselves as part of the solution.

Wearing a hot pink t-shirt that read "Somos parte de la solución" (We are part of the solution), Elena Reynaga,
founder and executive secretary of the Argentine Association of
Female Sex Workers
, was
the first ever sex worker to address a plenary session in seventeen
International AIDS Conferences. "It is time that we begin to be trusted,"
stated Reynaga during a speech that focused on human rights for male,
female and transgender sex workers. "What makes us vulnerable are
the policies that repress us in many different ways."

Central to sex worker activism at the XVII International AIDS
was the call
for an extensive revision of the UNAIDS Guidance Note on
HIV and Sex Work,
in April 2007. According to sex workers and activists present at the
conference, the guidance note was to take into consideration outcomes
and recommendations from a sex worker consultation with UNAIDS and UNFPA
that took place in 2005, but the guidance note almost completed ignored
the sex workers’ input. Instead it focused on a rehabilitative approach
to sex work, following a policy in which sex workers need to be rescued
from their vocation. A global working group on sex work policy, comprised
of sex workers and sex worker activists from around the world, has submitted
a suggested re-write of the
guidance note

According to Ly Pisey, sex worker activist
from Cambodia, policy makers and others are under the false assumption
that adult sex workers are not in the trade because of choice, and that
they want to be rescued from their victimhood. According to Pisey, these
people only hear half of the story when they hear "I don’t want
to do sex work." Pisey noted that it is rather that sex workers think "I don’t want to do sex work because it is not an accepted part
of society."

Sex workers at the AIDS Conference
advocated for governments and international policy bodies to recognize
sex work as a legitimate profession. They cited the case of Brazil,
in which sex workers have successfully lobbied their government to include
sex work as an official profession in the list published by the Ministry
of Work. Prostitutes in Brazil, as they prefer to be called, can also
retire if they contribute to the social security system. Brazil is also
noted for having rejected USAID funding for HIV and AIDS in 2005 because
of the U.S. Government’s policy to make aid recipients sign an anti-prostitution
pledge. In doing so, the Government of Brazil publicly acknowledged
that inclusion of sex workers in their national AIDS strategy contributed
largely to their success in responding to the epidemic.

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A third item for sex worker advocacy
at the conference was the decriminalization of sex work.  According
to Meena Seshu, longtime sex worker activist from India, criminalization
makes sex work go underground, increases violence against sex workers,
and makes sex workers harder to reach with condom promotion and HIV
prevention messages. Currently the Indian government enforces a neutral
policy on sex work, but due to increasing pressure from the United States
government, is pushing for implementation of the Immoral Traffic Prevention
, which criminalizes
entry into sex work and categorizes all sex workers as "trafficked
victims." Seshu also stated that it is important to differentiate
between adult sex work and child prostitution, and that sex worker activists
are definitely opposed to the latter.

Sex workers who are in the profession
by choice have been drastically hurt by anti-trafficking laws. In Cambodia,
U.S. government encouraged anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws
have led to a rise in imprisonment and rape and violence by policemen
towards sex workers. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there was
also a marked increase in sexual violence towards sex workers by military
and police, and a number of sex workers who experienced this trauma
later tested positive for HIV.

The message of sex workers at the International
AIDS Conference was loud and clear — sex workers demand to be recognized
as a legitimate profession and see themselves as part of the solution.
Sex workers called for a massive scale up of services and resources
from the international community, as currently only one in three sex workers
has access to HIV prevention services. As Elena Reynaga shouted to the
plenary before being greeted by a standing ovation, "Some may say
sex work is not decent. We reply, indecent are the conditions in which
we work…We don’t want to sew. We don’t want to knit. We don’t
want to cook. We want to improve our working conditions."

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