nothing new about sex work being illegal
– a fact that remains the norm in many
– but now sex workers are being targeted for simply trying to protect
their health and the health of their clients by using condoms.
presented at a session entitled Criminalizing Condoms and Sex Work,
held on Monday at the 19th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), showed that public
health efforts are being stymied by draconian police policies, as sex workers
around the globe are routinely being targeted and face verbal, physical and
sexual abuse for carrying condoms, an action which
– while not illegal in and of
– provides police with so-called "evidence" of prostitution.
According to Sian Maseka of the Sexual Rights Centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, who
presented at the session, "Condoms have now become just another weapon
against sex workers."
funded by the Open Society Foundation, entitled Criminalizing
Condoms, in which seven sex workers' organisations across Kenya, Namibia,
Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe collected testimonials
from 139 sex workers and 40 outreach workers showed "uniformity [in] the
responses we got from sex workers across different locations", according
to Acacia Shields, who presented the findings.
to the report, in Russia, 80% of sex workers said that police had confiscated
condoms; in Namibia, 50% of sex workers actually had their condoms destroyed.
Maseka found similar results from interviews with 21 sex workers in Zimbabwe,
17 of whom had been arrested on charges relating to sex work, with condom
possession used as justification in some cases.
surprisingly, police harassment has lead to a marked decrease in condom use
among sex workers. Sixty per cent of Namibian respondents to the OSF report who saw their
condoms destroyed went on to continue sex work without condoms. Up to 85% of
those interviewed in the country said there were times when they would not
carry condoms because of fear of police harassment; the figure was 52% of those
interviewed in New York City. Speaking of the Zimbabwe experience, Maseka said,
"One sex worker told me, 'Without condoms, you can't make a client use
them.' This may seem like a really obvious point but it's really important. if cops
take them away, how will they work?"
workers’ support organisations and outreach workers are also being targeted.
to Shields, "Police directly harass and arrest and physically abuse
outreach workers, which understandably [causes] them to be afraid to do their
work." Furthermore, "The police use outreach workers as bait to catch
sex workers. For example, police in South Africa follow the outreach van to
find sex workers when they give [out] condoms," said Shields.
laws fuel this trend. While condom distribution is legal amongst most countries
represented on the panel, it is currently illegal for Bangladeshi sex workers
to access condoms under the country's anti-prostitution law, according to Simon
Rasin of Save the Children, which recently hosted the country's first Congress of Female Sex Workers. Sex workers
are also not able to easily access government health services, as they are
deprived of their identity cards. Rasin said the distribution of condoms is
seen as "promoting" and "soliciting" sex work, and brothel
raids are common.
harassment is not only linked to decreased condom use, but also increased risk
of violence. Presenting on a study done in Gulu, Uganda, Kate Shannon of the
University of British Columbia said that 83% of the sex workers interviewed
reported violence from their clients in the last six months, which she linked
to police harassment: sex workers often rushed negotiations because of police
presence, and those who did were 2.5 times more likely to experience violence,
in addition to a four-fold likelihood of non-condom use.
Hickey, a former sex worker who is now a policy analyst with the Best Practices
Policy Project, said that police harassment was part of "wider societal
indifference or stigma and discrimination". She rejected "the idea
that sex workers need to be rescued or saved", saying that policies which
promote so-called "protection" actually further marginalised sex
workers. "You can place the word 'rescued' or 'saved' with 'arrested', and
you usually can replace it with 'their human rights were abused'…We need sex
workers to be at the head of helping to form responses…not expected to be
victims or perpetrators."
to Shields, "[police harassment] dramatically highlights a chasm between
national policies to prevent HIV by putting condoms into the hands of sex
workers and others, and law enforcement policies that are taking condoms away
from people… We need to rethink how we are designing programs to go beyond
condom promotion and distribution and think about the reality of sex workers
lives and how police actions are affecting their health."
that stigmatise and marginalise sex workers go beyond law enforcement. The
International AIDS Conference host country, the United States, has been heavily
criticised this week for denying sex workers visas to enter the country and
attend the IAC. A Sex Worker Freedom Festival is taking place this week in Kolkata, India, as an alternative conference hub for sex workers denied entry to the United States. (You can follow events at the Kolkata conference through the HIVandhumanrights blog.)
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, speaking at the conference's opening plenary, said
that the recently introduced legislation, entitled Ending the HIV/AIDS
Epidemic Act, would help to end such discrimination in part by lifting
the travel ban on these vulnerable populations and to increase access to
services to high-risk populations that remain under-served.
need to discuss the prohibitions and the discriminations that still
exist," she said. "There are laws that are prohibiting people from
gaining access to services."
representatives at Monday's session noted that domestic policies aren't the
only thing to be changed.
anti-trafficking laws, pushed by the US and organisations such as the
International Monetary Fund, are actually "anti-sex worker and
anti-migrant laws" because they "conflate trafficking and sex
work", according to Hickey.
about the effect of anti-trafficking laws in countries like Fiji, sex worker
advocacy organisations have lobbied hard within the US "to make sure
that [the US doesn't] promote laws that promote the violation of human
rights", said Hickey.
and participants at Monday's session said that while harm reduction measures
must be implemented to stymie police harassment and intimidation and promote
access to services, full decriminalisation of both sex workers and their
clients was essential to protect both human rights and public health.
evidence presented supports the calls
that are being made for decriminalisation of sex work and access to safe spaces and
the ability of sex workers to self-organise," said Shannon.