A sea of red umbrellas held aloft by more than 500 sex workers from across 42 countries wound its way on a “freedom rally” through the streets of the city here on Tuesday. It was flagged off from Sonagachi, estimated to be the largest red-light district in the country.

The “freedom rally” in Kolkata leads the way for a similar march in Washington — the “We can end AIDS” rally to be held during the ongoing 19 International AIDS Conference there.

While the seven freedoms that sex workers demand have been the theme of the parallel conference that sex workers organised in the city after they weren’t allowed to attend the conference in Washington because of travel restrictions in the United States (US), the freedom rally also celebrated the 20 anniversary of the Sonagachi project — a HIV intervention programme that has met tremendous success and has served as a model nationally and internationally.

“The red umbrellas have become symbolic of the movement for sex worker rights. While the umbrellas can protect us from the skies, they can also protect us from human beings. They can hide us at times when we need it and can also ward people off in times that we face violence,” said Ruth Morgon Thomas, global coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.

The red umbrellas were first used as a symbol for sex worker solidarity at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2001, when Italian sex workers marched along the canals of Venice with red umbrellas as part of an art installation by Slovenian artist Tadej Pogacar, Ms. Thomas said.

Balloons, banners and posters that declared “I am a sex worker….I can be a policymaker too” or “Sex workers demand workers rights” were held up by the demonstrators.

Policy change

“There are some very small changes and amendments in policies that we are demanding, which can go a long way in improving how we live,” said Pushpa, a sex worker from the East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh.

Globally, the march will try to impress upon governments that HIV and AIDS continue to be an important issue and at the critical juncture where it has become treatable and “We can end AIDS,” funding for the issue shouldn’t be curtailed, Ms. Thomas added.

Ms. Thomas said that at a time when anti-retroviral treatment should be extended to more and more people, there are countries that are forced to take it away from people who are already under the programme due to funding shortages. After the Global economic recession, governments reduced their spending on the issue domestically, and even the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria coffers were strained, she added.