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We Can’t Turn the Tide on HIV Without the Participation of Sex Workers

12:36 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Ruth Morgan Thomas for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

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.

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.

Our Current Approach to Sex Work: Flawed Laws, Flawed Policies, and Flawed Programs Will Not Right Our Wrongs

12:51 pm in Uncategorized by RH Reality Check

Written by Meena Saraswathi Seshu for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

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Just two months back, I marched with hundreds of sex workers in India to demand justice for Anu Mokal. Anu, a sex worker, was picked up by the police at a bus stop one evening, charged with ‘soliciting’ customers at the bus stand, abused and beaten up. As a consequence, Anu, who was then four months pregnant, suffered a miscarriage.

With the support of a collective of sex workers, Anu filed a complaint against the policemen who assaulted her. But two months down the road, has her complaint progressed any further? No. Has the promised State inquiry into the incident taken place? Unlikely. If it has, the results have not been made known. Has Anu been given a fair hearing? Not that I know of. (Instead, while she was complaining, she was told that sex workers cannot be mothers). Have the policemen faced any action for assaulting a woman in a public place, an action that was witnessed by others? No.

Anu Mokal’s case is emblematic of the situation faced by the more than one million sex workers who live and work in India. On the one hand, they routinely face violence, including the violence of stigma. On the other, they are not able to rightfully claim their place in the sun as citizens, who deserve respect, dignity, justice, and rights – like any other citizen of our country. This is why the banner leading our march says:

“The violence of stigma we dare to survive
Of dignity we dare to dream.”

Freedom from abuse and violence is a human right that we will continue to fight for at every forum, including the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, which is on at Kolkata at the same time as the International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington DC. (Come to Kolkata and support us, you guys!) But for now, I want to go a little deeper into this whole thing and show how flawed national laws, HIV policies and programs contribute to reducing freedoms for sex workers and depriving them of their daily rights.

To begin with, sex work is itself seen as a moral blot by all sections of society – from opinion makers in the media to the forces of law and order. I see this as ‘moral criminalization’, a situation in which public morality ‘criminalizes’ sex workers, regardless of their legal status. But when laws, policies and programs reflect this kind of thinking, the situation gets much worse.

We still have:

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