In May, as we were getting neck-deep in organizing the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, we heard that sex workers in Greece were being forcibly tested for HIV and arrested if they tested positive. To begin with, it is a human rights violation to forcibly test anyone for anything without their consent, including sex workers. On top of that, to arrest someone who has a medical condition that needs treatment – what would you call that if not a gross violation of individual rights? As a health worker then said, “Public health cannot be protected by penalizing patients.”
The Greek episode goes well beyond the usual level of rights violations that sex workers routinely face. In a bizarre replay of ‘blaming the victim’, the women who tested positive were charged with ‘intentionally causing serious bodily harm,’ even though many didn’t know they were HIV-positive since they didn’t have access to public health care or voluntary testing facilities. How could they have knowingly spread an infection they didn’t know they had?
As if that was not bad enough, the names and photographs of those who tested positive were published on the Greek police’s website. Their HIV status was made public in a manner that blatantly ignored their rights to confidentiality or privacy, reinforcing their stigmatization and exposing them to violence. The first woman to be thus “named and shamed” was a 22-year-old Russian sex worker whose picture appeared in newspapers and on billboards. “You can’t broadcast a person’s medical condition without their permission,” she told a journalist at the time.
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What is the message from such misguided initiatives? One, that sex workers don’t count and are not recognised before the law as human beings. That even though we are citizens, human beings, we continue to be denied our citizenship rights, our human rights, and our workers’ rights. Two, that we count even less when we are not citizens – for instance, when we are undocumented migrants who left our countries in search of a living. Migrant sex workers have even fewer rights than other sex workers, and are often deported if found to be HIV-positive. It is this daily violation of our rights that makes us more vulnerable to HIV by denying us safe places to work and live and exposing us to abuse and discrimination.
At the Sex Worker Freedom Festival that kicks off in Kolkata this weekend, we will focus on the rights and freedoms we are all entitled to:
- Freedom of movement and to migrate
- Freedom to access quality health services
- Freedom to work and choose occupation
- Freedom to associate and unionize
- Freedom to be protected by the law
- Freedom from abuse and violence
- Freedom from stigma and discrimination
We will loudly advocate for the recognition of sex work as work, we will oppose the criminalization of sex work, and support the freedom of sex workers to self-organization and self-determination. In the absence of all these freedoms, HIV prevention policies, programs and efforts will remain ineffective.
Our festival begins at the same time as the International AIDS Conference – on Sunday. It is ironical that the AIDS conference’s slogan is “Turning the Tide Together” when two of the key populations most affected by HIV, sex workers and those with a history of drug use, are denied entry to the US and cannot therefore be present – we are an essential part of the solution. In protest against the discriminatory US policy we are organizing the largest-ever global gathering, with more than 120 sex workers from 42 countries and 400 Indian sex workers, to raise our voices in protest at the inequity of holding the International Conference in a country that we cannot enter.