Criminalising condom possession by sex workers is a global trend

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There's nothing new about sex work being illegal – a fact that remains the norm in many countries – but now sex workers are being targeted for simply trying to protect their health and the health of their clients by using condoms.

Studies 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 itself – 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."

A study 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.



Social attitudes that suggest that having a particular illness or being in a particular situation is something to be ashamed of. Stigma can be questioned and challenged.


In everyday language, a general movement upwards or downwards (e.g. every year there are more HIV infections). When discussing statistics, a trend often describes an apparent difference between results that is not statistically significant. 

harm reduction

Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use (including safer use, managed use and abstinence). It is also a movement for social justice built on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people who use drugs.

According 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.

Not 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?"

Sex workers’ support organisations and outreach workers are also being targeted.

According 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.

Global HIV Criminalisation Database

More specific and recently updated information about the law in each country is available from the HIV Justice Network.

Draconian 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.

Police 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.

Darby 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."

According 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."

Policies 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.)

US 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.

"We 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."

But representatives at Monday's session noted that domestic policies aren't the only thing to be changed.

So-called 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.

Concerned 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.

Speakers 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.

"This 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.


Gomes TM et al. The legal framework of sex work and its interface with HIV: barriers for a sustainable response to HIV programming in Bangladesh 19th International AIDS Conference, abstract MOPDD0206, Washington DC, 2012.

View the abstract on the conference website.

View the slides on the conference website.

Shields A et al. Criminalizing condoms: how policing practices put sex workers and HIV services at risk 19th International AIDS Conference, abstract MOPDD0204, Washington DC, 2012.


View the abstract on the conference website.

View the slides on the conference website.

Muldoon K et al.Alarming rates of occupational violence and associated HIV risks among young female sex workers in post-conflict northern Uganda 19th International AIDS Conference, abstract MOPDD0205, Washington DC, 2012. View the abstract on the conference website.

Maseko S et al.Condoms as evidence: police, sex workers and condom confiscation in Zimbabwe 19th International AIDS Conference, abstract MOPDD0202, Washington DC, 2012. View the abstract on the conference website.