Sex workers call for an end to US ‘anti-prostitution pledge’

“The US government’s systemic discrimination against sex workers” was again at the fore on Sunday at a global conference of over 500 sex workers here, when they called for an end to the “anti-prostitution pledge” of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has affected funding for sex-worker collectives across the world.

The conference is being held here after representatives of sex workers from 42 countries were denied entry to the United States to participate in the 19{+t}{+h}International AIDS Conference underway in Washington.

Every NGO, that receives funding from the United State, has to include this clause which says the organisation believes that prostitution is inherently degrading towards women. The organisations are not allowed to advocate decriminalisation of sex work, said Andrew Hunter, president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), one of the organisers of the conference.

“The key demand of the US sex-workers, on our behalf in Washington, is to remove the PEPFAR anti-prostitution pledge,” Mr. Hunter said, adding that even if an organisation receives five percent of its funding from the US, the pledge is binding on all of its activities.

Mr. Hunter said it had been hoped that President Barack Obama, who will be present at conference at Washington, will repeal the anti-prostitution pledge of PEPFAR, which was legislated during the years of the Bush administration. However, that has not been the case, he said.

J.V.R. Prasad Rao, the Special Envoy to the United Nations Secretary General for AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region, pointed out that the share of the key populations who are vulnerable to HIV – sex workers, drug-users and transgenders – in programmes to prevent the spread of the virus “continue to be low.”

“Globally, only eight per cent of spending goes to prevention programmes for key populations,” Mr. Rao said citing a recent report of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) on the issue.

“A message about law reform,” is one of the key issues that will be discussed at the conference, which organisers claim is the largest international congregation of sex workers so far.

“The laws related to criminalisation of sex workers is directly linked to the HIV rates among sex workers,” he said adding that statistics suggest that female sex workers are 13 times more likely to contract HIV than an average woman.

He pointed out that the prevalence of HIV among sex workers in some African countries is as high as 70 percent which is believed to be so because the US government does not allow any of the funds earmarked for HIV prevention to be spent on sex workers.

“Even in countries where sex work is criminalised, it would be nice if the cops stop beating us up. It would be nice if we were allowed to come before a court of law and plead guilty or not-guilty….equality before the law and some basic human rights,” Mr. Hunter said.

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