Sex Workers and HIV/AIDS
Although HIV and AIDS affect all people throughout Indian society, sex workers are viewed as prime transmitters of the virus. A recent multinational Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia argued, "policies outlawing sex work are undermining HIV/AIDS prevention efforts by fragmenting and stigmatizing the sex workers and turning condom possession into an act that could lead to jail time."
Organized by UNAIDS, the United Nation’s Population Fund UNFPA and APNSW, the Independent Commission on AIDS in Asia was the first (hopefully not the last) time such powerful multinational institutions tackled the problem in the region. UN staff and government officials representing eight countries gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, to discuss and research the problem of AIDS in Asia.
As a part of their research, the commissioners joined sex workers in Pattaya, a town near Bangkok, to hear first-hand experiences and look at ways to review policies and laws that keep sex workers from accessing HIV services.
Stigmatizing Only Drives Sex Workers Underground
"National AIDS programs in Asia often fail to prioritize those most of risk of infection and need to work on more targeted HIV prevention schemes to stop the disease from spreading," said Rueters AlertNet, regional director of the UN agency in charge of HIV/AIDS prevention.
Regional director of UNAIDS Asia Pacific, Steve Kraus agreed: The technology is there to prevent infections, but punitive laws get in the way."
In Cambodia, for example, the spread of HIV/AIDS will only increase if sex workers are made criminals. An anti-trafficking law passed in 2008 only "broadly criminalized sex work, and sent sex workers into hiding," the commission concluded. When brothels closed, Cambodian sex workers were forced to sell sex in less controlled, and more dangerous spaces.
"Despite clear policies stating law enforcement officials cannot use condoms as evidence to arrest sex workers, in reality, the reverse is true," says Kay Thi Win, chair of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW).
"UNAIDS is concerned that what little money is being spent on HIV programs for sex workers is being reduced further both internationally and nationally, despite evidence that targeting sex workers is one of the most cost-effective ways of preventing HIV," concluded Reuters reporter Thin Lei Win.
’World’s Oldest Profession’ Never More Marginalized
Prostitution has existed for centuries. Many people consider it the oldest profession in the world. However, it has not always been as negatively associated and marginalized as it is today.
In ancient India, prostitution was a legal, respected profession. A history of prostitution highlights the commission’s point that discrimination towards prostitutes is not reasonable, but rather based on an antiquated notion that sex workers do not deserve government protection of their health.
Sex Work in India: How British Saw It
The perception of sex work as an immoral, illegitimate profession by society allows for the continuation of programs that violate basic human rights.
For centuries, the privileged classes have protected themselves from disease, while most vulnerable communities continue to be ignored and exploited. British colonization of India in the mid-1800s caused an increased demand for sex workers.
In colonial India, local policies were built on multi-cultural ideologies of race, sex and class and created the new commonplace opinion of Indian prostitutes as vectors of disease. The example of sex worker history in colonial India helps us better understand why ending discrimination in India will require laws, education and community outreach efforts to sex workers in order to start to erase the view of sex workers as immoral beings.