_Sex Workers Action
Sex worker rights perspective on 100% condom use programmes
The Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) organised a demonstration outside the offices of UNAIDS on Thursday. NSWP was protesting the promotion of "100% condom use programmes" as a best practice. UNAIDS and other leading HIV institutions are promoting these as a "best practice". NSWP was formed in 1991 and since then has enabled sex workers and NGOs in more than 40 countries to share information, influence policy, and support the meaningful involvement of sex workers in programme-planning and policy-making processes in HIV prevention and care.
According to NSWP representatives, sex workers organisations have had no role in any aspect of developing these programmes and policies at local or international level.
According to Carole Jenkins, HIV Advisor to USAID, "the bottom line is that affected and vulnerable communities have to have a voice in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes. Practically speaking, when/if someone accuses a programme of abuse or misconduct, the only safeguard you have is the real and democratic participation of the affected communities."
According to NSWP, through these 100% condom use programmes, brothels owners "require" sex workers to use condoms and ensure that all their workers are identified, registered and present for mandatory STD testing. Condom training and information are meant to be available to women. These programmes don't work, NSWP says. They are leading to a range of human rights abuses such as women being taken to STD clinics under police "escort" and photos of women being displayed so that men can identify any woman who he alleges infected him or agreed to sex without a condom with him.
Typically, these programs are supervised by a local committee of "police military and local authorities." They send men to the brothels to pose as clients to try to entrap women into providing a service without a condom. The women are meant to refuse to have sex with a client who doesn't want to use a condom and return his money to him, even if he has already had time with her (just because the client hasn't had penetrative sex, doesn't mean that the client isn't obliged to pay for time and attention).
Advocates of 100% condom use programmes claim that registration and mandatory testing empowers sex workers and improves their access to health care by compelling brothel owners to allow women to go for STI checks.
These programmes do not prevent clients who want high risk services from purchasing them, they just shift and hide the demand and supply of unprotected services.
Apart from the human rights violations associated with the 100% condom programme, there are a range of technical flaws that render it useless even from a purely public health perspective.
Safe sex is defined as penetrative sex with a condom, which ignores the crucial role of non-penetrative safe sex skills which don't require a condom. The supply and quality of condoms is not guaranteed and has often been totally inadequate in many places. Sex workers usually still have to buy condoms, either at reasonable prices from condom social marketing companies or at exhorbitant prices from brothel keepers.
Where workers have rights employers are required to supply health and safety equipment from their profits. Sex workers with HIV are excluded from brothels and have no access to health care at all. The "evidence" that these programmes work is based on weak and seriously flawed monitoring and evaluation techniques.
All this has obvious origins in misogynist public health approaches. It is an attempt to find a way to reduce STI/HIV among female sex workers so they do not infect men without recognizing sex work as a legitimate occupation, and sex workers having full legal and civil rights. Only the full recognition of sex workers rights can lead to safe workplaces for commercial sex.
Sex workers demand the following:
1. An end to coercive, HIV and STD programmes like the 100% condom use programme
2. An end to criminalisation, imprisonment and deportation of sex workers with HIV and STDs
3. Access to free, quality condoms and water based lubricants
4. Empower sex workers, not those who exploit them
5. Support health and safety programmes for sex workers who are threatened by the anti-trafficking and anti sex-work lobby
6. UNAIDS hold an international conference for sex workers with adequate translation
7. Full recognition of sex workers' rights
Sex workers rally in southern India
In the first-ever public demonstrations against police violence against women and men in sex work, more than a thousand sex workers held protest rallies and demonstrations on 28 June in the three major south Indian cities of Chennai, Bangalore, and Trivandrum.
The demonstrations were organized by the Forum Against Violence on Sex Workers (FAVOS), set up in March this year to plan a response to the issue. More than a hundred non-government and community-based organisations' supporters were also present.
Demonstrators raised slogans against violence and called for an end to sexual, physical and emotional torture of those in sex work, particularly by the police. The demonstrations were marked by a strong sense of solidarity and support from many organisations not directly working with this community.
Many of the women wore masks to avoid identification and subsequent abuse by the police. A large number came forward to share their experiences and to exhort their peers to stand up against violence. Vijayalakshmi, who had come from Tirunelveli, nearly 800km away, said, "the police have no right to treat us like this. I have come all the way with some friends to protest this violence. The government must take steps to help us improve the quality of our lives.
" Vijaya from Nagarcoil, at the southern tip of the country, said, "I was from a good family and wanted to have a good life. But I was raped when I was 18. When I went to complain to the police station, I was raped there also. My family refused to accept me and I started selling sex for money. I now have two daughters; my husband ran away with another woman, I am determined to bring my daughters up and to educate them well. I will sell sex since I do not have any other employment.
" Sharing her experiences, another woman who wished to remain anonymous said, "The violence and torture that we face from the police is frightening. They beat us with logs of wood and kick us with booted feet. One police inspector forced us to shave our heads and to walk in single file around the police station. I know a woman who was forced to strip naked by the police. They then kicked her in the vagina.
