Written by UNAIDS PCB NGO Delegate Rathi Ramanathan (Asia and the Pacific)

Originally posted at unaidspcbngo.org

Advocacy for sex workers’ rights is a challenge: not only is constructive dialogue impeded because the language is contested, but since sex worker rights continue to be politicised, any positive changes to laws are difficult to achieve. Sex workers from the Global Sex Workers Project successfully lobbied for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol) to replace the term ‘prostitute’ with ’sex worker’. More than mere political correctness, this shift in language had the important effect of moving global understandings of sex worker rights towards a labour rights framework that could potentially resolve many of the problems faced by sex workers. This language also questions the stigma of sex work because it represents greater recognition of sex workers as rights bearers with the capacity to make their own choices.

The Anti-Trafficking Agenda

Despite the turning tides, there is progress that is yet to be achieved. There is mounting evidence of an insidious trend to conflate the labour rights of sex workers with the issue of sexual exploitation. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking as including force, abuse, deceit or coercion. However, there have been situations when even women who consent to sell sex are categorized as victims of sex trafficking and held up as evidence that supports an ideological agenda that sex work drives trafficking. Unfortunately, since the definition of sex trafficking is not clear in the Protocol, this ideological viewpoint has been successfully pushed across the globe by fundamental feminists, abolitionists and the Evangelical right.

The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) argues that statistics on human trafficking for sexual exploitation – or the ‘rape trade’ as it is now referred to by some – is based on flawed methodology. Ronald Weitzer from George Washington University contends that “anti-trafficking campaigners erase women’s agency in sex work arguing instead that it is violence against women”. [i] He has also exposed methodological flaws in sampling and response bias which have “[victimized] prostitutes” in the zeal to promote an anti-prostitution agenda. Yet the US State Department and the United Nations Office in Drugs and Crime (UNODC) still support the idea that human trafficking is caused by the sex trade. Studies of countries such as Australia, Germany and New Zealand that have legalized some forms of sex work (including brothels) offer testimony to how this is not the case.
As sex trafficking continues to elude a well-accepted definition, in 2010, we witnessed the introduction of more anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws in countries like Malaysia and Fiji which are anti-immigration and anti-sex work. These laws have led to crackdowns on sex workers and the closure of brothels. More countries are considering such laws and are being pushed through the US government’s Trafficking in Persons reporting process (for more information please go to http://www.sexwork.asia/).

Rights & Access to HIV Services
What is even more problematic and worrying is the fact that anti-trafficking advocates are now promoting the flawed causal link between sex trafficking and HIV. For example, at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna in July 2010, a freely distributed issue of the publication Human Rights Magazine included a section entitled “Sex Trafficking and HIV/AIDS: A Deadly Junction for Women and Girls”; not once did the article use the term ‘sex worker’ or imply that it had consulted with sex workers. The link between anti-trafficking measures and the prevention and reduction of HIV vulnerability has not been empirically established specifically because the majority of women are not forced into sex work. [ii] APNSW and its allies would argue that the ‘empowerment approach’ – the idea that women who sell sex should be respected and treated with dignity in an effort to ensure human rights – is a far more effective framework for the prevention of HIV/AIDS than focusing on anti-trafficking.
On a positive note, the first multi-stakeholder Regional Consultation in Asia Pacific on Sex Work and HIV took place in Thailand in 2010. Sex workers co-organised the consultation and were meaningfully engaged. Key recommendations endorsed were universal rights for sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work, including laws against activities associated with commercial sex and those used to control sex workers and sex businesses. It was pointed out and argued that these laws keep the sex industry ‘hidden’ and they do not do not reduce the demand or the number of people selling sex but force sex workers to go underground. This creates barriers to outreach and service provision, fuels stigma and discrimination, contributes to poor health outcomes including HIV and STIs, limits sex workers’ abilities to make informed choices and increases levels of violence faced by sex workers, violence that is largely perpetrated by law enforcement agencies.
When there is HIV programming for sex workers, it is often fraught with human rights violations. In trying to meet donor indicators, national voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) targets often lead to programmes that force sex workers into unnecessary HIV and STI tests, as evidenced in Laos, Thailand and India. Results are often shared with brothel owners, outreach workers and NGOs. Pre- and post-test counselling do not inform sex workers of their right to refuse tests. In some countries, the police or the army are also used to enforce testing and to register sex workers.

Programme Engagement
In March 2011, the US released a report to the UN Human Rights Council affirming that “no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” However, the Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge is still very much in force under the current Obama administration. This policy requires all organizations that receive global HIV/AIDS President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding to explicitly oppose prostitution. In the Asia-Pacific region, this pledge has impeded sex workers’ access to services and has led to the underfunding of sex worker organizations and HIV programming. This despite the findings from the 2008 Report of the Commissions on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific that the scaling up of HIV programmes for sex workers have maximum impact on the region in reversing sexual transmissions.
Human rights should not be viewed as separate from HIV prevention and treatment programmes. While programmes need to look at the legal and human rights issues for marginalised populations, it must be ensured that these programmes do not breach the human rights of any marginalised group. To overcome this, sex workers must be meaningfully engaged as partners in the development and implementation of HIV programmes and be given the capacity to strengthen their advocacy, networks and external relationships.

Towards Universal Access Through Sex Worker Rights
Sex workers in Asia and the Pacific have long advocated for changes to the laws, rules and policies that affect female, male and transgender sex workers. While some demands are country specific – according to local legal systems and cultural context – across the world there is an urgent need for the legal recognition of sex work as an occupation and the recognition of sex workers as full legal persons. This would not only improve the lives of sex workers but also achieve public health, social and economic goals and advance gender and sexuality rights. Moreover, the agenda to decriminalize sex work has the potential to create an environment in which child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and other exploitation and crimes associated with criminalised commercial sex can best be addressed.
At the 26th UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board meeting in June 2010, the annual thematic session focused on sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and HIV. The NGO Delegation brought a male sex worker from Myanmar to speak at the opening plenary. He gave a rousing speech on the need to engage sex workers in designing, implementing and monitoring HIV programming for sex workers, exemplified by the success of his organization’s, TOP, peer outreach programme.
On that basis, NGO Delegates successfully introduced decision points that spoke to the integration of SRH rights and HIV for key populations ( 27th PCB 7.4; 27th PCB 7.7) These decision points have already been referenced in work in the Asia-Pacific region: SRHR groups are making the same demands and the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights cited these decision points in their recommendations for the 2011 Asia-Pacific Regional Consultation on Universal Access.
It is my hope that many of the issues and concerns raised around HIV and the need to decriminalise sex work, as agreed on at the Regional Consultation in Asia Pacific on Sex Work and HIV, continue to gain interest and support at national, regional and international levels. It is important that people who work against HIV stigma and discrimination and for HIV prevention, treatment and care and support, see sex workers’ concerns as interconnected. I will continue to help represent these views, in the hope that the broader HIV, human rights, labour and development movements understand that global solidarity to achieve universal access, must be based on supporting sex worker rights.

[i] R.Weitzer, “Flawed theory and method in studies of prostitution”, Violence Against Women, Vol 11 No 7, July 2005.
R.Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade”, Politics and Society, Vol 35, No 3, Sept 2007, 447-475.
[ii] M. Shwayder, “Sex work in Asia,” Harvard Correspondent, 4 October 2010, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/10/sex-work-in-asia/.


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