‘Has anything changed?’ A Decade of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

Community mobilisation and peer support can make a significant difference in the lives of female sex workers, helping to reduce the impact of criminalisation, social stigma and vulnerability to HIV. (Photo: Peter Caton for India HIV/AIDS Alliance)

The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was created to call attention to violence and other hate crimes committed against sex workers all over the world. Conceptualised by Dr. Annie Sprinkle, the first annual day was observed in 2003 by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington. On that day sex workers gathered to honour women and sex workers murdered by the serial killer Gary Ridgeway. In the killer’s own words: “I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

Today, ten years from that first annual observation we should to pause and take stock. Has anything changed substantively in the last decade?

“Sex workers are subject to violence from the general community, who do not view us as deserving of protection. Sex workers are often rejected by family and peers, and for transgender and HIV-positive sex workers, the stigma can be even more intense.” (Friends Frangipani, Papua new Guinea, Asia-Pacific Regional Dialogue, 16–17 February 2011, quoted in Global Commission on HIV and the Law (GCHL) report “Risks, Rights & Health”)

In a public letter, Sprinkle states: “Violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished. There really are people who don’t care when prostitutes are victims of hate crimes, beaten, raped, and murdered. No matter what you think about sex workers and the politics surrounding them, sex workers are a part of our neighborhoods, communities and families.”

The GCHL report published in July 2012 highlights that more than 100 countries globally criminalise some aspect of sex work. Some countries, such as most of the United States, Cuba, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Vietnam and South Africa, outlaw sex work entirely. Some in Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, and South Asia prosecute activities related to sex work such as brothel-keeping or transporting sex workers, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, street soliciting and living off its profits. Norway and Sweden do not criminalise workers themselves, but paradoxically criminalise buying sex and arrest clients of sex workers.

Most countries use other laws against civil and administrative offences such as “loitering without purpose”, “public nuisance”, and “public morality” to penalise sex workers. Often anti-human trafficking laws are targeted against adults involved in consensual sex work rather than ensuring that the enforcement of those laws identify and punish those who use force, dishonesty or coercion to procure people into commercial sex, or who abuse migrant sex workers through debt bondage, violence or by deprivation of liberty.

The report goes on to say that for sex workers, the threat of violence – from both police and other actors – is a daily reality. Criminalisation, in collusion with social stigma makes sex workers’ lives more unstable, less safe and far riskier in terms of HIV. There is no legal protection from discrimination and abuse when sex work is criminalised. These kinds of laws invite police harassment and violence and push sex work underground, where it is harder to negotiate safer conditions and consistent condom use. Some sex workers fear carrying condoms, which are used as evidence against them, sometimes as an explicit provision of law. Police violence prevents sex workers from seeking their assistance, which ingrains a culture of more client and police violence.

Stigmatised, criminalised sex workers are unable to access programmes of HIV prevention and care. Police, criminals and clients deploy the threat of criminal sanctions to control and exploit sex workers. Rape and assault are difficult to report when the sex worker fears that she will be arrested, and sexual violence heightens exposure to HIV. Working in the informal sector reduces sex workers’ access to education and housing, thus increasing their dependence on others, including pimps.

Today, to make the observation of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers meaningful, we must join the demands of sex workers, and their friends and allies to address the structural factors that continues to perpetrate, condone, and justify persistent violence against sex workers world-wide. Given this unsupportive legal environment around the world and the stigma against sex work, sex workers, and their clients, the critical first step towards ending violence against female, male, or transgender sex workers would be to repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against “immoral” earnings, “living off the earnings” of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Moreover, sex workers must have access to justice to ensure safe working conditions and security against violence from state and non-state actors.

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The author of this blog, Nandinee Bandyopadhyay, is an independent consultant. She has been working on issues of class, gender, and sexuality for over thirty years. She has worked extensively with sex workers’ movements in India and internationally. 

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Their Voices Count: Stand with PLHIV on Human Rights Day!

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Even after more than two decades of a coordinated national response to HIV/AIDS in India, stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV (PLHIV) remain commonplace. These forces—and the violence and other rights violations that often accompany them—undermine the efforts of the government, civil society, and donors to mount a truly effective response to the epidemic.

December 10th is Human Rights Day. It is an opportunity to advocate for the full enjoyment of human rights by all people everywhere. This year’s theme is ‘My Voice Counts.’ For those of us working to address HIV/AIDS, it’s a moment to reflect on progress but also on how much more work remains. Just a few days ago, an incident took place in Jodhpur, Rajasthan that illustrates how far we still need to travel.

