Every two years there is an International AIDS Conference (IAC), where scientists, health professionals, politicians and NGOs go and try to figure out what to do about the global AIDS problem. This year it was in Washington, as a reward to the USA for finally lifting the travel ban on people living with HIV.
The explicit travel ban on sex workers and drug users has stuck though; the US government restricts entry to anyone who has engaged in prostitution in the last 10 years. No criminal conviction is required as prostitution is defined as ‘moral turpitude’ and the restriction also applies to sex workers from countries where prostitution is legal.
Sex workers’ rights activists decided to throw this exclusion right back at them and organised the biggest international sex worker gathering of its kind, the Sex Worker Freedom Festival, in Kolkata, India. Over 140 sex workers from around the world met together, as well as hundreds of sex workers from across India. Hosted by Durbar, a sex worker union of 65,000 sex workers, the festival focused not just on HIV, but demanded a set of interconnected freedoms: freedom of movement and to migrate; to access quality health services; economic empowerment and the right to choose occupation; freedom to associate and unionise; freedom from abuse and violence; and freedom from stigma and discrimination. The week-long gathering included performance, workshops, meetings, and the biggest sex worker demonstration I have ever seen.
I was there to film with Sex Worker Open University, and despite our lenses steaming up and monsoon rains, despite a constant desire to sit in on simultaneous workshops and generally be in three places at once, we did manage to film quite a few interviews. Here are some excerpts.
Interview with Daisy Nakato, Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), a sex worker led organisation in Uganda.
SWOU: Your group is fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work. Why is this so important?
Daisy: Sex work is still illegal in Uganda, but the law is not very clear. It’s only proven when you’re caught in the action. When we are arrested we are charged with being idle and disorderly, loitering, this kind of crap. The punishment for sex work when proven is seven years but it’s very difficult to prove. So you go to prison for three months, or you pay a bribe. If you are taken to court, you give some bribe. All the time you have to keep on giving bribes, because every night police officers patrol and arrest sex workers. They come with their truck and put you inside, knowing that when you reach a certain corner you will say ‘please stop, have some money’, because you know, you left kids at home and you don’t want to go in jail. And when you are arrested of course the media will come; ‘prostitutes, whores, kandahar* sellers’—they will put a lot of names on you. So you think, let me pay a bribe instead. Which is again making us lag behind economically because there is no way you can save money.
Does criminalisation of sex workers also affect HIV infection and access to treatment?
It impacts a lot. Because, for example, when a sex worker is arrested, if you don’t have money the police officers will demand sex. And they don’t use protection. I’ve never heard a sex worker saying ‘I was raped by a police officer and he used a condom’. It has never happened. They always go for unprotected sex. And if there are five police officers in one truck they will all have sex with you. So you can imagine for example, I’m HIV positive, so if they rape me, that means they take the virus—if they didn’t have it. And if they have it, that means I’ll have a re-infection**. And then the following day they rape others. They continue carrying on the disease. Because they have the power, they have the guns, they have that uniform on. And they know what you are doing is illegal.
We were talking to activists from Cambodia and they said the same thing: she is HIV positive, she is a sex worker, and gets raped by the police and they won’t use condoms either. It’s really mind blowing... We’re not saying that the problem with the rape is the lack of condoms—we demand an end to rape—but it is an added violence with deadly consequences. It is killing sex workers.
In the past it has been difficult for sex workers to even get tested for HIV. It has only become easier since our group started. Before sex workers were asking ‘why should I get tested? I am raped every night; men force me into unprotected sex because they have guns. They have all that power because the work I do is illegal, so why should I get tested?’
So we started convincing other sex workers—even if you find out that you’re HIV positive there is ways to help you and keep you alive longer and better than if you stay not knowing. So people now get tested. But the worst thing is when they find out they are HIV positive and find there is no treatment. There is not enough medicine in our country.
When I tested positive my hospital told me I have to wait until one person dies before I could get medication. Because there is no space for you, someone has to die. It will not be too long, a person will die and you will get medicine. So I waited. After some time they came and visited me. Yet I was really bad off by this time because my CD4 count*** had dropped to 4, and it was like I was dying at anytime.
You are out as being HIV positive. Given the stigma of HIV and of sex work, why did you make that decision?
So you know in the public you are called a whore, and when they know you are HIV positive this is when people will now start saying you are the ones who are infecting the whole world. So sometimes people tend to keep their HIV status to themselves instead of opening up and getting treatment. You live in that denial.
