Speaking of Women's Rights: Sex Worker Participation Critical to “Turn the Tide” on HIV and AIDS

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sex Worker Participation Critical to “Turn the Tide” on HIV and AIDS

by Nina Schwartz 

Last Sunday marked the beginning of the XIX International Global AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. The Conference is being held in this country this year for the first time in more than two decades, following the recent repeal of a ban on people living with HIV entering the U.S. Government officials, activists, academics, people living with HIV, and stakeholders from around the world have gathered to discuss the treatment, prevention, and care of HIV and AIDS. 

 Notably absent from the table is one of the populations most critically affected by HIV and AIDS--sex workers. Current U.S. law prohibits any person who has participated in sex work in the last ten years from entering this country, regardless of whether sex work is legal in their country. 

However, sex workers are not silenced by this antiquated policy. Hundreds of representatives from around the world have gathered in Kolkata, India, for the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, the alternative International AIDS Conference for sex workers and allies.  The conference is focusing on seven freedoms, including “freedom to work and choose occupation” and “freedom from abuse and violence.” Through collective action and organizing events like the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, sex workers are demanding that they be recognized as and treated like workers, not victims or criminals. Unsurprisingly, their knowledge and input is essential to increasing sex workers’ health and safety and determining the necessary steps to reduce the transmission of HIV among sex workers. 

The U.S. travel ban for foreign sex workers is just one obstacle to changing policies and practices around sex work. 

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting police and prosecutors in four major U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.) using condom possession as evidence supporting prostitution charges. The report describes the violence, harassment, and other human rights violations that many sex workers encounter in their daily lives. Practices criminalizing condoms have also been documented in other countries, including Kenya, Russia, and South Africa. When sex workers are afraid to carry condoms out of fear of consequences from law enforcement, it compromises their health and safety, as well as public health more broadly. 

Much progress has been made in addressing the global AIDS crisis, but there is still much more work that remains to be done. The theme of this year’s International AIDS Conference is “Turning the Tide Together.” The outdated, discriminatory policy banning current and former sex workers and drug users from entering the U.S. undermines this important call to action. It is only together, with all of the stakeholders and affected populations at the table, that an end to the AIDS epidemic is possible. 

Nina is a summer intern with Legal Voice and a rising 3L at the University of Virginia School of Law.