Why Are Sex Workers Being Banned From Participating in the International AIDS Conference? A Call to Action on Sex Work and HIV

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Written by Darby Hickey and Cassandra Warren for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

In July, the International AIDS Conference is being held in the United States for the first time in over twenty years, after the successful repeal of the ban on HIV-positive foreign nationals entering the US. However, US immigration law still bars entrance to anyone who has engaged in sex work in the past 10 years — even if they have no criminal convictions or work in a country where it is legal. This exclusion will prevent many current and former sex workers from outside the US from attending the conference. Yet sex workers and their clients are two of the populations at greatest risk of HIV infection.

Without the input, knowledge, and resources of those most directly affected by the disease, there is no chance of stopping the AIDS epidemic. To hold the government accountable for its harmful policies and in solidarity with those unable to attend the conference, US-based sex workers and allies collaboratively drafted A Call to Change US Policy on Sex Work and HIV – in consultation with numerous sex workers and sex worker-lead organizations in the US and abroad. We invite all people committed to ending AIDS to endorse this statement.

Structural issues drive HIV within the sex sector — criminalization and stigma compound health disparities already affecting those on the wrong end of racial, economic, and gender inequality. But when sex workers design and lead HIV prevention efforts, receive services and resources, and are supported to address social injustice, sex workers have successfully curtailed the spread of AIDS. For example, a decade of research documents the Sonagachi Project in India as an HIV prevention success story. Indigenous in origin and locally-led, the project is successful because of its focus on principles of empowerment enacted in a multidimensional spectrum — on individual, group, and structural levels — and the underlying premise of sex work as a valid profession.

Such excellent rights-based efforts are undermined by US policies. SANGRAM is another Indian program working with sex workers — USAID even highlighted it as a best practices model. But SANGRAM has turned down USAID funding because of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath. This misguided requisite for US global AIDS funding stipulates that recipients condemn prostitution – and prevents them from using best practices such as peer leadership and empowerment programs with sex workers. The US imposes and continues to expand such harmful policies both domestically and abroad, putting sex workers at increased risk for HIV.

The removal of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath and other AIDS funding restrictions is one of the demands of the Call to Change. These four demands are based on research and the UN’s examination of the US human rights record via the Universal Periodic Review in 2011 – during which the US government agreed, “that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on… their status as a person in prostitution.”

  • We demand that the US repeal and eliminate restrictions on domestic and global AIDS funds (such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief’s Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath) and support evidence-based best practices for HIV prevention, treatment and care targeted at sex workers.
  • We demand that the US repeal the prostitution inadmissibility ground for immigration and provide non-judgmental social services and legal support for migrant sex workers, as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
  • We demand that sex workers not be subjected to arrests, court proceedings, detention, mandatory testing or government-mandated “rehabilitation” programs; the government must institute mechanisms that allow sex workers to find redress for human rights violations and implement rigorous training of law enforcement officials on legal and human rights standards.
  • We demand the US reorient anti-trafficking campaigns to be in line with the standards set by the United Nations and engage sex workers in helping stop exploitation in the sex sector.

These four action points address the different levels at which the AIDS epidemic can be disrupted – from the individual (access to prevention supplies and programs) to the structural (law reform). If the US government were to adopt these demands, it would be a game-changer – helping turn the tide in the fight against HIV.

Evidence-based best practices and human rights principles must inform the global response to AIDS. Please join us in calling on the US government to change its policies and save lives. Your endorsement will help build a movement for change.

Click here to read the Call to Change and endorse.