When I make myself public I am trying to help other sex workers who are keeping quiet, who are feeling shy, who are feeling it’s the end of the world to be HIV positive. If I tell them I have been positive for the last 13 years, they say ‘oh my god you look good!’ I am on medication, I’ve been doing sex work for all those years, I’m HIV positive and I’ve never infected any person. Because normally when I’m with my clients I become a health worker: ‘you have to use a condom, this is the way you use it, etc.’ I insist. I make sure I am selling you sex with condom and you even pay more than what you wanted to offer for unprotected sex.
But I wouldn’t really like a married woman in the neighbourhood to go and start telling all the women in the neighbourhood that I’m HIV positive. It would not make sense, why should you tell everyone? But for my work, if I keep quiet about my HIV status then I’m killing other sex workers. I’m not helping them at all.
Interview with Amra Padatik, self-run organisation of the children of sex workers, Kolkata, India.
SWOU: When was your organisation created, and why? What was the inspiration?
Amra Padatik: In 1992, in the red-light area of Sonagachi there was many violations and violence given by male pimps, by madams and by the local people. It was decided that a sex worker organisation was needed, and that sex workers themselves can form the project. It was formed on a grassroots level—sex workers started uniting together to form an organisation called Durbar. It was also in response to an organisation working against trafficking by trying to criminalise sex work. Durbar thought that sex work is work, and it is a human right basically.
Amra Padatik was established in 2006. There is a section of that law which says children of a sex worker cannot live off the earnings of his mother, or her mother. I can’t live off the earnings of my Mum. That is why we formed the organisation, to fight against discrimination and to fight for our rights, for our mothers’ professions, and for their rights also. If the children do not respect their mothers’ occupations, then how can the people in the rest of society respect it? We have united together to speak up, to voice our own opinion. There should be no third person to speak on behalf of us. We are the children of sex workers; we should speak for ourselves.
Currently the membership of Amra Padatik is 500. We go around the red-light areas, and every field where Durbar works. We talk to other children, we motivate them, inspire them to come together and work for the rights of the children, and the human and professional rights of their mothers.
What kind of projects do you work on?
The main objective of Amra Padatik is to be together. We came to know that the children of sex workers have a lot of skills, a lot of talents. A few of us can dance very well, a few of us can play football very well, a lot of us can sing very well. [Two members of our group] are going to Mexico very soon to play football at the Homeless World Cup. We are very proud of going to play in Mexico and to represent the slums of India.
There are also two shelter homes for the children, one home which is only for the children of flying sex workers (those who do not have a fixed place of business).
One of us lives in the Kidderpore red-light area, in 2007 he was in Amra Padatik, and saw there was a lot of child labour; the children need money and basically they have all dropped out of school. 30% went to school and 70% were doing child labour. With the help of Amra Padatik and members of the central committee of Durbar, we formed a drop-out centre called DIC. They started coming [to] the DIC and learning, taking a lot of lessons, it helped a lot of them to get entry to school.
Sex workers in the red-light district of Sonagachi formed a co-operative bank called Usha in 1995 because they couldn’t get bank accounts and there were big problems with loan sharks in the red-light areas. Usha is now very successful, and they employ children of sex workers to collect deposits from workers in their homes and workplaces. Are you involved in that project too?
Usha is run by the sex workers, for the sex workers and their daughters, not the boys. The daughters can be account holders, but the boys they are not yet... It is in process.
We also saw your group performing during the sex worker protest march on Tuesday.
We perform in India and go abroad to perform, we want to go to every corner of the world! We have also won many prizes.
We don’t like to ask really personal questions, so if you don’t want to answer it’s ok. But in Europe, for example Portugal but also other countries, children of sex workers can be taken from their mothers by the state solely on the basis of their mothers’ profession. What would you say to others in this situation?
This kind of question you should ask before anything else.
It’s very very important to form a group of children. The children of sex workers also need to form their groups in other parts of the world, and if they need our help we will definitely be there, we will definitely help them. To be together is very important.
We are surviving from our mums’ money, we are learning from our mums’ money, so if we don’t respect our mums’ professions, then we do not help them, we do not stand by them, we do not support them—how can it be?
And another thing, how can they arrest the mothers? How can they take the children away? It is a question of human rights, they are violating our rights by taking us away from our mothers. How can they violate the human rights of the children, as well as the rights of our mothers to work?
The last thing we want to say is: sex work is work! We fight for our mothers’ rights.
Article by Kitty Careless
*Slang for cunt in Uganda.
**Re-infection of HIV also known as ‘superinfection’, is likely to lead to a more rapid disease progression.
***CD4 are ‘helper’ cells that organise the immune system’s response. HIV treatment should start before the count drops below 350. A count of below 200 is one of the qualifications for a diagnosis of AIDS.