Sisters (and brothers) doing it for themselves: report from Kolkata
Robyn Maynard reports on representing Montréal’s Stella at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata, which took place from July 21-26 as a satellite to the the 19th Annual HIV/AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. “The HIV/AIDS epidemic has never been purely a neutral public health issue,” she writes, explaining how infection rates have manifest along the lines of structural inequalities within societies, on a global scale.
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Sex workers from over 40 countries attended the Sex Workers Freedom Festival, which was organized by the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee – a forum of 65,000 female, male and transgender sex workers in West Bengal – and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, parallel to the exclusionary International AIDS Conference (IAC). Though ‘law-abiding’ HIV positive people are now able to enter the United States since the travel ban was lifted in 2009, holding the IAC on US soil meant excluding the very people whose voices are crucial to the fight against HIV: due to travel restrictions, many drug users and sex workers are still largely unable to enter the United States.
Famously skilled in the art of creative solutions, approximately one hundred male, female, and trans sex workers made the journey to come to Kolkata to join over five hundred Indian sex workers to speak out against the various injustices perpetrated against them in their home countries.
The location for the much larger and highly financed IAC was also widely critiqued by many attendees at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival because of the role of the United States government in promoting and exporting ideology over health in the HIV crisis internationally via the PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). The program ties American HIV funding to an ‘anti-prostitution pledge,’ in which participating groups, most of which are independent NGOs, are forced to adopt an anti-prostitution stance and to censor their speech related to sex work even when using private funds. Practically speaking, the pledge prohibits communities directly affected in developing countries from mounting effective HIV-reducing programs such as rights-based advocacy, empowerment, and peer-education on prevention for sex workers. Speakers from Cameroon and the Congo specifically cited the lack of any funding for sex worker organizations and the massive amount of funding for ‘anti-prostitution’ as major barriers to their ability to combat HIV in their home countries.
A combative and creative energy permeated at the Festival, whose official tagline was the playful (and genuine) ‘Save us from our saviours.’ Following the ‘only rights can stop the wrongs’ approach to sex work and HIV, the conference was organized around 8 freedoms deemed necessary for sex workers to live in liberty and dignity: freedom to associate and unionize, freedom to be protected by the law, freedom from abuse and violence, freedom from stigma and discrimination, freedom to access quality health services, freedom of movement and to migrate, freedom to work and choose occupation, and freedom to achieve financial security. Each of these freedoms had its own panel with speakers from a wide diversity of countries including Kenya, Serbia, Cambodia, Mexico, Uganda, Guyana, Nepal, Peru, Thailand, Myanmar, Russia, and more, lending their firsthand attestations to the rights-abuses that they face in their respective countries from police, state agents, the anti-trafficking industry, and religious leaders. Lakshmi, a Hijra sex worker, Director of Programs at the Ashodaya sex worker initiative in Mysore, India, and outspoken activist summarized the basic thrust well by stating: “it is crucial that we have funding for testing, but what people do not understand is that we also need the means to fight violence.”
While some topics such as high rates of violence lived by sex workers due to societal stigma, criminalization, and impunity of assaulters, were nearly universal, notable particularities facing sex workers in different regions were also brought out. Speakers from Uganda, Cameroon, and the Congo all brought forward the difficulty in accessing condoms in many African countries due to their prohibitive price, and the lived results of a lack of available and affordable antiretroviral (ARV) treatments. Sex workers in Thailand reported on their own research which shows the extremely harmful effects of “anti-trafficking” efforts pushed by anti-sex work feminists and the U.S. government, which they have documented to cause more harm to sex workers than that caused by actual traffickers.
The realities of male and trans sex workers are often made invisible in discussions surrounding sex work, and in order to address this under-representation their voices were prominently featured in panels and workshops throughout the week. Many gender-specific issues were brought to light, including the prevalence of male sex workers’ experience with homophobic violence. Also, several trans sex workers decried the harmful effects of many HIV-prevention bodies which label trans people incorrectly as “MSM” shorthand for men who have sex with men, which fails to recognize their identity and specific needs. Drug users present at the Festival organized amongst themselves as well, creating a global message on the rights and needs of drug users.
Finally, one of the highlights of most of our weeks was when over five thousand sex workers marched for rights and recognition through the red light district of Kolkata.
A spokesperson for Empower, Thailand’s sex worker’s organization said “As sex workers we are both expected to stop the HIV epidemic but also treated as pathetic victims.” In spite of this paradox, sex workers around the world are increasingly organizing locally and internationally in demanding decriminalization, and an end to stigma, violence, and discrimination. It is important that these voices be heard rather than excluded, because these rights are necessary not just for sex workers’ self-determination but in order to help sex workers effectively combat the HIV epidemic.