When stakeholders from across the world converge at Washington next month to participate in the International AIDS Conference (IAC) to share their experience and evaluations and to influence both popular and official perceptions and practices for curbing HIV/AIDS, India will host a parallel event for those who cannot make it there.

The event will be organised inKolkata by Durbar Mahila Samanway Samiti (DMSS) — an umbrella organisation of over 65,000 sex workers of West Bengal in collaboration with the Global Network of Sex Work Project (NSWP).

The U.S. conference is being held from July 22 to 27 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. For the first time in more than 20 years, the U.S, which leads the anti-sex-worker campaign, is hosting the conference. However, the U.S. government's strict travel restrictions for sex workers will bar many of them from attending the event, Samarjit Jana, chair of the International AIDS Conference in India and founder member of the DMSS told The Hindu.

Therefore, Kolkata conference, known as International AIDS Conference (Hub) was being held, he said.

The Kolkata meet is expected to be attended by over 900 delegates from across the world, including the U.S. There will be satellite communication between the two conferences so the Conference Hub in Kolkata will complement the main conference by facilitating sex workers' and other stakeholders' participation. This was made possible after long-drawn-out negotiations with the International AIDS Society (IAS), members of the IAC 2012 Conference Coordinating Committee and donors.

The Global Village in Kolkata will also host events and activities where the participants can interact and exchange views and opinions round-the-clock. In addition to formal sessions and informal meets, there will be cultural programmes by the participants. An International Advisory Board, consisting of renowned experts from across the world, has been formed to guide the conference.

South Africa had organised a similar event for its sex workers during the last IAC, but it was confined to its participants only.

The DMSS is a community based organisation of sex workers in West Bengal. Over the last two decades it has been running 11 HIV/AIDS targeted intervention programmes in 51 sex worker sites. It runs the SHIP (Sonagachi HIV Intervention Programme), which has been adjudged a model project by the World Health Organisation.

The DMSS turned a conventional bio-medical intervention for health into a community-led structural intervention that perceived sex work as a legitimate profession and sex workers as human beings entitled to basic rights and capable of responsibilities. Over the years, it has developed an environment where sex workers can represent their own realities and participate in dialogues on issues that affect them.

The NSWP was established as an informal alliance in 1990 by a group of sex worker rights activists working within sex work projects around the world. Despite lacking resources and recognition, it has influenced policy and built leadership among sex workers and facilitated the development of regional and national networks of sex workers and sex work projects.

Significantly, its participation in the global response to HIV/AIDS was largely responsible for the term ‘sex worker' replacing ‘prostitute.' More than mere political correctness, this shift in terminology has had the profound effect of moving the global understanding of sex work towards a labour framework, which acknowledges sex workers' rights.

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