A couple living with HIV received regular support from a local NGO. A staff member from the NGO made a home visit and, while enquiring about the address of their house, inadvertently revealed that the couple was HIV-positive. Neighbors beat the couple and threw them out of their home. Presently, they are living on the streets. (The Deccan Herald reported on this incident in their November 30th issue.)

HIV was first identified in India in 1986. After more than 26 years of rigorous efforts to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and increase understanding of the disease, our efforts to reduce stigma and discrimination remain inadequate as the Jodhpur case shows. While there are pockets of progress, the majority of the 2.4 million PLHIV in India still live in fear of being harassed, humiliated, stigmatized, beaten, and disowned.

The despicable treatment of the couple in Jodhpur was covered by the media, but numerous other such situations go unrecorded. What should our leaders do? What steps are needed to truly address the ignorance and fear that drives neighbors to hurt not help? The Supreme Court of India ruled that PLHIV are assured a right to treatment, but why are we so indifferent about protecting the right of PLHIV to lead full and productive lives?

The National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) recognizes the important role that rights protections play in the AIDS response. NACO has a ‘Know Your Rights’ page on its website, but do PLHIV really know what measures they can take to protect themselves when faced with violations of their basic rights? And if they do, what happens when they stand up for themselves?

In early November, a group of 70 PLHIV walked into Bihar State AIDS Control Society to demand a meeting. The crowd was angry as there had been an interruption in the supply of antiretroviral drugs in the state. Such gaps can significantly undermine the effectiveness of treatment and lead to drug resistance. The group protested in loud voices, and in the process, a couple of flowerpots were broken. The police were called, and Gyan Ranjan Khatri, president of Bihar Network of People Living with HIV, was arrested. Getting him bailed out was difficult, and locals report that a case may be filed against him. The question remains: How can it be a criminal offence to demand the government protect the basic right of PLHIV to health?

If India is to progress towards UNAIDS’ global strategic goal of ‘Getting To Zero,’ then we must recognize that our efforts to achieve ‘Zero Discrimination’ need new energy and focus. Like it or not, HIV still inspires irrational fear. Today, on Human Rights Day, we should ask ourselves what we must to do to protect the rights of PLHIV here in India and all around the world. While there can be many solutions—and many are needed—we must listen to PLHIV. Their voices count.

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The author of this post, Francis Joseph, is Programme Officer for Alliance India’s Drug Use & Harm Reduction programmes, based in New Delhi.

Spanning five countries (China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malaysia), Community Action on Harm Reduction (CAHR) expands harm reduction services to more than 180,000 injecting drug users (IDUs), their partners and children. The programme protects and promotes the rights of these groups by fostering an enabling environment for HIV and harm reduction programming in these five countries. CAHR is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Netherlands.

In India, CAHR is called Hridaya and is implemented by Alliance India in partnership with SASO, Sharan, and a number of community-based harm reduction organisations and networks. This project helps build the capacity of service providers, makes harm reduction programmes more gender-responsive, improves access to services and advocates for the rights of PWIDs. In addition to providing services, Hridaya has a strong capacity building component to support advocacy, knowledge management and improved services for PWIDs.

Is the Commonwealth ready for an AIDS-free generation?

Prasada Rao presents on the recently published report of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law at the International AIDS Conference in July 2012.

J.V.R. Prasada Rao blogs in New Statesman (London) about the importance of law reform in successfully addressing HIV/AIDS and how the Commonwealth can lead by example and take decisive actions to address the legal and structural barriers currently impeding the global HIV response:

Last week the European Parliament agreed on a new law to provide specific assistance and protection to people who suffer crime because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or, in a first for EU law, gender expression.

Can we expect the Commonwealth to adopt such a progressive approach on HIV and human rights issues? The annual meeting of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, coming up soon in New York, normally attracts attention for its economic and political agenda. But among the HIV/AIDS community, populations vulnerable to the infection and human rights activists, concern is centered on the fate of certain recommendations relating to the Commonwealth’s legal reform process….

To read the complete article, please click here.

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Prasada Rao is in the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on AIDS in the Asia Pacific region. He is former Director General of India’s National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and former Regional Director of UNAIDS in Asia and the Pacific. He served as a member of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law and is a trustee of both the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and India HIV/AIDS Alliance.