"The police have no right to do this. I am happy to see so many women and men here and so many people to support us. We will not keep quiet any longer.
" For many members of the public, who stopped to watch the proceedings, it was their first experience of the plight of sex workers in this part of the country. Sylvan, a 20-year-old college student in Chennai said, "I had no idea that such terrible things happened to people in our country. I thought we were a non-violent nation that respected human rights of people.
" These demonstrations were a follow up of a two-day workshop to discuss a report of a survey last year on police violence in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Despite repeated representations to the authorities to take steps to address the situation, there has been no response.
FAVOS was formed as an alliance of organisations of sex workers in South India to forge a strategic response to the issue. It works in collaboration with many supportive NGOs from the region.
The survey conducted by the South India AIDS Action Programme (SIAAP), among 200 women and men in sex work in Tamil Nadu is a shocking indictment of the way this community is treated by the police. Nearly 70% of the sex workers reported that they had been beaten with lathis and logs of wood as well as kicked by booted policemen. Some had their hands and legs broken and their sex organ mutilated. The others reported incidents of slapping, twisting of hands and ears, pulling of hair, spitting on the face etc.
More than 80% of the sex workers said they they had been arrested without evidence, that is, on the assumption that they were soliciting in a public place at the time of their arrests - a crime under Indian law. This, they said, was only to meet the monthly "targets" of each police station.
Nearly 15% said they were arrested because they questioned the policemen's right to beat them or verbally abuse them. A small percentage (2%) said they were pickedup while distributing condoms and talking to sex-workers about protecting themselves from HIV.
Women in sex work were the first people in India to be identified as being infected with HIV and they continue to be seen as the major vectors of transmission up until today. As in other parts of the world, interventions among sex workers are largely aimed at reducing spread rather than at protecting them.
Although condom promotion in the sex-work community is a national policy, most regional governments continue to turn a blind eye to abuse of sex-workers by the police. And although HIV among sex-workers is rising more slowly than among many other populations, as a direct result of interventions by non-government and community-based organisations, the community continues to be blamed for the spread of HIV. This has served to increase the violence against them, and is also responsible for the lukewarm response of the government to their legitimate needs.
Condoms are increasingly unavailable free of cost to most sex-workers as a part of government policy to socially market them. This has resulted in increasing the numbers of unsafe exposures, since a large number of women in sex work in rural areas are unable to purchase condoms in public shops.
According to Angeline from the South India AIDS Action Programme, "the gains of the last several years may well be wiped out with this new policy. While older sex workers may be aware of the issue and may be able to purchase condoms, younger women and men are coming into the profession every day. With the increasing violence upon them, they will not be in a position to protect themselves.
" Saulina Arnold, Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Voluntary Health Association, a network of more than 500 non-government organisations in the State, says: "The women have a right to protect themselves both against HIV and against violence. We know that violence reduces the women's power to demand condom use. The government-backed interventions among sex workers are bound to fail if the violence issue is not addressed.
" As early as in 1996, the National Commission for Women (NCW), made several recommendations to improve the quality of lives of women in sex work. Foremost among them was the recognition that police violence was the biggest issue in their lives and needed to be addressed urgently. FAVOS hopes to be able to achieve this goal.
Stimulating community development among sex-workers
Can resourcing community development for sex workers lead to better health and occupational safety for sex workers? Absolutely, says Shane Petzer of the International Network for Sex Work Projects (NSWP). "Improvements in working conditions can lead to better sex services." By and large, sex workers are separated by stigma and policy from health institutions and other sectors of labour. Community development can help bridge the gap created by these inequalities.
In this skills-building session cosponsored by the NSWP and the Horizons Program of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, two projects in particular were discussed: a case study of community development in the Sonagachi Project of Kolkata, India, and a project assessing the role of community development in sex work research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The impetus for both projects was the need to move beyond health promotion models towards models of community development. For example, shortly after the initialisation of the Sonagachi project, sex workers and their advocates realized that it was essential for community development to be incorporated into a project that was originally envisioned as a traditional epidemiological study.
In order to serve both the needs of the research and the needs of community development, an orientation towards work and occupational safety was required - an orientation many sectors of the labour market currently enjoy. In time this project would come to fulfill a number of functions. Perhaps its most important function was to focus on politics and power and in particular the politics of power.
Incorporating community development for sex workers created a political space and forums for disacussion. Community development provided capacity. It helped teach sex workers how to participate.
As Paolo Longo, a founder of the NSWP, told the group of sex workers gathered in Barcelona, "Community development can help build the capacity of sex workers to participate."
It also has the potential to turn sex workers from two dimensional objects or subjects of research into true partners in the research process, and in doing so, to make a real impact on the health and safety of sex workers, their clients, families and children.
Key Correspondent Health & Development Networks
use back button on browser to return
back to> Barcelona AIDS Conference Reports > > >