Prostitutes Are Heroes in the Fight Against HIV, But Sex Workers Are Banned From AIDS Conference 2012


“I am happy to be here as I can speak for myself rather than someone else speaking for me,” announced Daisy, a sex worker from Uganda at the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, a gathering of over 550 representatives of sex worker organizations from 41 countries. The festival, which takes place this year from July 22 to 27 in Kolkata, India, was created as an alternative to the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. this week, because U.S. travel restrictions have denied entry to sex workers from around the world.

Recognizing that sex workers play a key role in the conversation on the spread of HIV/AIDS, the Sex Worker Freedom Festival was organized by the Darbur Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a collective of 65,000 sex workers in West Bengal, and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), an international NGO for the human rights of sex workers. The conference is also put on in association with the International AIDS Society, Different Avenues, a D.C.-based sex worker rights organization, and several other international associations.

Even though President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions on HIV-positive people in 2009, restrictions against sex workers and drug users remain. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival protests U.S. “moral turpitude” laws, which bar anyone who has practiced prostitution in the last 10 years from entering the country, even if it was in a locale where prostitution is legal. This law prevents international sex worker organizations from joining the global conversation on HIV/AIDS.

Michael Sidibe, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, is appalled that sex worker organizations do not have a voice in the International AIDS Conference this year. He calls it “outrageous” that in 2012, “when we have everything to beat this epidemic, we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, discrimination, exclusion, and criminalization.” Sidibe called the Kolkata alternative to the International AIDS Conference “a wonderful example of people who face stigma and discrimination speaking out and taking control of their own destinies.” Along with many other organizations in Washington, D.C. this week who show sympathy and support for the Kolkata sex worker organizations, Sidibe calls for “a new paradigm” in fighting HIV/AIDS “where people most at risk, including sex workers, are at the center” of the global response to this epidemic which has killed nearly 35 million people over three decades, 1.7 million just in the past year, and over 2.5 million new infections this year.

A May 2012 study published in The Lancet medical journal found that female sex workers are almost 14 times more susceptible to HIV infection than other women in low and middle-income countries. As such, it is injurious to public health to exclude the voice of sex workers in the global conversation on AIDS. 

“I don’t know how we’re ever going to see an end to AIDS in our lifetime,” announced U.S. representative Barbara Lee from California, “without including all of those populations who must be involved as part of this solution.” 

Sex Workers as Community Leaders. By leaving sex workers out of the equation, the global AIDS movement is underestimating is the impact that sex worker leadership can lend in the fight against the spread of this disease. 

Sex workers have proven to be phenomenal leaders in the global fight against HIV/AIDS. The DMSC collective, made up of 65,000 Indian sex workers, have demonstrated through the Songachi Project, in Kolkata’s red light district, that sex workers can be mobilized to promote condom use and fight trafficking in their own community. In fact, this well-organized and extremely effective community-based movement, which combined condom distribution with targeted information campaigns, demonstrated such strong project management and public health expertise that the Indian government has hailed it as a model for its national HIV strategy. 

Meena Seshu, the director of SANGRAM, a sex worker organization against the spread of HIV in Maharashta, India, says: “We’re looking at large numbers of women, many from Dalit communities,” the lowest underclass of Indian caste-based society, “demanding political space and a voice – this is huge.”

Yet far from supporting sex worker leadership, all American initiatives against HIV/AIDS continue to marginalize and criminalize sex workers. Under the Bush administration, the PEPFAR Act which distributed foreign aid money towards global AIDS organizations, insists on an abstinence-based approach, with a strict “Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath” that prohibits all recipients of U.S. funding from collaborating with sex workers. In order to perform its significant public health work, SANGRAM has been forced to turn down USAID funding due to the “Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath.”

Particularly in countries like Zambia, where the sex trade contributes significantly to the spread of HIV, a human rights-based “harm reduction” approach that operates with a realistic understanding and pragmatic collaboration with sex worker outreach organizations is far more effective in preventing AIDS than the continual marginalization and criminalization of this key population of working people.

“We are not the problem. We are part of the solution!” exclaimed Minerva, a sex worker from Mexico, at the Sex Worker Freedom Festival yesterday.

The human rights approach to sex work is also effective in the fight against human trafficking and labor exploitation. Anthropology professor Patty Kelly, at George Washington University, demonstrated that by empowering sex worker unions and legalizing government-regulated brothels in parts of Mexico – rather than criminalizing commercial sex and forcing it further underground, where it falls under the control of violent pimps and gangs  – the regulation of the sex trade increases public health and serves as a source of tax revenue, as well as decreases human trafficking and labor exploitation. At the same time, this approach gives sex workers basic protection from countless acts of violence every year, which is a fundamental human right.

The DMSC sex worker union has also clearly demonstrated in Kolkata that empowering sex workers is the most effective way to eliminate human trafficking and child prostitution from the Songachi red light district. 

“Sex worker rights are human rights,” hails the mantra for the growing global movement in recognition of the unjust marginalization of sex workers world-wide. The Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata this year demands seven freedoms for sex workers:

Freedom of movement and to migrate.

Last year, the United Nations criticized the unjust treatment of sex workers in the United States, which violates basic human rights, in one of the clauses during the UN Periodic Review of 2011. The U.S. agreed to take measures against sex worker discrimination. However, the denial of entry to international sex workers at the 19th International AIDS Conference is not a good example of American progress in this direction.

Human Rights Watch, recently published an article criticizingAmerica's heavy-handed criminalization approach to sex work. The use of possession of condoms as legal evidence for prostitution by many states, including New York and California, is a danger to public health, as it discourages condom use by people both within and outside of the commercial sex industry. Members of the U.S. sex worker advocacy organization, Best Practices Policy Project, demand a change in the approach to sex work in the United States under a human rights framework. 

In the words of J.V.R. Prasada Rao, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in the Asia-Pacific Region, “the police harassment and the violence against the sex workers must stop. This should be worked out with all the state governments in the country.”

A Growing Global Movement for Sex Worker Human Rights. On Sunday, a group of sex worker activists carrying red umbrellas and vuvuzelas, gathered in front of the 19th International AIDS Conference in D.C., disrupting the kickoff of the event.

On Tuesday, there will be a protest in front of the White House, and daily live video broadcasts of the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata.

“We love being in Kolkata, but we really should be in Washington!” announced Andrew Hunter, from the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers, in front of over 500 sex worker representatives from 41 countries gathered in Kolkata on Monday.

Instead of increased criminalization and marginalization of sex workers, organizations all over the world are proving that the global cause of public health would be better served by empowering sex workers and by guaranteeing their labor rights and basic human rights.

Click here to read the Call to Change and endorse. For daily updates from within the Sex Worker Freedom Festival in Kolkata, check out Research Project Korea’s blog. For a live webcast from the event, go to