Sex Workers and Drug Users Interrupt Business as Usual at AIDS 2012

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Holding red umbrellas -- the international symbol of sex worker rights -- and chanting "Nothing About Us, Without Us!" sex workers and drug users disrupted the opening of the 19th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), taking place this week in Washington, DC.

The activists protested exclusion of their participation inside the conference and demanded that their voices be an intrinsic part of HIV prevention planning. 

Ensuring sex worker and drug user input into International AIDS Conferences has been an uphill effort, organizers from those communities say. Restrictions targeting "moral turpitude" have meant that those planning to attend from outside the U.S. risk being denied a visa or turned away at the border.

This year the AIDS conference is being held on U.S. territory for the first time in 22 years, after repeal of the ban on HIV positive travelers coming into the country. But visa rules continue to discriminate against travelers who disclose a history of prostitution or drug addiction, and falsely answering these questions can result in a 10-year blacklisting if discovered.

Activists have leveled criticism against the International AIDS Society (IAS) for the choice to hold AIDS 2012 in the U.S. when these laws still are in place, and against the Obama Administration for not issuing a "blanket waiver of inadmissibility" for meeting delegates.  

"This conference should be about reducing stigma," said Alan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Unfortunately, it is perpetuating stigma around drug use and sex work." 

In the face of unequal representation within the conference -- attended by more than 23,000 delegates -- sex workers and drug users have organized alternative networking and activist zones in other countries.

A satellite conference in Kolkata, India, has brought 500 people together for the Sex Worker Freedom Festival. The festival advocates an evidence-based and human rights centered approach to HIV prevention and care efforts affecting sex workers. One of the major criticisms is directed at the "anti-prostitution pledge," a provision in U.S. law that requires international organizations to condemn sex work in order to receive PEPFAR funding. 

In Kiev, about 100 drug users and their allies met last week to discuss issues of HIV policy that matter to them. Within the Global Village at AIDS 2012, harm reduction advocates created a mockup of a safe injection site, highlighting the fact that such facilities are not yet possible within the current U.S. legal framework.  

Sex workers also have a prominent presence at the Global Village, with a sex worker networking zone organized as a collaborative effort funded by the Network of Sex Work Projects and the Open Society Institute. Prior to AIDS 2012, a pre-conference symposium took place over 2 days at the local DC organization HIPS, bringing together sex workers and allies to share skills and information and plan actions. 

Activists took up the AIDS 2012 theme of "Turning the Tide Together" to proclaim that to truly create effective HIV prevention solutions, NGOs and policy-makers must work hand-in-hand with sex workers and prioritize their voices.

"Science is only half the story of stopping the AIDS epidemic -- the involvement of key populations including sex workers and drugs users is the other half," said organizer Darby Hickey. "We must hold governments like the U.S. and organizations like the IAS accountable for trying to exclude us."

A document entitled A Call to Change: US Policy on Sex Work and HIV spells out these demands, detailing how criminalization and institutional discrimination compromises sex workers' ability to make choices and seek safety. Contributors included 9 national and local sex worker groups, and currently there are over 200 organizational and individual endorsers. 

This call is a follow-up to an accepted submission to the Universal Periodic Review, one of 300 recommendations submitted to the Obama Administration around HIV policy in 2010. It states: "We agree 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."

Through actions, education, and speak-outs happing throughout this week, sex workers and their allies hope to ensure that the administration will live up to this agreement.   

7/23/12

Cyd Nova is Harm Reduction Services Coordinator at the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, an occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers and their partners.