She-roes Visit Washington to Share Victories Working with Women in the Sex Sector

She-roes Visit Washington to Share Victories Working with Women in the Sex Sector

Dr. Jamila Taylor

Does U.S. foreign policy combat HIV and trafficking, or combat women working in the sex sector?

U.S. foreign policy combat HIV and trafficking, or combat women working
in the sex sector?

spark discussion on this question, the Center for Health and Gender
Equity (CHANGE), with the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law
at American University Washington College of Law, sponsored a symposium two weeks ago to highlight the importance of engaging sex workers in anti-trafficking
and HIV/AIDS efforts, and to demonstrate how anti-prostitution policies
and campaigns such as those supported by the U.S. government undermine
the U.S.’s own policy objectives to end human trafficking and HIV
and AIDS. 

work is not the same as trafficking in persons for the purpose of sex,
and the conflating of the two in U.S. policy has resulted in human rights
violations such as "raid and rescues" of women sex workers who were
not victims of trafficking – yet the actions were conducted in the name
of anti-trafficking.

policy over the past decade has contributed significantly to an anti-sex-worker
approach to key health and human rights issues. Both the global AIDS law and trafficking
victims protection law

(both reauthorized in 2008) include provisions that prohibit U.S. foreign
assistance for nongovernmental organizations that promote or advocate
for the legalization or practice of prostitution. One major problem
with the provision is that the U.S. government has failed to define
what is and is not allowed under the policy, leaving implementers and
country missions to guess about what exactly is prohibited from U.S.
funding.  As a result, programs that ensure the health and rights
of one of the most marginalized populations at greatest risk of contracting
HIV are under threat of losing funding, censor themselves about sex
worker rights, or have shut down due to loss of funds.   

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second provision in the global AIDS policy – yes, it gets worse – is
that in order to receive U.S. funds in the first place the respective
NGO must have a policy explicitly opposing the legalization
and practice
of prostitution.  How is that for alienating an
already marginalized group of people who are key to slowing the spread
of HIV?  Without access
to targeted and carefully implemented prevention programming
– provided by people they trust
to be looking out for their interests, not U.S. government interests
– sex workers will not have access to the information and services
necessary to enable them to use condoms consistently and correctly with
their partners and clients.  

Member of Congress who apparently rode in on a white horse to protect
women and children that have become victims of trafficking seems to
have no concern about the impact of these policies on the health and
human rights of sex workers.  Christopher Smith (R-NJ) is that
self-appointed guardian of women’s morality who has shaped the policies
that equate prostitution with sex trafficking —  although his
efforts would not have gone very far without the help of the Bush administration
and the votes of Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress.   

seeks to eliminate this pledge legislatively, yet in the meantime the
Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator should revise its guidance to
ensure that PEPFAR-funded programs aimed at reducing HIV infection among
sex workers are not driven by an anti-prostitution ideology, and are
proven to respect and uphold the human rights of women, men and transgender
adult sex workers.   

current U.S. policy, sex workers are organizing to fight trafficking
and HIV, and to reform the very policies that disenfranchise them.  
Four women who work with sex workers shared their stories with the audience
at the symposium.  


Bradford, technical advisor for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers
in Cambodia, spoke about the impact of Cambodia’s recent anti-prostitution
and anti-trafficking law, which was implemented as a result of U.S.
pressure.  The law has had little impact on trafficking, yet a
huge effect on the lives of sex workers.  Police take sex workers
forcibly from the brothels in which they work and place them in "rehabilitation
centers" – in some cases with their children – where they are
given little to eat, no clean water, and are denied basic health services,
including access to ARVs for those living with HIV.  Women have
also been beaten and sexually abused by the police.   

Shilpa Merchant is the regional director for Population Services International
in Mumbai, India.  Shilpa has worked to provide HIV prevention
services to underserved sex workers and their clients in Mumbai’s
red-light district.  She has been told by stewards of U.S.-funded
programs that providing condoms to sex workers is in fact promoting
sex work.  Despite this, PSI has supported Shilpa in her work with
sex workers and provided sexual and reproductive health services to
them and other marginalized and hard to reach populations. 

Mollet is a co-founder of DANAYA SO in Mali.  A big part of DANAYA
SO’s focus is on young women engaged in the sex sector.  Sylvia
spoke movingly about young women who willingly become sex workers for
the most basic needs, like school fees, food, and clean water. 
Sylvia even mentioned a situation where a young woman had exchanged
sex for a piece of bread.  DANAYA SO has worked to emphasize the
need to create opportunities for women and girls so that they may freely
choose to remain in the sex sector or turn to alternative life choices
beyond sex work.  The organization has created special income generation
and micro-enterprise opportunities, and through public-private partnerships
with pharmacies and health clinics offer full-coverage health insurance,
including HIV prevention. 

Leite is the director of Davida in Brazil.  She is an author, self-proclaimed
retired prostitute, and renowned human rights advocate.  Gabriela
worked as a prostitute for more than ten years and started a movement
in the 1970s as a response to human rights violations against sex workers
in her country.  During her presentation at the symposium, Gabriela
highlighted Brazil’s choice to not accept U.S. HIV/AIDS funding through
PEPFAR due to the inclusion of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge. Davida
and the network of sex workers pride themselves on creating partnerships
with government where sex workers are consulted and collaborated with
in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  Because of this partnership, Gabriela
mentioned that the HIV prevalence rate among sex workers has declined
significantly in about a ten-year span.     

is committed advocates like Sara, Shilpa, Sylvia and Gabriela, and the
women they serve, who are best positioned to identify and assist with
eliminating child exploitation and human trafficking for the purposes
of sex.  Governments should not see the sex sector as something
to abolish, but like the government of Brazil, welcome organizations
and networks of sex workers as partners in eliminating HIV/AIDS, human
trafficking and child exploitation.

For more information about
U.S. global AIDS policy and the impact of the Anti-Prostitution Pledge,
please visit

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